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Phase One reopening key for local industries

Coming back

Though they have been unable to work from their main office, real estate agents have been active remotely throughout New York State on PAUSE. Photo by Cameron Hurst

With Chautauqua County in the midst of Phase One of the COVID-19 reopening plan, local construction companies and manufacturers have had the opportunity to get back to work.

The loosening of restrictions comes at an important time, as summer contracting and construction projects look to take advantage of good weather.

“We’re optimistic,” said Todd Tranum, CEO of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Manufacturers Association of the Southern Tier. “It is a time for optimism as we get our businesses reopened. It is also a time to continue to be diligent in terms of following safety protocols. That applies to everyone, the businesses, the employees and people throughout our community. The goal now is to keep things reopened and to start working through the next three phases of this process.”

One reason for optimism is the economic importance of manufacturing in the area, which Tranum noted accounts for $4.5 billion in shipments a year.

“Which is quite a phenomenal number when you think about it, for a county our size,” Tranum said. “Getting that sector up and running is critical to our economy, because those are dollars. Manufacturers import new dollars into the economy that get circulated back in through wages and benefits. Product purchasing, service purchasing, those types of things.”

Scott Stone of Stone Plumbing Co. gets back to work during Phase 1 of the COVID-19 reopening. Submitted Photo

Manufacturers and contractors have been impacted differently by the shutdown depending on their business model, with some remaining open during the pandemic, some running at reduced capacity, and some being forced to close all together.

“We were, I would say, 25% open,” said Mike LaTone, owner of D & S Glass Services. “Our automotive part of our business was essential, so we were open for that. Automotive and emergency glass repairs, both residential and commercial. Pretty much all of the jobs we were involved in commercially, basically were shutdown until last week in New York. Pennsylvania opened up a week prior so we were (working there).”

LaTone and other members of the Southern Tier Builders Association have worked with Tranum and the Chamber on business plans and reopening guidelines throughout the shutdown.

“Todd had reached out to Southern Tier Builders Association, we’re a member there,” LaTone said. “They sent out to us recommended guidelines and this is what we have been following. Southern Tier Builders worked on it with the Chamber to come up with a good plan and so we received a copy of that and that is what we’ve been following.”

LaTone said that D & S has been able to provide all of its employees with personal protective equipment for necessary jobs, although there are county programs through the Industrial Development Agency that can be used to offset those costs. The new landscape of COVID-19 has spurred more interest in the production and purchasing of plexiglass, which is now being used for public barriers in retail locations.

“I made three calls today to people in businesses that are looking to reopen that need to get safety glass or plexiglass panels made. So we’ve been out doing that, that is a service we also offer,” LaTone said. “Everybody is back 100%, we are busy. People are still calling.”

Some construction firms have gone through a similar situation, with mandates to stay open for emergencies but prohibition of nonessential projects.

“We didn’t completely shut down,” said Scott Stone of Stone Plumbing Co. “There was a while were we could only do emergency calls, so people with no water or serious leaks, or anything that needed serious attention. So we were going right along and trying to take all of the precautions that everybody is saying you have to take.” Stone said that his contracting jobs can go through different busy seasons throughout the year, but that many large commercial projects had been forced to shut down during the pandemic.

“Hopefully now some of the bigger jobs will start to get going and the new construction can start popping back up,” Stone said. “All of the bigger commercial projects will start coming back and put a lot more people to work. This is a very crucial point for it to start coming back again. But I’m sure some people are going to be scared to start going on with some of the bigger projects that were planned before this whole thing took place too.”

New stress has become the new normal during COVID-19, and that goes double for business owners hoping to reopen. In addition to concerns over the health and safety of employees and customers, there is also an added level of worry about following guidelines and rules that change often and can lack specifics.

“I would say that that was the hardest part of this whole process. Just trying to guide your way through all of the different hoops you were supposed to jump through,” Stone said. “We were just constantly online checking the guidelines and making sure that we were deemed essential and were working when we were supposed to be working. So early on that was a pretty tough thing to guide your way through. It felt like there were changes coming every day.”

In order to make that process easier, the chamber offers businesses sample safety templates as examples on how to safely reopen, and guidance through its website. As reopening happens sector by sector, chamber officials have looked at the best practices available for each different model of business, and built on top of safety templates offered by New York state.

“What we’ve been able to do is gather some best practices from businesses in our own community to go above and beyond some of the basic requirements related to reopening,” Tranum said.

One positive during the first wave of reopening has been the proactive mindset of business owners ready to reopen. Rather than trying to do a sudden jump start from cold, local owners have been preparing in advance.

“Businesses in our community and our region were proactive,” Tranum said. “Our organization with partner organizations such as the Industrial Development Agency, the visitor’s bureau, Jamestown Community College and others worked early on with businesses to encourage them to put plans in place. Many had, many that remained in business or partially in business were very responsive.”

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