As large swaths of New York begin to reopen this weekend, mayors and local officials across the state are feeling the squeeze from budget cuts, furloughs, and frustrated constituents. While leaders on both sides of the aisle agree they are ready to get their communities open once again, questions about how exactly to do that are still up for debate.
Overall, the state's regional approach has gotten widespread support from upstate officials, who are eager to differentiate themselves from downstate communities ravaged by coronavirus. But who should take responsibility for their economic woes settles along more conventional partisan divides.
"Every small community would obviously like extra money, but I don't think the federal government is there to bail out every state," said Watertown Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith, a Republican. "From our perspective, let us open up and fend for ourselves, and if there is some extra federal money to help our community out that's great."
Watertown is located on the Canadian border in the state's vast North Country, one of five regions that were eligible for the first phase of the state's reopening plan. The other four include the Mohawk Valley, Southern Tier, Central New York and Finger Lakes regions. All them qualified based on criteria that looked at net hospitalizations, deaths, and the availability of beds and ICU units.
This weekend's phase 1 reopening covers manufacturing, construction, and select curbside retail. It also allowed drive-in movie theaters and landscaping businesses to open statewide.
"The way we're doing this makes sense," said Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, a Democrat. "The president could not possibly issue orders that say 'Okay, movie theaters are fine in this zip code, but in that zip code you need to wait until next week.' What would make sense is a federal government that recognized that even if we all reopen slowly and cautiously, the economy is not going to be what it was without enormous amounts of stimulus."
Ithaca, located in the Finger Lakes region and home to Cornell University, boasted one of the fastest growing economies in the state prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Now the drop in tax revenue due to the shutdown has led to the furloughing of 25 percent of city employees.
Managing the reopening with dramatically reduced staff has been difficult, said Myrick, who furloughed his own executive assistant.
"It cripples our governmental operations, and it makes reopening our economy even harder. You're in this finger trap," he said. "Because our government is dependent on our economy, and our economy is dependent on our government."
The mayor had to furlough 90 percent of the Ithaca Youth Bureau, for instance, which is the agency that manages crucial summer camp and day-care operations.
"If folks can't drop their kids off at summer camp, then they can't go back to work," Myrick said. "Something's gotta give first."
Watertown has faced similar budget shortfalls, but its mayor believes a faster, more comprehensive reopening is the best path to economic recovery and balanced budgets.
"About 45 percent of revenue is generated from sales tax, so the forced shutdown has been devastating to our city budget," Smith said.
Smith personally believes quarantine should be limited to people who are sick — despite evidence that asymptomatic carriers help spread the virus — but he supports staggering the reopening to some degree. He'd just like to see Watertown and surrounding Jefferson County, which has seen just 67 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths, further along in the process.
"I think we should have been in what's considered phase 2," he said. "There's no reason people can't have scheduled haircuts. There's no reason people can't do one-on-one professional services, which is a great majority of the small business in the North Country. I think our restaurants should be open to 50 percent capacity while taking the proper precautions."
The next phase under the state's plan would reopen professional services, finance and insurance, in-personal retail, rental and leasing, and administrative support. Restaurants and food services come after that, and arts, entertainment, recreation, and education come last.
"I look at some of these regulations and rules, and they're designed for what has really been the epicenter of the pandemic in downstate New York," Smith said. "It just doesn't fit in upstate New York."
Despite these differences in opinion on the current process, Myrick said that at the local level it's hard to see the stark partisan divide that has marked the politics of reopening nationwide.
"The people I'm actually talking to everyday, I'm not seeing an ideological, partisan divide," he said. "I'm hearing from business owners who are like 'I need to reopen yesterday.' I'm also hearing from businesses who are saying 'This is too soon. I'm worried about my employees.'"
At the federal level, meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has proposed a $3 trillion stimulus package that would provide direct support to states. President Donald Trump has called the bill "DOA."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for his part, said he believes cooler heads will prevail and the federal government will get money to states before painful cuts have to take place.
"I believe Washington, despite their dysfunction and politics, will ultimately provide funding for state and local governments," he said during his daily briefing Friday.