Niagara County on Sunday joined the list of counties declaring states of emergency and closing schools until further notice.
The announcements, made Sunday afternoon by County Legislature Chairwoman Rebecca J. Wydysh, came even though Niagara County still has no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus.
Twelve people are quarantined at home, but none have shown any symptoms of the disease, county Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton said.
"We're not waiting for a positive case to dictate what we do," Stapleton said at a news conference in Lockport. "We are operating as if this coronavirus is already here in Niagara County."
"We talk about things like washing your hands. Not exciting, but the number one way to prevent the spread of disease when you have no vaccine available," Stapleton said. "All of you can do that every single day, whether we have an outbreak or not."
Wydysh said the decision to close the schools was made by the superintendents of the individual districts on Stapleton's recommendation. The situation will be re-examined weekly, Wydysh said.
"We had to wait for the county to make this declaration (of the state of emergency)," said Clark Godshall, superintendent of the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Godshall said individual districts will post information on maintaining food service, medication return and class assignments. Wydysh said it would also be up to individual schools to decide what staff would have to report.
The health director warned parents and students not to act in ways that might spread the virus during the time off.
"This isn't Easter vacation. Don't go to the mall," Stapleton said. "The number one way to stop spread of disease, other than those hygienic things I mentioned, is keeping away from others. Don't wait until you have symptoms to keep people six feet away from you. You should be doing that right now.
"Parents, do not expect this is a playdate opportunity for your children. That's not what this is all about," Stapleton continued. "We want to make sure people stay at home, only go out when they absolutely necessarily have to, but do not have playdates."
"At this time it is not our intention to close county buildings, as we do provide necessary services to our residents," Wydysh said. But she urged county residents to "use good common sense" in deciding whether to come to a public building.
"Many of our services can be completed by a phone call or through mail, and we ask you to do that whenever possible," Wydysh said. "We also ask you to do that in other areas of your life. Take precautions where you can."
The chairwoman also said the county is looking for sites to use in case mass quarantines become necessary.
"We do have a few different options that we are exploring. There have been no contracts that have been signed as of yet, but that is certainly something that we know at some point we will likely need," Wydysh said. She declined to give specifics on locations.
Acting Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti said in-person visits to the County Jail have been banned, and the county will reduce the charge to inmates for phone calls, starting Tuesday.
"I don't need COVID-19 in the correctional facility," Filicetti said.
"We all need to do these things to reduce the spread," Stapleton said. "We deal with this every day. Count on your local health department to make sure you and your family are safe. We're not new to this, so count on us to make sure everything is taken care of. We're on top of this."
Wydysh said residents who want information should check with official sources, not social media, which she called "a way to spread misinformation and panic."