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WNY not yet ready

Friday Phase 1 more likely in other parts of state

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has officially given the green light to regions across New York state to reopen their economies during the coronavirus pandemic as the latest stay-at-home order expires Friday.

However, the probability of reopening the Western New York region — which includes Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegany, Erie and Niagara counties — is far more unclear. As of Monday, the region had met five of the seven criteria needed to begin opening some sectors of the economy, including office jobs and light manufacturing.

According to information released by Cuomo’s office and local health departments, the Western New York region has not met the required 14-day decline in hospitalizations or a three-day average of fewer than 15 new hospitalizations; nor has the region met the required 14-day decline in deaths or a three-day average of fewer than five deaths.

State Sen. George Borrello, who has vocally opposed including urban areas, in this case Buffalo, with regional data, again expressed frustration that Western New York might not be included in the earliest areas to get some employees back to work.

“I was very disappointed to learn that the entire Western New York REDC region will not be permitted to participate in the first phase of reopening following the expiration of NY on PAUSE on May 15,” said Borrello, R-Sunset Bay. “While infection rates in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties have consistently been among the lowest in the state throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our linkage with Erie County and its higher infection rates means that we don’t meet the metrics for reopening and our hurting, rural economies must remain shut down for at least another two weeks.

“Once again, we are seeing the damage inflicted by choosing a one-size-fits-all approach over a more flexible strategy that would address the reopening of counties with urban centers independently from the rest of the REDC zone. That was the approach of the Restarting New York plan that I introduced with my colleague, Andy Goodell, and the one that makes the most sense for regions like ours. Every passing day that we remain closed, the economic pain of our communities intensifies and the harder the climb back up will be, for both our residents and our businesses,” Borrello said.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz did not rule out the possibility the local region could meet the necessary criteria by the end of the week. “I don’t know if we’re going to get there yet,” Poloncarz said during his daily press briefing. “It seems a little tight, but we may. No matter what I do believe we would open by June 1.”

He said it is possible the region could begin to reopen between Friday and June 1.

“We are working very hard to reopen this community as quickly as possible,” said Poloncarz, noting that he recently spoke to other members of the Regional Control Group, which includes Jamestown Mayor Eddie Sundquist. “The thing that is out of our control are the hospitalizations and deaths at hospitals.”

Elsewhere, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was a guest speaker Monday for a meeting of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce and Manufacturers Association of the Southern Tier. Hochul, a resident of Erie County and tasked to lead to local reopening effort, stated in response to the notion that the county is ready to be open, “There is a lot of synergy between neighboring counties. It’s hard to say that one county is in isolation.”

She further stated that she had visited the county this past week to pick up food from Aunt Millie’s in Silver Creek and that many people frequent between each county.

In response to a question posed about churches, she said, “I have had clergy calls, it’s been very hard on them. A lot of milestones come from religious services. They should be talking about how they can separate people in spacing and sanitizing the pews and sanctuaries. At the entrances they should have plenty of soap and sanitizer.”

The Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services reported one new case of the coronavirus, bringing the total to 43. The new case involves a woman in her 80s.

To date there remains seven active cases, 32 recoveries, four deaths and 102 county residents either in quarantine or isolation. Of the tests administered for COVID-19, 1,358 have come back negative.

The Cattaraugus County Department of Health recorded its 49th case of the virus, a man who resides in the southwest part of the county.

In other parts of the state, the Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes have met all seven benchmarks for opening some business activity and need to work out some logistical details by the end of the week, Cuomo said. The North Country, which includes Essex County, is close behind.

Gears have been turning around upstate New York in anticipation of regional re-openings, especially since Cuomo provided a blueprint a week ago. County governments have been reassigning employees to new jobs retracing the steps of infected people. Businesses have been stocking up on hand sanitizer, reconfiguring office seating and planning to bring back furloughed employees.

Though the lockdown was enacted statewide March 22, Cuomo has divided the state into 10 regions that will move at different times to re-open. New York’s regional re-openings would follow other states that have already relaxed restrictions.

No region can open until it meets seven conditions. COVID-19-related deaths and hospitalizations must be low or trending down and there must be enough hospital beds to meet a surge. Counties must beef up testing and contact tracing. And the governor said employers will need to protect workers, meaning they may need to require masks or adjust workplace hours.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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