Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said there's a chance the region could reopen this weekend or the following week in light of the progress made in meeting the state's seven metrics for a phased reopening.
"We're going to continue to work hard to open as quickly as possible," he said. "Some regions, it appears, may open May 15, which is Friday. I don't know if we're going to get there yet. It seems a little, a little tight, but we may."
Erie County and four neighboring counties – Niagara, Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties – will be considered for reopening as a regional group. The five counties, as a group, meet five of the seven metrics, according to county and state officials.
Last week Erie County met only three.
Poloncarz reasserted his belief the region can begin the reopening process no later than June 1, preferably sooner. If the county fails to meet all seven criteria this week but meets it by next week, there's nothing preventing the region from opening then, he said.
The biggest barrier to reopening is the region's failure to meet two requirements related to Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
"It all depends on those hospitalization numbers and what we can do to reduce them," Poloncarz said.
To start reopening, a region must show a 14-day decline in hospitalizations or a three-day average of fewer than 15 new hospitalizations. A region must also show a 14-day decline in hospital deaths, or a three-day average of fewer than five deaths.
Currently, the Western New York region does not meet either of those requirements. It's hard to know exactly where the county stands because the state has not released any updated Covid-19 hospitalization data to Erie County for most of last week.
Poloncarz and Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein expressed frustration about the lack of data – which the state has but hasn't shared – because it makes it impossible to know where Erie County falls on the hospitalization trend line.
"They advise that they're having some technical difficulties, and we should expect to have access to it soon," Burstein said.
The state has had a longstanding practice of refusing to release Covid-19 hospitalization data to the news media, though county officials have been able to access it, as long as they agree to limit who they share it with.
Now, Erie County has been forced to ask area hospital systems for the information.
"I'm not happy about this situation, because it matters in so many different ways for our metrics for reopening," Poloncarz said.
The county is also awaiting updated Covid-19 death data from the state. As of Monday evening, the county reported a total of 387 deaths.
Based on some incomplete data the county received regarding hospitalizations on Thursday and Sunday, Erie County's overall Covid-19 hospitalizations appear to be falling. But the county has no other detailed data beyond what the state's online regional tracker shows, which is basically the word "no" under the hospitalization metric for Western New York.
The region met five other criteria: limited new Covid-19 hospitalizations, sufficient hospital and intensive care bed capacity, conducting at least 30 diagnostic tests for every 1,000 residents, and meeting elevated state requirements for contact tracers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "pause" order remains in effect through Friday. A phased reopening process, to be managed by "control groups" in each of 10 regions, may begin Saturday.
They will be required to track circumstances daily and carefully pace the reopening process, Cuomo said. The Western New York control group, led by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, includes 11 individuals, most of whom are county executives and mayors, as well as state and labor representatives.
Officials must be able to see the impact of reopening in real time and be in a position to respond if any of the seven metrics for reopening start exceeding state thresholds, the governor said.
"You have to be able to pull the plug or slow down the increase in activity," Cuomo said.
State officials have posted the status of each region online with updates promised daily.
Western New York was one of four regions that has failed to meet two of the seven reopening criteria as of Monday. Of New York's 10 regions, only one – New York City – met fewer criteria.
If the region is allowed to reopen, not everything will suddenly open for business.
Reopening will occur in four phases, with the first phase allowing for reopening only construction, manufacturing, the wholesale trade, agriculture and forestry, and retail locations using curbside pickup only.
The first reopening phase would be followed by later phases spaced two weeks apart. Later phases would allow things like professional services, retail, restaurants, entertainment and schools to reopen.
"Businesses have to do their part also," Cuomo said. "This is not a one-sided affair. Businesses have to put safety precautions in place."
It will fall to local governments to ensure those safety precautions, are being enforced, Cuomo said.
Poloncarz mentioned the drive-by protests at his house on Saturday that involved people honking horns, waving signs and shouting messages for about an hour about the need to reopen the economy. Poloncarz said he was not home at that time.
"If you have a problem, and you dislike something I've done, you can protest me," he said. "Protest me here in the Rath Building. Come here. Leave my neighbors out of it."
Watch Poloncarz's Monday press briefing here:
Watch Cuomo's Monday press briefing here: