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Lightfoot Implores Gov. Cuomo: Allow Barbers, Salons to Reopen in Orange Zone

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Willie Lightfoot, right, owner of New Creations Unisex Shop and president of United Professional Barbers and Cosmetologists Association. Provided by Willie Lightfoot

For the second time since COVID-19 hit, Willie Lightfoot has written to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to seek help for minority business owners in an industry among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The declaration that areas of the city were included in the orange micro-cluster zone, forcing the closure of barbershops, salons and other personal care services, prompted Lightfoot to ask Cuomo to allow those businesses to reopen. Gyms and fitness centers in the orange zone also are closed and restaurants are restricted.

“I’m expecting that he will address the letter and either reverse the decision or shut everybody down,” said Lightfoot, who is president of the United Professional Barbers and Cosmetologists Association

In March, Lightfoot wrote to Cuomo to request support and guidance for shop owners. He said he did not get a direct response but the governor did address issues such as unemployment for self-employed individuals.

On Dec. 3, Lightfoot told Cuomo that the orange designation has “severely and disproportionately” affected “black and brown microbusinesses and are occurring during our most profitable time, the holiday season. As Governor of New York State, if you fail to change regulations impacting these businesses, there will be negative implications compounded by the systemic and institutional racism that allows black and brown businesses owners to all too often fall through the cracks.”

Lightfoot wrote that compliance with safety regulations imposed when shops were allowed to reopen several months ago has “kept our customers safe, as there has been no viral spread linked to barber shops or beauty salons locally. … We believe the decision to close the appearance enhancement industry is not based on data, our own Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Michael Mendoza, has stated that private gatherings have been the primary cause of spread for COVID-19.”

Lightfoot wrote that the industry “is at a tipping point” and many people could lose their livelihoods.

Lightfoot has circulated a petition at www.upbca.org, which he said had 1,200 signatures as of Dec. 7.

The governor’s office has not yet responded to an email requesting comment.

The announcement of the orange designation for parts of the city, Brighton, Gates and Irondequoit came before Thanksgiving and Lightfoot said the affected businesses had about 24 hours’ notice.

Lightfoot, who is vice president of City Council and co-chairman of the business development working group for the city-county RASE Commission, said the closure will have an adverse effect on businesses owned by people of color.

Lightfoot questioned whether the decision came from the regional control room, which monitors data related to COVID-19 that could affect an area’s ability to reopen or stay open.

The Finger Lakes control room is led by Bob Duffy, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Representatives of nine counties and the city also are part of the control room. The list is at forward.ny.gov/members-regional-control-rooms.

Marc Cohen, chief of staff for Duffy, said the control room does not have the power to make decisions. Its role is to send information to the governor’s office. Cuomo then determines what action is taken.

“The overarching goal is to curb the spread and to discourage unnecessary travel, unnecessary activities, unnecessary outings,” Cohen said. “My understanding is not that the governor or the governor’s staff or anybody in the control room is targeting an industry.”

He said he could understand how someone could see it that way if their business is forced to shut. “Baseline point: We want folks to be open. We want commerce to continue.”

He also acknowledged a perceived inconsistency if salons and barbers are closed in one area but remain open a short drive away.

Lightfoot made that point in his letter to Cuomo. “We believe that the new designations for shops in ‘Orange Zones’ exacerbate already present disparities which is inequitable and wrong. Our customers are going to other shops in ‘Yellow Zones’ that are often times just minutes away,” he wrote.

In an interview, he said, “Back in the day we had redlining. Now it’s orange-lining. Same thing. They just changed the color.”

Cohen said no one disputes the fact that COVID-19 has hit Black and Latino communities harder than white communities.

“If that’s because information is not being conveyed, if that’s because tests are not being made available, health care not being made available – probably a combination,” Cohen said. “By the way, that is structural racism, that is institutional racism. … But there has been no discussion of, well, a Black neighborhood ends at this avenue, so let’s make the other avenue yellow and make this avenue orange. … The decisions are being made solely based on infection rate numbers.”

