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Hopes for reopening depend on residents doing better at keeping a social distance

You can feel the itching begin. Temperatures are warming, flower are bursting and it’s time to go outside. More than that, it’s time to be normal.

Except it isn’t.

The temptation is great. We’re hearing that certain companies in certain parts of New York may soon be able resume business. We hear that Erie County may have reached a plateau – and then that it hasn’t. Signals are confused and inconsistent, enough to recognize that, in Western New York, they don’t add up to any kind of all-clear signal. We’re not done with this.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday announced that New York’s schools would remain closed for the rest of this school year, though summer classes remain a possibility. But he has also said that schools and businesses need to reopen at the same time. That doesn’t sound optimistic.

Beyond that, the possible opening of businesses depends on the kind of business and the health of different sectors of the state. Covid-19 has hit Western New York harder than any other region north of the downstate area and for whatever reason – too many people refusing to comply with social distancing rules is surely one – Erie County’s infections aren’t declining. The county is “heading in the wrong direction,” County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz wrote this week as the number of hospitalizations for Covid-19 hit a new high.

And, in any case, a plateau is just that – a leveling off. It may or may not mark a peak and even if it does, that only means that conditions are moving in the right direction. But if two weeks from now they’re about the same as they were two weeks ago, the need for caution – meaning social distancing and all the rest – is no less essential.

Other factors are at play. On Tuesday, the nation passed the 1 million mark in confirmed cases of Covid-19. That’s concerning, even if different areas of the country may be past their peak. Worse, the number is assuredly low. Because of a lack of sufficient testing, the actual number of cases is believed to be far higher. Greater testing is needed to know how bad conditions are in each part of the state and also to help plan their eventual reopening.

Also Wednesday, U.S. deaths from the virus passed 60,000. While that’s roughly equal to the higher end of estimated deaths from the flu this season, the grim number was reached more than three months before the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation had projected. Again, experts think many more people have died from Covid-19, believed to be far more lethal than seasonal flu.

As a global issue, the pandemic is far from over, the World Health Organization said this week. It certainly isn’t over in Buffalo, where infections been rising and a father, now recovered, only weeks ago was confined to a hospital and at risk of death from Covid-19.

Jeff Shepherd is only 36. He’s a husband and father of twin 7-year-old sons and a 3-year-old daughter. His experience is worth absorbing, especially for those irresponsibly agitating to end the shutdown.

“I know I am one of the lucky ones,” Shepard told The News. “But there were times when I was delirious, scared and worried I would never see my family again. There were times when I was struggling to breathe, and it took every bit of strength and concentration I had just to get out of bed and walk three steps to use the bathroom.”

Whenever Erie County turns a corner on this, it will be a slow turn, and even then, it will be onto another long road. There is a possibility – maybe a likelihood – of a second wave of infections. That could overwhelm intensive care units here if people aren’t taking the necessary steps to minimize transmission, according to a new study by the University at Buffalo.

That’s why residents need to continue to practice social distancing – and wear masks when they’re out and can’t keep distance. Shepard practically pleaded for Western New Yorkers to take that responsibility seriously.

“People want their lives to return to normal, and I totally understand that,” he told The News. “But I want everyone, including people my age, to know that anything can happen. Be careful. Take this virus seriously. Don’t put more health care workers at risk by getting sick.”

If Western New York is to have any hope of reopening in the next month or two, we need to do better. People who aren’t demonstrating any concern for their families, friends, neighbors and, yes, strangers need to start. We’re all for individuality but, sometimes, the greater good is also what best of any one of us.

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