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Latest in COVID-19: Erie County declares state of emergency

Erie County County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Sunday declared a state of emergency following the confirmation that three people have tested positive for COVID-19.

Poloncarz said all schools in the county will be closed on Monday. He said he would meet with superintendents later Sunday to discuss the days ahead.

The county said the three people who have tested positive for the virus are quarantined at home and are recovering.

The news came as the impact of coronavirus on New York State continued to spread Saturday, as Monroe and Orleans counties shut down schools and officials confirmed two deaths downstate.

Here's what we know:

  • Three confirmed cases: One patient is "a female in her 30s who recently traveled out of the state," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said during a Sunday morning news conference. There's a man in his 30s who recently traveled to Westchester County. A third is a woman who traveled to Italy.
  • State of emergency: Poloncarz said a state of emergency would give Erie County more powers to deal with the virus. He said county officials would meet with school superintendents later Sunday to discuss the days ahead. Schools will be closed Monday.
  • First deaths: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Saturday that the death of an 82-year-old woman in New York City was related to COVID-19. A second death, a 64-year-old Rockland County man in Suffern, was confirmed Saturday night. Both had underlying health problems.
  • Two members of the state Assembly diagnosed: Gov. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie confirmed Saturday night that Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, both of Brooklyn, have contracted the disease.
  • Three WNY counties declare states of emergency: Schools also close in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.
  • Party on in the Old First Ward: The parade was canceled, but the drinks were flowing and even a few floats were spotted rolling down the streets.
  • Billions for New York: The bill the House passed early Saturday in response to the coronavirus pandemic is expected to bring an estimated $4.6 billion to $6.7 billion in additional Medicaid funding to New York State, if it gets passed by the U.S. Senate and signed by President Trump.
  • No cuts in flights at Buffalo airport: There have been no reduction yet in flights to and from Buffalo Niagara International Airport, but airport officials are bracing for anticipated cuts by airlines in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
  • Second Monroe Case: A second Monroe County resident has tested positive for COVID-19. Officials are also reaching out to the public in an effort to contact people who may have ridden a Greyhound bus with the Rochester man who was the county's first case of coronavirus disease. The Greyhound bus traveled from New York City through Pennsylvania and then north through upstate New York, with a stop in Buffalo, before ending its trip in Toronto. An unidentified Daemen College student was aboard that bus and is in quarantine.
  • Groceries struggle to keep up: Q&A with Tops supermarket suggests it will be weeks before supply catches up with buying demand. And a look at the wild early morning crush at Tops and Wegmans.
  • Push for more testing: Erie County only has enough supplies to test 450 people for COVID-19. Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said the county is ordering more chemicals to allow it to do more tests. Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center are also working to develop COVID-19 testing capacity.
  • Corn beef and cabbage caterer gets creative: A Kenmore caterer estimates he stands to lose $20,000 to $30,000 in event business because of the cancellation of the St. Patrick's Day parade. So now he's selling and delivering his corn beef and cabbage directly to the public.
  • Hotels hit hard: With sporting events, meetings, concerts and other large gatherings canceled, business at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo is off by about 50%. Other hotel owners in the region say they are getting pounded, too.
  • Political petitions affected: Political campaign volunteers are knocking on doors to collect signatures on nominating petitions so candidates can get on the ballots. But residents don't want to touch pens and petitions handled by lots of people.
  • The numbers: As of early Friday, Erie County had sent 40 samples to be tested for COVID-19. There were no confirmed cases.
  • Public schools prep: Many districts sent their students home with assignments and laptops in preparation for the very real possibility that schools could be closed. Buffalo Public Schools said it would close for one day on Monday before reopening Tuesday to give teachers time to prepare take-home work for students.
  • Unemployment rules: Expecting a “large number of people” to be laid off in New York because of the spreading coronavirus and its impact on the economy, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state will relax its unemployment benefit rules.
  • Home sales: Home sales were going strong. But now agents brace for coronavirus impact. "It's going to change the way we do business," said Jerry Thompson, broker-owner of Century 21 Gold Standard in East Aurora. "
  • Episcopalians, other big churches cancel services: No services will be held at Episcopal churches in seven WNY counties, some suburban megachurches and at True Bethel Baptist Church. And Catholics will not be obligated to attend Mass.


New York sees first COVID-19 deaths

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Saturday morning announced New York has seen its first death related to COVID-19.

An 82-year-old victim died in a New York City hospital, Cuomo said at a news conference.

She was admitted to the hospital on March 3. The woman had emphysema, a respiratory illness for which she had previously been hospitalized.

Cuomo announced there are now 524 cases of novel coronavirus in the state.

Read the story: Cuomo reports New York's first confirmed COVID-19 death


'You can't stop St. Patrick's Day in Buffalo'

It wasn't quite the hooley they are used to, but the St. Patrick's Day parties did go on Saturday in the Old First Ward, despite the cancellation of the official parade to limit possible exposure to COVID-19.

Irish flags flew from South Park to Elk, Hamburg and South streets. And on Hamburg Street, they were wearin' the green and raising the glasses - social distancing be darned.

