An Upstate N.Y. Backlash Over Virus Shutdown: ‘It’s Not Up Here’


HERKIMER, N.Y. — Scott Tranter knows how deeply the coronavirus has affected New York, with 300,000 people testing positive in the state, 18,000 dead and the economy shut down.

But as he surveyed his empty diner last week, it made little sense to him why businesses like his could not reopen, since the virus has barely touched his part of the state.

“Enough is enough,” said Mr. Tranter, the owner of Crazy Otto’s Empire Diner, a popular vintage diner that, like all restaurants, can only offer takeout.

“I’ve been looking at the cases and I am not trying to minimize Covid, because it’s real and it’s scary,” he continued. “But it’s not up here. How are we going to recover if we take away the ability to make a living?”

Mr. Tranter’s plea is not uncommon in upstate New York, where vast swaths of rural territory remain largely unaffected thus far by the epidemic, with some counties reporting just a few dozen confirmed cases and a smattering of deaths.

That small impact stands in stark contrast to the situation in New York City and its suburbs, where thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been sickened, leading to a statewide shutdown order that is now in its sixth week.

In Herkimer County, a solidly Republican area that juts north from the Thruway into the Adirondack Park, three people have died because of the virus, and 58 people have been sickened, according to state health statistics.

Yet the order still has had a profound impact here, as well as throughout upstate: Unemployment claims have spiked as thousands of businesses, from florists to flooring, have shuttered. Paycheck-to-paycheck families are compelled to use food banks. Farmers are pouring unwanted milk into the ground.

Hopes for a possible respite were raised earlier this week, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that some manufacturing and construction businesses could be back in business by mid-May, specifically mentioning the Mohawk Valley, where the village of Herkimer sits. Elective surgeries will also again be allowed in many upstate counties.

But such changes will do little to help small retail and restaurant businesses like Mr. Tranter’s, which he believes could safely operate now but which Mr. Cuomo said may be more difficult to reopen, considering their ability to draw a crowd.

“That is a complex sector to deal with,” the governor said on Sunday, adding that “it’s hard to do these precautions” in hotel and hospitality industries.

“If you are not smart you will see that infection rate go right back to where it was,” Mr. Cuomo said. “We will be right back to where we were 58 days ago, and nobody wants to do that.”

In some ways, the coronavirus outbreak has sharpened an age-old philosophical and political divide between downstate, dominated by New York City, and upstate, which is generally more conservative.

Still, Mr. Cuomo and other leaders stress that even that characterization is flawed, noting that upstate is far from monolithic, with liberal enclaves in major cities like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, and college and capital towns like Ithaca, Albany and Saratoga. And officials stress that community attitudes and needs can vary wildly even inside the broad regional boundaries the state uses for economic development.

The governor’s office notes widespread public support for Mr. Cuomo’s actions, as evidenced by a recent Siena College poll, which showed 87 percent of respondents supported the shutdown, currently running through May 15. The support upstate was nearly that high as well.

Still, as weeks have passed, cases have continued to tick up in some areas, including in Ulster County, which has recorded more than 1,200 cases. Two dozen residents have died.

Patrick Ryan, the county executive in Ulster, an often bucolic nugget of countryside midway between the city and the state capital, said he has been hearing residents simultaneously worry about both greater rates of infection and deeper economic woes.

“We have a number of business owners who are very, very concerned and seeing impacts and devastation that they’ve never seen,” he said, adding that he’s “had a few town supervisors ready to pull out the pitchforks” to keep outsiders from more infected areas flooding into the county’s less-affected rural outposts.

Tourism is a major draw in Ulster, and Mr. Ryan says local hoteliers and others that cater to seasonal visitors are facing “a huge hit” if restrictions aren’t eased soon. “Heading into nicer parts of spring and summer, that’s a tension,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Ryan says Ulster residents — like their counterparts in the city — remain most concerned about their hospitals and the people in them; medical facilities in the county have fewer than 40 ventilators total. “It’s hard to compare the scale to what they’ve dealing with,” he said, about the human devastation downstate, “but at a per capita level, we were very scared and very worried.”

