Could we get back to selling cars normally soon? County exec wrestles with how this starts to end


Syracuse, N.Y. — Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon each day tallies his worries and challenges in fighting the spread of coronavirus.

He’s now starting to talk about how to get life back to normal eventually. For example, car sales.

“We should be able to figure out a way to sell cars,” he said today. Those sales are essential, he said, because that’s the top driver of local sales tax revenue.

“There’s got to be a way to look at certain industries and be able to operate with social distancing,” he said.

McMahon cautioned he doesn’t have a timeline. And he urged that the priority now is to stay at home and apart from others. “This is how we starve the virus,” he said.

That’s why last Sunday he called for a voluntary stay-at-home policy through April 21, pressing residents to run errands and visit county parks on alternate days.

The data has to show that it’s safe to slowly restart our local economy, he added.

“We don’t want to make a mistake,” he said. “We can’t have public health victories, and then rush in a restart which then leads us into another potential public health crisis.”

He’s been looking at the seven-day averages for the demand for testing as a barometer of the virus’s spread.

Two weeks ago, the county tested an average of 257 people a day. In the past seven days, 208 were tested on average a day. He’s hoping that drops to 150 average tests a day in the next week.

That number proves to him that far fewer people are getting sick enough to qualify for a test, and the virus’s spread has slowed significantly.

“If it goes the other way, it means we’re not starving the virus the way we need to be,” he said.

He’s also looking for the time when recoveries begin to steadily outpace active cases. To date, the county has 481 confirmed cases and 197 recoveries.

At some point, that average demand for testing will get low enough, he hopes, that some currently closed businesses could reopen with a limited workforce. They would be able to work, maybe to sell cars, while keeping at least 6 feet apart.

McMahon said he’s interested to know whether there are businesses that could reopen at 50 percent staff, for example. (Currently, the state allows automotive sales conducted remotely or electronically, with in-person vehicle return and delivery by appointment only.)

Yet restarting businesses and the local economy brings risks, because the spread of the virus could surge. He’s worried, like others, about a resurge next fall. In the end, it will take an order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make any change about bringing back non-essential jobs and businesses.

To do it, communities like Onondaga County need to be able to give more tests. Hospitals need to remain ready to treat a rush of COVID-19 patients. Those hospitals also need more masks, gowns and other protective equipment, not just to fight coronavirus but to also restart elective surgeries and other treatments.

“That helps our hospitals with some of those furloughed workers,” he said.

McMahon said he agreed with Cuomo’s comment today that the governor is in charge of reopening schools. He also thinks that it’s smart to think about reopening things as a region, rather than county by county. He added it’s likely that some non-essential businesses would open, partially, before schools would resume.

McMahon said today that plans for construction of the massive warehouse in Clay are going ahead. He said he hoped there would be concerts at the St. Joseph’s Health Amphitheater at Lakeview this year. He wishes high school seniors will celebrate their graduations. He hopes for a 2020 New York State Fair.

But time — and residents’ doggedness in staying at home — will tell.

“Stay home when you can,” he said. “When you go out, go out 50 percent less than you did before. This is how the data goes in the right direction.”

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