The approach to containing the virus has changed over the months of the pandemic. In late March, the governor instituted New York on Pause, which shut all but what the state deemed essential businesses, such as grocery stores, banks and home centers.

In the orange zone, certain high-risk non-essential businesses (such as gyms, fitness centers and classes, barber shops, hair salons, personal care services) are closed. The restrictions for yellow, orange and red zones are at forward.ny.gov.

Cohen said activities such as haircuts, trips to casinos and other extracurriculars are important for reasons such as commerce and mental health. “But when we’re looking at the risk versus reward of do we want people out or don’t we, the answer is no. We want people to quarantine, keep to themselves as much as possible.”

As the state began reopening, the measures changed to allow for regional differences in the number of cases and their effect on local health care systems. Then the governor instituted the micro-cluster approach, more or less going by ZIP code.

On Dec. 7, the governor announced that hospitalizations would determine whether a region would become a red zone, the most-restrictive of the micro clusters. The designation would come if a seven-day average hospitalization growth rate shows that the region will reach 90 percent within the next three weeks.

As of Dec. 7, Finger Lakes hospitals had 30% of their beds available, according to data from the governor’s office.

Cohen said he was getting nervous about the increasing number of cases in the region.

“Other folls should be nervous, too,” he said. “Anytime you feel that twinge in your stomach like, ‘Oh my gosh, my business is going to get shut down’ … believe in that fear. Wear a mask, wash your hands, disinfect, socially distance. These things matter. It’s very, very important. It should be understood that folks have to do their part.”

Here is Lightfoot’s Dec. 3. letter to Cuomo:

Dear Governor Cuomo:

You have shown tremendous leadership during this unprecedented time, and one of the hallmarks of your leadership has been your willingness to adapt to a changing environment. It is in the spirit of cooperation that I reach out to you to request thoughtful changes related to restrictions on the appearance enhancement industry. As President of the United Professional Barbers and Cosmetologists Association (UPBCA), I’ve reached out to your office earlier this year requesting additional support and guidance to shops and owners as they began the reopening process. I have since held training sessions, worked with businesses to get proper safety equipment and PPE, and worked to help shops comply with the important guidance put out by the state and local health departments.

Our compliance with these regulations have kept our customers safe, as there has been no viral spread linked to barber shops or beauty salons locally. Unfortunately, these same shops and salons located in Orange Zones, once again, have been shut down. These designations severely and disproportionately affect black and brown microbusinesses and are occurring during our most profitable time, the holiday season. As Governor of New York State, if you fail to change regulations impacting these businesses, there will be negative implications compounded by the systemic and institutional racism that allows black and brown businesses owners to all too often fall through the cracks. We believe that the new designations for shops in “Orange Zones” exacerbate already present disparities which is inequitable and wrong. Our customers are going to other shops in “Yellow Zones” that are often times just minutes away. Many shops have spent significant funds to reopen and continue to follow the guidance put out by the state, but we are failing many of our struggling businesses, many of which are minority owned, with these closures.

We believe the decision to close the appearance enhancement industry is not based on data, our own Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Michael Mendoza, has stated that private gatherings have been the primary cause of spread for COVID-19. We have a growing petition with over 700 signatures calling on your administration to reexamine this policy, and allow businesses like ours, to continue to operate. It would be more impactful if there were targeted closures of businesses linked to viral spread, and in turn, more educational resources and PPE dedicated to businesses reopening.

Our industry is at a tipping point, and many people stand to lose their livelihoods. On behalf of UPBCA and all those locally in the appearance enhancement industry, I implore you to allow our shops to reopen.

Sincerely,
Willie J. Lightfoot

CC: Lovely A. Warren, Mayor City of Rochester
Adam J. Bello, Monroe County Executive
Rob ert J. Duffy, CEO, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce