Mandatory mask-wearing is back in Erie County's restaurants, gyms and other public places, and the county executive is considering much more restrictive measures if Covid-19 hospitalizations increase.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced Monday that all patrons and public-facing workers must wear face masks at indoor public places, effective at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
He said the order will be re-evaluated on Dec. 13, but Poloncarz warned that if the situation continues to worsen, he could impose tougher rules even before then.
Those would include requiring customers of businesses to prove they have been vaccinated before entering a restaurant, bar or entertainment venue.
Steps beyond that would be a return to capacity restrictions, followed by the last resort – lockdowns.
The indoor masking requirement is considered Phase 1 of a four-phase restrictions and shutdown plan if Covid cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.
Poloncarz said the state of emergency never was lifted in the county, so he still has the authority to order these steps.
As of Saturday, 91% of all hospital beds in Erie County and 87% of intensive care beds were occupied.
"Case rates are important, but they're not the defining factor. The issues associated with hospitals are the defining factor," Poloncarz said during a virtual news conference.
But he set no firm numerical goals for any statistic that would allow the mask rule to be lifted. Nor did he set a number that would trigger harsher steps.
"It's going to be dependent on a bunch of variables," he said. "I don't want to say there's one specific thing that's a threshold that says, 'Aha, we go to Phase 2.' Now if, in the next five days, we see tremendous increases in hospitalizations as well as new cases, we theoretically could go to Phase 2 sooner than Dec. 13. But we want to give it enough time to analyze what's being done, assuming the public follows and wears a mask."
If the numbers he's worried about decrease soon, Poloncarz said, "At that point, we'd have to question whether we should have the mask mandate."
The public does not have to wear masks inside venues that have strict vaccine requirements for entrance, such as Highmark Stadium and KeyBank Center, according to the county Health Department.
Joe Jerge, owner of Mulberry's Italian Ristorante, said in an interview that he and the owners of three other well-known restaurants met with Poloncarz Sunday at Ilio DiPaolo's Restaurant in Blasdell, and talked Poloncarz out of tougher restrictions – for now.
"At this particular time if they shut us down again, it would probably spell the end for a lot of places," Jerge said.
The vaccination mandate is already in effect in New York City restaurants and bars, but Jerge said he didn't want to place his workers in the position of enforcing it here.
"Quite honestly, to put the onus of enforcing that type of thing on the restaurant owners, to me, is unfair," Jerge said. "He listened to us and his staff listened to us, so they're going to do the mask mandate, which we are all in full support of."
He noted that the Buffalo Bills have the aid of police to enforce the vaccination mandate at Highmark Stadium, but restaurants wouldn't have that.
"We explained that with the problems we have hiring people and the problems we have with help, to hire additional people – we have multiple points of entry – would be practically impossible at this point," Jerge said.
Hochul, business group approves
The Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the county's most prominent business organization, discussed the situation with Poloncarz and supports his action, President and CEO Dottie Gallagher said.
"We support them taking an action that will mitigate any chance of lockdowns or reductions in capacity or other things that would be economically disadvantaging local businesses. If this is what's needed to be done, then we support it for sure," Gallagher said.
"What we're trying to avoid as a community is reductions in capacity. That's what will mess up a restaurant, that's what will mess up a store during this very critical time of the year," Gallagher said. "We support anything that will keep stores open, keep restaurants open, and wearing masks will not slow down the economy in the way that shutting down or reducing capacity would."
Shortly after Poloncarz's announcement, Seneca Gaming Corporation said it would institute a face mask requirement for all guests and staff – regardless of vaccination status – at its three casinos in Western New York, effective 6 a.m. Tuesday.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, whom Poloncarz said has empowered local governments to take steps they deem necessary to control Covid, chimed in with a statement of support.
"This is an example of the leadership we need to see at the local level to combat this deadly virus," Hochul said. "As part of our ongoing engagement with local leaders, I spoke with county executives yesterday from every region of the state to hear firsthand their plans to combat the Delta variant and pledge state resources and support to make vaccines and boosters even more widely available as we approach the holiday season."
Niagara County: No mandate
However, Niagara County has no plans to follow Poloncarz's lead.
“While we are certainly concerned about rising Covid-19 numbers in Niagara County, we are not implementing any mandates at this time," County Legislature Chairwoman Rebecca J. Wydysh said.
"First, unlike Erie County, Niagara County is not under a state of emergency and has not been for months. This means any decision on new Covid-19 restrictions would require a vote by the Legislature in consultation with our director of public health. I can say safely say that at this time, a majority of the Legislature does not support any such mandates," Wydysh said. "We believe businesses, employers and other institutions across Niagara County should implement the safety protocols that make sense for their particular operations."
Outgoing Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw, always among Poloncarz's harshest critics, issued a statement claiming that the county executive's goal is "exerting control over taxpayers."
"My message to businesses, bars, restaurants, barbershops, and places of worship: do not comply," Mychajliw said. "If you have a brain and common sense, exercise your freedoms and good judgment whether you want to wear a mask."
Jerge noted that the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program is a thing of the past.
"There's no PPP to bail us out this time. It's every man for himself now," Jerge said.
He and the others were glad that they had a chance to meet with Poloncarz.
"We have somebody in a leadership role who's trying to avoid hurting us. I praise him for that highly," Jerge said.
Poloncarz: Hospitalizations rising
"The medical profession was pleading with us to do something," Poloncarz said.
According to Poloncarz's Monday morning Twitter update, 249 Covid patients were hospitalized in Erie County as of Saturday, which was an increase of 19 from Friday. Two weeks ago, the figure was 168.
"We really need to keep the hospitals from being inundated," Poloncarz said. "We could hit 300 patients by Dec. 1. That's very scary."
Of those hospitalized, Poloncarz said 57% were unvaccinated, which means 43% were in the hospital despite having been vaccinated. There were 50 Covid patients in Erie County intensive care units Saturday, 32 of whom never were vaccinated.
In the ICUs, 31 people were on breathing tubes, and 19 of those were unvaccinated.
"If you're unvaccinated, you're really taking a chance," Poloncarz said.
The county's positivity rate was 9.3% on Sunday, with 361 new cases, the county executive said. On Saturday, the total was 672 cases, with an 8.95% rate of positive tests.
"People can be infected anywhere. We don't know where people are getting infected," said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner. "You can be infected anywhere where you're not wearing a mask and the person you're with is not wearing a mask."
Poloncarz said it's become clear that Covid is being transmitted in schools, although he said most of the cases seem to have been "caught outside the school setting." For the week of Nov. 7-13, 918 students and 178 staffers became infected in the county, the highest ever.
"We are seeing transmission in school activities and we know there's a number of classrooms that are closed in various schools across Erie County – not entire schools, but classrooms – as a result of what appears to be in-classroom transmission with a number of students who are testing positive," Poloncarz said. "We've know we've heard often, 'You can't get Covid-19 in schools.' We know that is not true. People have caught it. It is a safe environment if masks are worn at all times. It doesn't happen sometimes in all situations, so we're seeing case rates increasing in schools."
According to state Health Department figures, 391 people were hospitalized with the virus in Western New York on Saturday – 77 of them in intensive care. That was the highest figure since Feb. 1 for the region, which covers Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.