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Chautauqua County says it's ready to reopen, but strapped with criteria for entire WNY region

Erie and Chautauqua counties
A Tale of Two Counties: There is a stark difference in coronavirus cases in Erie (l) and Chautauqua counties, but the state requires both to meet its criteria for the Western New York region before either can re-open.

Western New York is inching closer to starting the reopening process under the state's seven criteria for starting up. The statewide lockdown order, also called PAUSE, is set to expire May 15.

It's very complicated because some regions of the state have had relatively few COVID-19 cases while the metro New York City area has had tens of thousands of cases and Western New York has had several thousand.

New York is expected to allow each region of the state to reopen on its own schedule, depending on that area’s experience with COVID-19. Regions less affected by the disease will be allowed to reopen business sooner than others in a series of phases. The state's system is based on a downward slide in cases and deaths -- more than just flattening the curve.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said she had a virtual meeting Sunday with the members of the council from Western New York advising the governor. Hochul said it depends on public reaction.

"That all comes down to something we can't control," she said. "Elected officials can't control that. That is up to whether or not individuals, members of society, our constituents, residents, whether or not they are going to continue adhering to the social distancing guidelines, whether they are staying away from each other. I know it's very hard on Mother's Day. It is painful not to see our parents, our grandparents, give them all a hug as we are so used to doing. Not this year."

If the rate starts to rise, New York has to have enough coronavirus test kits to track the cases. Hochul said that has been a persistent problem, but it has been resolved.

"We've met that metric. We had to have a certain number of tests done between the five counties. We have achieved the number we need to. The testing will continue," Hochul said. "We want to make sure that as people start entering the workplace over the next few weeks that they are going to have the opportunity to test in the workplace if anyone shows symptoms when they show up for work. It's also important to keep that rate of transmission down. Testing was important. We had to hit a benchmark to have a certain number of tests."

She said the remaining benchmark for Western New York is that it needs to hire more contact tracers and lower the hospitalization and death rates.

Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel is a member of that advisory council, comprised of public and private officials. Wendel said his county is ready to reopen as the tourist season opens. The largest attraction, the Chautauqua Institution, is going virtual this year.

Wendel said his county has a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and enough contact tracers to fight a future expansion.

"It's challenging when you look at our numbers, compared to Erie and Niagara," he said. "The numbers, understood correctly, we're 1/10th of Niagara County and 1/100th of Erie County. So it's challenging to be with them (as a region). The lieutenant governor and Mark Poloncarz have been very open and understanding in listening to our concerns. We're working together as a group."

Another difference for Chautauqua County is that it has to compete with Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"We border Pennsylvania on two sides. Pennsylvania has opened. They started Friday. A lot of people have left Chautauqua County to shop in Pennsylvania and Ohio starts opening tomorrow. It's an hour from Jamestown to Ashtabula. You're in Cleveland in two hours," Wendel said.

Wendel said he has people on the county payroll who can do the contact tracing so essential to suppress surges of the coronavirus. He said these are people who conduct investigations as their regular jobs.

"They're trained. They're experienced. They've done this before. Not exactly, maybe, contact tracing, but they've done investigations," Wendel said. "They understand state protocols and they are county employees, so it's not having to retrain people. If you look at the ads that are out there for the Bloomberg group that's going to help, it's 18 years old and high school diploma. Our people are very well experienced."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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