"You can't stop St. Patrick's Day in Buffalo," said Tim Mulhern of Williamsville.

Read the story: St. Patrick's Day goes on in the Old First Ward


Billions in coronavirus aid for New York State 

New York State taxpayers won a huge break in the bipartisan bill the House passed early Saturday in response to the coronavirus pandemic: billions in additional funding for Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for lower-income Americans.

The money – which could start flowing to the state soon after the Senate passes and the president signs the measure next week – is intended to cover the extra costs the Medicaid program could run up thanks to the influx of patients suffering from COVID-19, the severe flu-like illness caused by the virus.

But the additional federal funds also will start arriving at an opportune time, as the state tries to find ways to patch a $6.1 billion funding gap for Medicaid in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's pending state budget.

"This is a real lifeline for New York," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.

Read the story: Federal coronavirus bill to bring billions to New York


No cuts in flights at Buffalo's airport

The Buffalo Niagara International Airport is bracing for anticipated cuts by airlines to flights into and out of this area and the rest of the country in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

A spokeswoman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates the airport, said airlines as of Saturday hadn't cut any routes serving the airport in Cheektowaga.

But Delta Air Lines has announced it is cutting back its routes worldwide by 40% and grounding 300 planes in its fleet.

Read the story: No COVID-19 flight cuts at Buffalo airport, yet


Second case confirmed in Monroe County

The Monroe County Department of Public Health announced late Friday night that it had confirmed a second Monroe County resident has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a release, Monroe County officials said that while their investigation was in the early stages, it appeared that the second case was unrelated to the county's first case or the students under quarantine at SUNY Brockport.

Monroe County is also reaching out to the public in an effort to contact four people who may have ridden a Greyhound bus with the Rochester man who was the county's first case of coronavirus disease. According to officials, the man traveled on a bus that arrived in Rochester at 7:40 a.m. Tuesday. The Greyhound bus traveled from the Port Authority Bus Station in New York City through Pennsylvania and then north through upstate New York, including a stop in Buffalo, before ending its trip in Toronto.

Read the story: Monroe County has 2nd case of Covid-19; 1st case involved man who traveled by bus that stopped in Buffalo


Supermarkets cope with public panic buying

The spokeswoman for the Tops supermarket chain answers questions about how the major grocery chain is coping with the unbridled demand. Not since the November snowstorm of 2014 has there been such a run on food and supplies, she said. Getting back on track could take months.

Read the story: What happened at the grocery stores? A Tops spokeswoman explains

Meanwhile, one intrepid reporter stood outside before the crack of dawn with a crowd of other shoppers waiting for Wegmans top open. His attempt to buy ordinary groceries amid the crowd racing to load up on basics was akin to Black Friday.

Read the story: I went to Wegmans at 5:47 a.m.


Caterer stuck with St. Pat meals sells the public

If you're looking for your traditional St. Patrick's Day meal, but are out of luck because of the cancellation of your favorite St. Pat event, then check with your favorite caterers.

Kenmore caterer Kevin Lester was stuck with hundreds of corn beef and cabbage meals after the cancellation of the downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade and the governor’s restrictions on large gatherings on Thursday. He estimates he lost $20,000 to $30,000 in business when three of his large catering events tied to the Irish holiday were canceled.

So he’s looking to take home delivery orders for all of the corned beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes and rye bread.

“People still have to eat, right?” Lester said Friday.

Read the story: Kenmore caterer left with hundreds of corned beef dinners gets creative


Erie County plans to test more

In a county with nearly a million people, the Erie County Public Health Lab has enough testing materials to run only 450 tests for COVID-19.

For now.

That means many residents who want to be tested are being turned away because they don't meet the definition of a high-risk case.

Erie County's testing ability should be expanded by sometime next week. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday that the loosening of federal regulations would allow more private companies to test in New York State. Meanwhile, Erie County is ordering more testing supplies.

Read the story: Erie County's lab can only run 450 COVID-19 tests. But help is on the way


Buffalo Niagara hotels take a pounding from cancellations

Hotels across the Buffalo Niagara region are getting hammered by the novel coronavirus scare.

With sporting events, meetings, concerts and other large gatherings canceled, business at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo is off by about 50%.

It's off by about 20% at the Hotel @ the Lafayette in downtown Buffalo.

And in Amherst, the owner of the Hyatt Place Hotel and the Reikart House lost $30,000 in bookings on Friday alone after a hockey tournament was canceled and a local trade group dropped plans for a monthly breakfast meeting.

Read the story: Buffalo Niagara hotels take a pounding from cancellations


No confirmed cases in Erie County

As of early Friday, the Erie County Health Department reported it has had samples from 40 people tested for COVID-19 since Feb. 1. All have been negative.

Sixty-one people remained quarantined Friday; 143 people had already completed self-quarantine.

Officials, however, are prepping as though the virus is already in Western New York.

Read the story: Two residents under 'mandatory quarantine' as county testing continues


New York relaxes unemployment rules

ALBANY – Expecting a “large number of people” to be laid off in New York because of the spreading coronavirus and its impact on the economy, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state will relax its unemployment benefit rules.

