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Protest shows frustrations are mounting, but expert says pandemic is far from over

About 150 vehicles Monday circled Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo with protesters demanding Gov. Andrew Cuomo reopen the state, but a specialist in infectious diseases said now is not the time to ease up on social distancing.

“People are tired of being inside. Their lives have been turned upside down. We all feel that way,” said Dr. Thomas A. Russo, a professor of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo Jacob School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “We’re not even close to seeing the end of this."

Without widespread testing or an effective vaccine, public health measures like social distancing, washing your hands and wearing masks are the ways to fight the virus, public health experts say.

Protesters in their cars honked and called for an end to Cuomo’s order that people stay home and businesses and schools shut down. Many displayed anti-Cuomo signs and waved American flags. Several had banners in support of President Trump.

Lou McDonald, from Blasdell, wore a mask inside his pickup.

“I want New York to open,” McDonald said.

Buffalo developer and former gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino stood in the middle of Niagara Square with a bullhorn and a mask around his neck.

“These are Americans,” he said of the circling protesters. “They’ve got a right to do this.”

McCoy-Local-Covid-19-'Gridlock Buffalo-2020

Lona DeNisco, a nurse at Erie County Medical Center, went to the "Gridlock Buffalo" demonstration to support her fellow health care workers on Monday, April 20, 2020. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Paladino said he’s had to close five of his 10 hotels and lay off 451 workers since the pandemic. He said businesses should be trusted to enforce their own social distancing rules.

A handful of counter-demonstrators showed up, including Lona DeNisco, an emergency room nurse at Erie County Medical Center. Wearing a mask and her scrubs, she held a sign that said, “Your home or hospital or your grave.”

She said she was inspired to show up Monday after seeing nurses in Denver stand in front of vehicles in a similar demonstration there.

“People are dying,” DeNisco said. “There are nurses risking their lives. We are risking our lives.”

No arrests were made and or tickets issued, said Buffalo Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo in a news conference outside Police Headquarters. He estimated drivers of about 150 vehicles participated in the demonstration.

“I understand people’s frustrations. I understand people are out of work. I understand the fear and anxiety. I understand people have the right to demonstrate,” Rinaldo said. “However, during this time period when we’re all standing here wearing masks and all the precautions the officers have to take each and every day – and everybody else – it diverted resources from patrol and fire to be on hand to be on standby. We would ask people to not engage in this activity right now. There’s other ways of being heard other than a physical demonstration.”

More than a dozen police officers were diverted from other tasks to deal with security.

Some people, including Cuomo, have raised the possibility of lifting some restrictions in parts of the state less impacted by the pandemic.

But, Russo and other health experts say, social distancing must continue in order to slow the spread of the virus.

“The rules are going to be the same for everyone,” Russo said. “No area is spared. Even rural areas.”

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