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Reopening guidelines need local input

Commentary: Next steps regarding the virus

Over the past couple of weeks the people of this country, and this area, have been put in front of an impossible, and in my opinion totally made up, dilemma. Either stay safe and deal with an almost certain economic catastrophe, or open up the economy and face serious illness and possible death. No wonder many are upset or even angry.

For over six weeks now, New York state has been on pause for all intents and purposes. We stayed home while schools were closed and nothing but essential businesses have been allowed to operate. It’s all done in an effort to contain the new very contagious and deadly virus that has caused a pandemic and killed tens of thousands of New Yorkers. We needed to flatten the curve, to buy ourselves and the health care system time to better prepare for what may still be coming. Although we are not out of the woods yet, we’ve made progress. Now, we need to start moving forward while keeping the progress. The question is how.

One thing is certain; no one wants to get sick or have members of their family dying. At the same time, people need their income to survive, to educate their kids, to enjoy the summer. There is no dilemma here, nor a made up choice between human lives and the economy. This is not either/or, we need to do both.

The CDC and the governor have given general guidelines as to the requirements and the order of reopening local businesses. That being said, neither should be expected to go into specifics of how best to proceed in every individual municipality. That’s the role and the responsibility of the local government. The decisions made in coming weeks will ripple through the village budget, stores, restaurants, landlords and the future of this entire area.

Let me begin by stating that if big-box stores are open with no apparent restrictions except the use of a mask, small businesses on Main Street could be open as well. Fredonia’s economy is being supported by small businesses (like retail, restaurants, and services), agriculture and the college. Some of those businesses were able to make it through by switching to delivery and contactless curbside pickup, while others closed down temporarily.

As we move toward reopening our downtown, it is imperative that we are organized and have a plan. We all understand that these are not “regular times” and that “flipping a switch” won’t take us back to our former lives. There are considerations and questions; for example, can restaurants afford to operate at 50% (at most) capacity? What will happen if stores open and customers are scarce? What about the extra expense if they are required to have temperature taking and/or sanitation devices? How are the local farmers holding on? What will happen with the empty apartments if the college has no in-person classes in the fall? What about next year’s budget? Will the village be able to sustain the numbers of our police officers, firefighters, water plants operators, DPW workers and the rest of the village employees or will services suffer?

Although there are no easy answers, I believe that the village should take an active role and develop a recovery plan that will help the local economy while ensuring everyone’s safety. We need a bridge to take us from where we are now to the time when a vaccine and an effective antiviral drug is readily available. Here are some ideas, I am sure there are more.

¯ Help restaurants by relaxing the village ordinances so they can use the sidewalks for tables and chairs, while keeping with the safeguards.

¯ Allow restaurants to use other public spaces, like the parks, for the same reason.

¯ Close Park Street to car traffic for the duration of the summer, so it can be used as well. Have designated places for those establishments who are interested in participating. Maximum of three people per table, 6 feet apart, use of masks for as long as possible; limit the time to about 30 feet to 45 feet per party. Provide tents and/or umbrellas to accommodate weather conditions as needed.

¯ The need to move around is a basic psychologic imperative so, consider closing more streets to car traffic to provide ample space for people to walk.

¯ Put additional garbage cans close by, for easy cleanup.

¯ For the rest of retail, consider limiting number of people to something like 20% of max occupancy as has been determined by the fire chief. Work with appointments and on line as much as possible. Extra care should be taken so the front store window is informative and attractive. Consider accepting mostly virtual payments if at all possible.

¯ Service providing businesses, that are able to use teleconferencing or offer online classes should consider switching mostly to that.

¯ Services that require in store personal contact, should follow the rules of regular retail, allowing at least 20 feet between customers for cleanup and disinfection.

¯ Consider the possibility to amend the hours of operation.

¯ This is the perfect time for every business owner to update their website.

¯ Allow and/or provide a way for business owners to keep track of their customers, so if there is an outbreak people can be notified.

¯ Start a “buy local” campaign; encourage people to look for and buy locally made products, locally grown produce, locally raised livestock.

¯ At a time where economic development has given way to economic survival, taxes will not suffice to keep delivery of public services at a level that the current crisis requires. Especially if local businesses are forced to close. Almost all Village employees can be considered essential workers. That means that a good case can be made by the mayor to the governor and the state legislature for help through state programs and FEMA. NYCOM can also be of help.

The college and the village will have to face the new reality that’s emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The “college economy” that includes landlords, shop owners etc. will need help to survive the “shakeout period.” Mercifully, every college town in America is facing the same problem. There are organizations around the country that are lobbying the federal government for help, one of them the National League of Cities, and the Village should consider being part of that effort.

A final thought; arguably we are going through one of the most difficult and tragic times of our country’s history. We lost 85,000 Americans in 10 weeks. This is nothing less than a war against an enemy that’s not another country or another people but rather an invisible entity that invades our bodies with no concern for nationality, skin color or gender.

One would think that all humanity would be united on one side fighting our common enemy. It’s really sad that this is not the case, and that once again, we chose to be divided, and fight amongst ourselves. It is my hope that we will finally realize how powerless we are in front of nature and that we will take this as an opportunity to create a better future.

Dr. Athanasia Landis is a Fredonia resident and former mayor.

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