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NEW YORK - New York took its first steps toward a gradual reopening Friday, in parts of the state where the coronavirus outbreak has shown steady and sustained decline.
"They are the regions that meet the numerical criteria," Governor Andrew Cuomo said at his daily news briefing. "There is no politics to this judgment; there is no arbitrary nature to this judgment. It is all on the numbers."
On March 22, "NY Pause" put more than 19 million residents on restricted movement and shuttered all but the most essential businesses. It has now been lifted in five of the state's 10 regions. New York City's 8.6 million residents and those in surrounding suburbs are not among them, as they do not yet meet the benchmarks to reopen, which include a 14-day decline in new infections and hospitalizations.
In the county of Franklin, a rural agricultural community of about 14,000 in the state's picturesque North Country not far from the Canadian border, there have been only 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and no deaths. But the county's dairy industry has suffered from the stay-at-home order, and there have been layoffs across several sectors.
Local officials from several municipalities have been working together to prepare for reopening. Businesses including construction, manufacturing and curbside retail reopened Friday.
"A lot of detail and effort has gone into this opening plan and continuing to keep the community safe," said Andrea Dumas, mayor of the town of Malone, in Franklin County. She said officials hope social distancing measures, masks and other guidance will continue to keep the number of COVID-19 cases low.
'Slow and steady'
"We are going to go slow and steady up here to keep people healthy, so we don't get a spike, and so we can start working towards Phase 2 and opening back up to somewhat of a new normal," Dumas said.
Four hundred kilometers to the southwest in the vibrant university town of Rochester, Pamela Mason is preparing to reopen the Tai Chi Bubble Tea shop on Saturday. Before the outbreak, the establishment took 200 to 500 orders each day for bubble tea and its popular sushi burritos from university students, hospital workers and residents.
The county Rochester is in has recorded just more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases and 145 deaths. While some of her staff are local students and left campus because of the pandemic, Mason said most of the remaining employees are eager to return to work.
"All of the employees will be expected to wear masks throughout their shifts," she said of precautions that will be in place. "We are considering implementing some sort of testing measure, like checking for fever, when they come in for their shift to make sure they are not showing any symptoms."
Restaurants are still offering only curbside pickup, and Mason said patrons will order online or by phone and then pick up their orders through a handout box at the front door.
Regional "control rooms" will monitor the infection rate in the newly reopened areas, and if infections or deaths suddenly rise, activities will be slowed or stopped.
"We expect to see an increase," Cuomo said Friday. "But that increase has to be monitored and has to be controlled."
He also announced that the state's beaches would open for the start of the summer season, which begins next Friday. But he warned that if there is overcrowding or if social distancing guidelines are not respected, then local authorities would shut them down.
After two weeks, if all goes well in the first five regions, Phase 2 could begin, with more retail businesses opening, as well as professional services including finance, insurance and real estate. Restaurants would not be reopened for seated dining until Phase 3; entertainment, recreation and schools are in Phase 4.
The state's other five regions will open up as they meet all seven of the state's benchmarks.
With more than 345,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 27,000 deaths attributed to the virus, New York has been the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic.