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The impact of COVID-19 in New York

New York deals with unemployment, the economy and returning to normal

NEW YORK STATE — It’s been a little more than a month since New York state’s non-essential businesses and schools were shut down by Governor Andrew Cuomo to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and New Yorkers are hurting. 

Businesses suffer

From every sector in the economy and including all kinds of workers — from restaurants to retail stores to manufacturers to farmers to teachers to lawyers — many jobs have all but evaporated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

North East town Supervisor Chris Kennan addressed how tough it’s been seeing local towns and villages, like the once-thriving Millerton, transform into ghost towns, at the Thursday, April 16, Town Board meeting held via Zoom.

“So many people have lost jobs and income,” Kennan said. “Businesses of all types are being hammered. Main Street is deserted. And our lives seem to have been completely turned upside down by it.”

A percentage of now-shuttered business will likely return once the economy reopens, but the reality is not all businesses can afford to sustain themselves for that long, leaving many workers living with no paycheck, no health insurance and no security. Yes, Congress passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economy Security (CARES) Act stimulus package, which provides a one-time payment of $1,200 to individual taxpayers, $2,400 to married couples who file jointly and an extra $500 per qualifying child (under 17) to families.

Tax filers with direct deposit may have already received their checks; others may have to wait upwards of five months or more to receive a paper check in the mail. 

And while some employers who can afford it have been trying to continue to pay their staff during the pandemic, not all are able to do so. That’s why local, county, state and federal governments are trying to predict when the virus will apex, which varies from place to place, and plan for reopening the economy in a safe, prudent and expeditious manner.

“We are in some ways artificially controlling the curve,” said Cuomo at his Tuesday, April 14, press conference. “We’ve taken extraordinary action and are reducing the spread. Whatever we are doing today is affecting the rate of infection tomorrow. If you behave differently, you’ll get a different result.”

Kennan said he hopes those results will soon lead to reopening local businesses.

“There has been a lot of comment in the media about when we can start loosening the restrictions and begin to open up the economy,” he wrote in a recent email. “From my perspective, as long as we can do it with real data, responsible medical input and safety for our residents, the sooner the better. How can one not be concerned about the life and vitality of Millerton and the community that it centers? Looking at Main Street each day, with so many shuttered businesses, no cars on the street, hardly anyone walking around, it’s just so not good. It’s painful. My dream is that in some not-so-distant future every business has re-opened, the town is buzzing with people up and down the street, restaurants are jammed and life has returned. That is still my hope.”

“People talk about reopening. Everybody is anxious to reopen. I’m anxious to reopen,” said Cuomo, “and that’s universal. People need to get back to work. The economy, it cannot sustain itself for this long period of time. But how you reopen is everything in the longterm, because we are now keeping down that rate of infection.”

The governor has predicted the state will lose between $10 and $15 billion of tax revenue as a result of the coronavirus crisis, but he also warned that if New York’s economy is reopened improperly, the state could see an increase in COVID-19 cases.

“The worst case scenario, is we get that number down, go to reopen, reopen too fast or reopen and there are unintended consequences, and those numbers go up again,” said Cuomo. “[Some say] we are being hyper-conscious. Really? Look at other countries that have started to reopen again and seen [more infections return].” 

State vs. federal decisions

Cuomo and the president had been battling it out over who should make those decisions: the state or the federal government. Trump had said last week that, as president, he had total control of when to call off social distancing and self-isolation recommendations. 

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” said Trump, adding he’d “call the shots” about when to reopen the economy. 

Cuomo, though, disputed that statement on April 14.

“We don’t have a king, we have a president,” said the governor, “and the president is just wrong… it’s very clear the states have the power.”

After days of back and forth, and many Twitters from the White House, the president actually reversed his stance and said he would not dictate terms about when businesses and schools should reopen.

“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump said in a Thursday, April 16, telephone call with the nation’s governors, according to an audio recording obtained by The New York Times. “You’re going to be calling the shots. We’ll be standing right alongside of you, and we’re going to get our country open and get it working. People want to get working.”

A regional approach

Which is why, on April 13, Cuomo announced that New York has joined forces with Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island’s Multi-State Council to get people back to work and restore the economy.

According to the governor, the council will use “every tool available” including testing, contact tracing, treatment and social distancing to fight the spread of the virus.

“We have been collaborating closely with our neighboring states…” stated Cuomo. “Now it is time to start opening the valve slowly and carefully while watching the infection rate meter so we don’t trigger a second wave of new infections. This is not a light switch that we can just flick on and everything goes back to normal — we have to come up with a smart, consistent strategy to restart the systems we shut down and get people back to work, and to the extent possible we want to do that through a regional approach because we are a regional economy.”

Unemployment insurance

From the mid-March state-wide closure of non-essential businesses through April 10, nearly 1 million New Yorkers applied for unemployment insurance. 

Nationally, more than 5.2 million workers in the U.S. filed for unemployment in the second week of April, while an estimated 22 million unemployed workers applied for benefits in four-weeks’ time. 

As of April 16, a reported 1 in 7 Americans were out of a job — the worst stretch of unemployment on record.

Obtaining benefits

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, www.dol.gov/coronavirus, Federal law gives “significant flexibility” to states trying to figure out how to dole out unemployment to those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. 

Federal law allows states to pay benefits where: “An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work; an individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over; and an individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.”

Additionally, federal law does not require a worker to quit in order to qualify for benefits due to the pandemic.

Department of Labor troubles

In New York, unemployment benefit applications were so numerous earlier this month that the New York State Department of Labor’s (NYSDOL) website crashed; its call center was also inundated. Since the pandemic, the NYSDOL’s unemployment insurance filing system has seen peak weeks with a 16,000% increase in phone calls and a 1,600% increase in web traffic, compared to a typical week.

That’s why, on April 9, the NYSDOL and the New York State Office of Information Technology Services announced a “Tech Surge” in partnership with Google Cloud, Deloitte and Verizon, to upgrade the state’s online and telephone-based unemployment insurance application systems. The surge increased the NYSDOL’s capacity for accepting applications and made it simpler for applicants to file their claims.

That’s good news for those who are out of work, who can now go to www.labor.ny.gov or call the Telephone Claim Center at 888-209-8124 to file for unemployment. The center’s hours have been increased to include Saturdays and Sundays. It’s open Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Additionally, on Monday, April 20, the NYSDOL launched a new streamlined application for New Yorkers to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance without having to first apply for Unemployment Insurance, which had been the case.

In addition to consolidating forms, the NYSDOL announced it’s deployed more than 3,100 representatives “solely dedicated to answering unemployment benefit needs seven days a week. This is up from 400 who previously manned the call center prior to the pandemic.”

Food for thought

Cuomo has also spoken about “re-imagining the workforce and the workplace” as the pandemic subsides and society slowly returns to normal. 

“Does everybody actually have to drive into the office everyday?” he asked. “Or did we learn ways to telecommute and work from home where it’s more effective? How do we make it safer, from a public health point of view? How are we now smarter about public interactions? How do we take this moment, since we are paused anyway, and come back smarter?”

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