The state’s present seven-day waiting period before weekly benefit checks can flow to unemployed workers will be lifted for people who lose their jobs due to the impact of the novel coronavirus or if they have become quarantined.

The state will also be banning utility companies from cutting off power to homes of individuals who have been affected by the virus, including those working fewer hours at companies that have cut back operations, such as many restaurants and other venues that as of Friday afternoon were on a mandatory order to scale back how many patrons can use their facilities at any one time.

Read the story: State relaxes unemployment benefit rules


Real estate agents take precautions

It was shaping up to be another strong housing market in Western New York this spring, with low mortgage rates fueling solid sales and rising prices.

That is, until the novel coronavirus and resulting fear struck.

It's still too soon to tell what will happen, but real estate brokers are starting to take precautions like wiping down surfaces and using hand sanitizer. They're anticipating buyers and sellers to follow suit.

And all bets are now off as to what that means for home sales.

Read the story: Home sales were going strong. But now agents brace for coronavirus impact.


Public events curtailed across the state

ALBANY – The state is banning public gatherings of more than 500 people at a time, banning visitors at nursing homes, threatening business with closure if they do not maintain "diligent" cleaning standards and calling on retired doctors and nurses to join a possible reserve health care staffing program – all in response to the rapidly spreading number of novel coronavirus cases across New York State.

The public gathering order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, which also requires venues with under 500 seats to cut their occupancy levels at events by 50%, is intended to reduce density levels of people as a way to reduce the the spread of the virus.

Read the story: Cuomo: No visitors to nursing homes; public events with more than 500 people to be banned


Catholics can skip Mass; other churches cancel services

Catholics in the Buffalo Diocese will not be obligated to attend Mass this weekend, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger announced Friday.

The bishop said he was removing the obligation to attend Mass "in light of the serious health risks to vulnerable populations posed by the novel coronavirus, and to prevent widespread infection."

Meanwhile, Episcopalian church services were canceled in Northwest Pennsylvania and Western New York.

At least two of the region's megachurches – Eastern Hill Wesleyan and The Chapel at Crosspoint – are suspending services indefinitely. Pastor Darius Pridgen made a similar announcement to members of True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Read the story: Buffalo Catholics can miss Mass; other denominations cancel services


Erie County prepares as if virus is here

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the county has had 40 people fully tested as of Friday morning.

The county had 61 people under quarantine, county officials said. Another 143 residents were previously quarantined and have been released.

Given that the vast majority of those infected with the virus – now considered a worldwide pandemic – experience only mild symptoms, and that testing capacity is still limited, health experts believe the number of people who have the virus is actually greater than what local lab facilities can confirm.

If the county waits until COVID-19 cases are confirmed, the potential exists for the number of cases to rapidly exceed local health care capacity, said Poloncarz and Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

Read the story: Why drastic measures are being taken without any confirmed COVID-19 cases in WNY


Buffalo cancels St. Patrick's Day parade

Both of Buffalo's St. Patrick's Day parades will be canceled, Mayor Byron W. Brown announced at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“This was a difficult decision for parade organizers," Brown said.

Read the story: It's official: St. Patrick's Day parades in Buffalo to be canceled


Rochester 'prepared for the worst'

A Rochester man who recently traveled to Italy became Monroe County's first case of the coronavirus disease.

Monroe County officials made the announcement of the positive test for COVID-19 on Wednesday night. At a Thursday morning news conference, officials said that Rochester's St. Patrick's Day parade had been canceled while encouraging that planned gatherings of more than 50 people be "reconsidered."

Read the story: Monroe County's first case of coronavirus is Rochester man who had traveled to Italy 


Nursing home visits suspended statewide

The governor's suspension Thursday of nursing home visits for an undetermined amount of time to protect elderly residents from the coronavirus was not sitting well with some nursing home residents.

"If they are sick, they should stay at home. But if they are not, then they should be allowed to come," said Gail Logan, 72, who has lived for six years at Safire Rehabilitation of Northtowns in the Town of Tonawanda.

"It's healthier to have visitors," she said Thursday after Cuomo's order.


Sheriff suspends visitations at jail

In-person visits by family and friends with inmates at the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility have been suspended as a precaution amid concerns about infection with the novel coronavirus, the Sheriff’s Office announced Thursday.

Attorneys will be the only ones allowed in-person visits with inmates, officials announced at an afternoon news conference.

Read the story: Other than attorney visits, in-person visitation suspended at Erie County jail facilities


Canisius to move classes online

Canisius College will teach classes remotely, close residence halls and cancel all college-sponsored events of more than 50 people amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19, President John J. Hurley announced Thursday in a letter to the campus community.

Hurley informed students and faculty that class lectures and instruction will move online beginning March 23, following spring break. Remote instruction will last until at least April 13, after the Easter break, but may continue until the end of the spring semester, Hurley said.

In addition, the president said all campus residence halls will close March 19 until at least April 13.

Read the story: Canisius to move classes online, close residence halls amid coronavirus concerns

Coronavirus outbreak coverage: Courts postpone some proceedings; Kenmore caterer gets creative

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