Even in more remote areas, the infection has started to take a human toll. In Steuben County, in the state’s Southern Tier, Jack K. Wheeler, the county manager, says the county has recorded 28 deaths of nursing home patients, including more than a dozen linked to a single facility.

Such statistics have stunned Mr. Wheeler, who said that when the county opened an emergency operations center in mid-March, he held out hope that it might go unused. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe we won’t have a case,’” he said, in an interview on Monday. “But obviously, that’s a world of difference six weeks later.”

Mr. Wheeler said that bottom-line concerns remain at the fore of residents’ minds.

“Being upstate, I think everyone wants to open and get back to business,” he said. Some of that impact has been mitigated by several large employers who have been deemed essential — including Corning plants in the Southern Tier — but he said small businesses and farms have been hard-hit, especially dairies, because milk prices have plummeted. “I don’t think its going to be a short recovery,” he said.

Further west, in Erie County, home to Buffalo, the impact of the outbreak has been more acute, with the rising death toll now exceeding 200. The local economy has been dented by the temporary closure of plants by two big employers — General Motors and Ford — and other businesses, which has intensified stress on low-income families.

“You combine the sickness with the crisis of poverty we have in Buffalo, and that’s made it that much worse,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Democrat, adding many of the jobs in Erie County pay less than $15 an hour. “So you have very little cushion.”

More affluent towns, of course, are also suffering. In Lake Placid, the home of two Winter Olympics and a mecca for winter sports, there are almost no cases. Its county, Essex County, has had only 28 confirmed cases, according to the state, and no deaths. But Lake Placid has also come to a standstill, with many hotels closed and the Adirondack Mountains largely devoid of visitors.

Even so, residents here seemed in no hurry to reopen.

“I’m for the restrictions. We don’t need to get this thing spreading around here,” said Julie Blair, an employee of Critters, an animal-themed gift shop on Main Street. “We’re dependent on a lot of people around the state, dependent on people from pretty much all over the world.”

In Herkimer County, after bracing for the worst, some store owners say it’s time for Albany to loosen its grip, particularly as many large retailers have remained open and they remain closed, wondering when — and if — they can reopen.

“I’ve even seen cars with floor covering sticking out the back coming from Lowe’s,” noted David Teachout, owner of John’s Floorcovering. “Wal-Mart sells clothes, but our small boutiques can’t open.”

Indeed, on a recent afternoon, commerce was largely relegated to fast-food drive-throughs and places like Wal-Mart where barricades and yellow caution tape guided customers to strictly delineated entrance and exit lanes. Elsewhere in town, shoppers wearing protective masks looked at lawn mowers and viewed used cars in the lot: The dealership, after all, was unable to welcome shoppers inside.

In nearby Ilion, Niki Marie Messina, a salon owner, said desperate customers have approached her for illegal trims and touchups — offers she has rejected. A single mother of two, she struggles to pay her bills.

Ms. Messina said she has always followed strict state regulations for cleaning utensils and wiping down surfaces, and resents that she now needs the government’s consent to follow safety practices. Masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing will be part of the equation.

“While clients have their color processing, they will have to sit in the car,” she said, adding, “You can’t have a group hanging out in the waiting room anymore.”

At Crazy Otto’s, Mr. Tranter said he remains frustrated by the situation but would be willing to put safety measures into place if he could reopen: Employees’ temperatures would be taken, customers would spread out and he would offer curbside service.

It would still be a welcome shift; Mr. Tranter said he had lost $90,000 in the past six weeks. He laid off 22 employees, his own children among them, sending them home with more than $10,000 in perishable food, including St. Patrick’s Day dinner. And though he is worried about longtime customers contracting the virus, he has heard of none.

“I have 2,500 Facebook friends and I’d ask, ‘Do you know anyone who has it?’ And almost to a T, no one did,” he said.

And while Mr. Tranter said he had taken some comfort from Governor Cuomo’s midday briefings, they no longer offer much solace.

“I’m not angry at him,” Mr. Tranter said of the governor. “I just think he’s misguided.”



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