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Most of Erie County now in 'orange zone' after all-time Covid-19 highs

Most of Erie County now in 'orange zone' after all-time Covid-19 highs

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Covid Testing Lines

A sign tells customers information they need to get tested outside the CVS on Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. 

Say goodbye to your gym for now.

Plan for only outdoor dining or takeout from your favorite restaurant.

And prepare for your kids to be home all day long.

New York State designated most of Erie County an "orange zone" Wednesday, as had been feared as the region's rate of positive cases of Covid-19 shot up from 400 new cases a week to more than 400 every day in the span of two weeks.

The state put the rest of Erie County on the more precautionary "yellow," and did the same for North Tonawanda and part of Wheatfield, the first time any Niagara County communities were categorized in a danger zone.

The designations come amid worries that Thanksgiving gatherings would spread Covid-19 even more.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo admonished the Western New York region for posting the state's highest rate of positive cases – 5.1% – calling it "the worst situation in the State of New York."

Cuomo said he believes Western New Yorkers didn't think they'd see the kind of infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths like New York City experienced last spring, a sentiment he reiterated on a radio interview.

"I just don't think they thought it could ever happen there to the same extent (as NYC)," Cuomo said on WAMC radio.

The color-coded zones are part of the state's microcluster strategy, designed to target hot zones while avoiding more sweeping regulations like the state's "pause" this spring that shuttered all nonessential businesses and schools.

Here are the rules for an orange zone:

• "High-risk" nonessential businesses must close. That would include gyms and personal-care businesses.

• All schools must switch to remote-only, although they can test out.

• Restaurants can serve patrons outdoors but only with a four-person maximum per table. Takeout and delivery can continue.

• Gatherings are limited to 10 people.

• Houses of worship can be open at 33% capacity or a maximum of 25 people.

Much of Erie County had been put on yellow on Nov. 9, which limited occupancy at houses of worship to 50%, limited gatherings to 25 people, limited dining to tables of four and required weekly Covid tests at schools. But two days later, Cuomo imposed new statewide rules that limited gatherings to 10 and forced bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m.

The new yellow and orange zones go into effect on Friday for businesses and Monday for schools, said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz in a news conference held after Cuomo's announcement.

"We had hoped this wouldn't happen. But it has. Now we have to address it," Poloncarz said. "None of us want to do it. This is not about politics. It's about saving people's lives. I know we're going to lose more people over the next days and weeks. We need to reduce that number to the lowest level possible."

Cuomo said Wednesday that he expects that even with the new restrictions there will be a dramatic increase in Covid cases across the state after the Thanksgiving holiday.

"No, you won't be safe, it's an illusion," he said of people who don't think they're at risk of catching the virus from relatives visiting for the holiday. "I hear it with my own family."

"My advice for Thanksgiving? Don't be a turkey," he said.

Under New York state's new "microcluster strategy," orange zone hot spots would have to adhere to the following restrictions.

National perspective

While criticizing the rising rates in Western New York and the state in general, Cuomo contrasted New York with the rest of the country. The state has the fourth-lowest statewide daily positivity rate at 2.8%. He compared that to South Dakota, which has a positive rate of 56%, Iowa at 51% and Kansas at almost 44%.

New York’s test positive rate, or the share of tests that come back positive, was the fourth lowest in the nation on Tuesday, according to Covid Exit Strategy, a national collaborative of public health experts. If Western New York were a state, its seven-day positive rate – 4.9% as of Nov. 16 – would tie New Hampshire for seventh lowest.

The state also performs relatively well on several other measures of Covid-19 spread. New York currently averages 240 new daily cases per million people – the country’s 10th lowest – compared with 404 per million in neighboring New Jersey and 411 per million in Pennsylvania. Of more than 300 counties in the Northeast tracked by The Buffalo News, Erie County currently ranks 182nd in terms of its average new daily cases per 100,000 people.

But in the past two weeks, New York’s positive case count has also increased more than most states in the country, on a percentage basis, ranking seventh from the top. Western New York drove much of that growth, reporting a 200% increase in average new cases and a 70% increase in hospitalizations.

While those hospitalization figures may look trivial by comparison to hot spots like South Dakota, where 658 patients are now hospitalized with Covid-19 for every 1 million residents, public health officials say they expect them to surge in the coming weeks, particularly after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Erie County

The new designations came as the pandemic continued to change Western New Yorkers' lives in big and small ways.

Suburban school districts in the orange zone have begun announcing their plans to go fully remote next week.

Erie County Medical Center announced Wednesday that it will no longer allow visitors.

The Canadian news network CBC announced that the U.S.-Canada border was expected to remain closed to nonessential travel for another month.

And the Section VI Athletic Council on Wednesday voted to move the start date of low- and moderate-risk winter sports from Nov. 30 to Dec. 14.

Erie County saw an additional 516 positive cases through Wednesday, and Poloncarz reported that 12 county residents have died since he last reported comprehensive death numbers on Monday.

Meanwhile, hospitalizations have continued to rise for the seventh day in a row to 150 patients, half of whom are under the age of 65.

"This is not just older people coming from senior homes that are actually going to the hospital," he said.

Cuomo singled out five communities during his press conference for their high positivity rates:

• Hamburg, 9.78%

• Lancaster, 9.42%

• Orchard Park, 7.51%

• Buffalo, 7.3%

• Tonawanda, 6.84%

Though the governor focused on these five communities, Poloncarz said he and state officials felt it best for a larger area to move into the orange zone to minimize confusion and address overall community spread.

Poloncarz clarified that the county's virtual learning centers are still open and unaffected by the orange zone designation. That means a child care center opened specifically for the purposes of enabling a student to attend school virtually can continue operating.

Every school district has a virtual learning center. The centers are currently about 60% full, he said.

He urged people, once again, to not gather with anyone outside their immediate households for Thanksgiving.

"I'm hopeful we don't go to the red zone, because remember, the red is basically a complete shutdown," he said.

News Staff Reporters Sandra Tan and Caitlin Dewey contributed to this report.

Maki Becker

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Chief of the Breaking News/Criminal Justice Desk

I've worked at The Buffalo News since 2005. I previously worked as a reporter at the New York Daily News and the Charlotte Observer and was a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

News Staff Reporter

Long Island native, University at Buffalo graduate, part of the breaking news and criminal justice team for two years. Hired by The News in 1999, I covered high school sports for 15 years before being named deputy sports editor.

Caitlin is an enterprise reporter at The Buffalo News, covering stories about how Western New York is changing. A Buffalo native, she spent six years reporting for the finance and style desks at the Washington Post before returning home in 2018.

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