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Erie County creeps closer to its reopening day

Now we know what we need to do.

Better still, we know how to do it. What it will take is compliance and focus by the residents of Western New York and, from the government, money and organization. With those combined factors, this region may soon be able to begin the careful, staged process of reopening its economy and returning to something closer to normal. The question is whether everyone is prepared to play the part.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday set out seven criteria that each of the state’s 10 regions must meet before it can start to reopen, a process that, itself, will unfold in four phases.

No region of the state has achieved more than five of the seven criteria, although five of those regions have met the standards over which residents have the most control. Those criteria deal with rates of death from Covid-19, rates of hospitalization, and the percentage of beds available in hospitals generally and within their intensive care units.

Western New York meets three of the seven requirements: declining rate of Covid-19 deaths in hospitals; at least 30% of hospital beds open; and at least 30% of ICU beds open. The region falls short in two areas that every one of its residents can – and must – influence and in both of the criteria that fall squarely in the lap of government.

Those that lie within our own control are, first, to record a 14-day decline in the number of people in hospitals or, alternatively, to have fewer than 15 new hospitalizations over a three-day average. The area also must report fewer than two new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents on a three day average.

Cuomo rated five counties of Western New York – Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany – at high risk. While Erie County is the hardest hit of any of them, the safety of the other four could easily be undermined by conditions in Erie.

But there is hopeful news. Hospitalizations have again started to decline in Erie County and, with a rate of 2.2 new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, the county is tantalizingly close to the threshold of 2.0. Still, the county is far enough away from meeting those criteria that no one should expect the region to begin the process of reopening on May 15, the current expiration of the state’s “pause.” But Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz sees hope for the end of the month.

To a great extent, that is in our own control. It will depend on continued – and improving – compliance with the need for maintaining social distance, wearing masks when you can’t remain apart, regular hand-washing and all the other actions urged by health experts. It will require the protesters who adolescently push for fast reopening to acknowledge the personal obligations of living in a free society.

Beyond that, government is in the hot seat. It will take public money and effort to meet the monthly standard of 30 tests per 1,000 residents and to have at least 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents. That’s on Washington, Albany and the counties. And as the only government that can legally incur routine deficits, the federal government will have to play a large part in helping every community in the country to meet such requirements.

Once this region attains the state standards, it can begin reopening its economy, assuming it has made the necessary preparations. That four-phase process begins with construction, manufacturing/wholesale supply chain and certain retailers, though only with curbside pickup. It ends with arts, entertainment, recreation and education. In between, it will need to include continued monitoring to ensure that conditions don’t deteriorate in a way that renews the threat to public health.

Overhanging all of this is the possibility of a second wave of infections that, by some accounts, could be more dangerous than the first. That’s something to keep in mind as we move closer to meeting the standard for reopening. We can make it better or worse depending on how New Yorkers and Americans choose to meet the challenges ahead.

And, yes, it is a choice.

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