The Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday handed out 8,000 face masks to member organizations to help them comply with a new order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order, which took effect at 8 p.m. Wednesday, requires all essential businesses across the state to provide facial coverings to workers who deal with customers and the public.
“Several clients are scrambling to try and procure face coverings to issue to their employees,” said Ibrahim Tariq, an associate at Harris Beach PLLC.
CloudCheckr founder and Chamber board member Aaron Newman donated 4,000 FDA-approved masks to the Chamber. The Chamber got 4,000 more from a donor who wants to remain anonymous. Chamber members each could get up to 20 masks on a first-come, first-served basis.
Firms in need of more than 20 masks were referred to Product Source Group, a local vendor offering masks for 59 cents each.
“We appreciate Aaron Newman’s very generous donation. I know a lot of people had a very difficult time ordering masks. There have been backlogs of orders both in the United States and in China. These were a godsend,” said Bob Duffy, Chamber president and CEO.
Duffy suggested that companies seek a long-term face mask supplier, possibly for masks that can be sanitized and reused.
“I believe we’re going to be in this mode for a long time. This is not going to stop June 1,” Duffy said. “I would say, throughout this summer, fall, even next winter, we might be wearing masks when going to restaurants or public places, or at work.”
Duffy noted, in countries in the later stages of the pandemic, such as South Korea, most people wear face masks in public.
“This could be a new reality for us, and it’s probably something that we should keep a supply of,” he said.
According to Cuomo’s order issued on Sunday, “Any employees who are present in the workplace shall be provided and shall wear face coverings when in direct contact with customers or members of the public.
“Businesses must provide, at their expense, such face coverings for their employees. This provision may be enforced by local governments or local law enforcement as if it were an order pursuant to … the Public Health Law.”
Cuomo’s order does not mandate the use of medical-grade masks or respirators, just “face coverings,” which aligns with the state Health Department’s guidance saying that cloth face coverings can be made from household items or common low-cost items.
Experts say that essential businesses should immediately identify which members of their workforce interface with customers or the general public and make sure the employees have face coverings.
Tariq said some client employers were confused about whether they would need to provide medical grade masks.
“But the executive order does not specify a medical grade covering. It just says a face covering,” he said. “The state Department of Health issued guidance just a few days earlier that specified that face coverings can be fashioned from materials that you would find at home, just simple cloth, not necessarily something that employers would need to mass order from a medical supplier.”
Employers also are asking about which employees are required to wear face coverings.
“The order limits it to those employees who interface with the public or have direct contact with customers, but I suppose that’s somewhat easier said than done,” Tariq said.
Employees who don’t usually deal with customers or members of the general public might have to occasionally do so.
“The going caution is to provide them more liberally than to be strict on who it’s issued to,” he said. “At the very least, the order makes it clear that when customers or members of the general public are involved, at that point it is a requirement, no questions asked.”
Another issue waiting for clarification is how the phrase “direct contact” should be interpreted.
“We’re hoping for additional guidance from the governor’s office on that exact question,” Tariq said.
For now, he advises that any employee who comes within six feet of a customer or a member of the public should wear a mask or face covering.
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