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Calls to open malls renew as Phase Four opens east of Buffalo

Phase Four of the New York State's gradual economic reopening strategy got underway Friday in three counties east of Buffalo. But plans to leave out some popular institutions have renewed complaints and calls to the Cuomo Administration to reconsider.

The state's Finger Lakes economic region, which includes Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming Counties, was among several regions given the go-ahead to enter Phase Four as of Friday. The five counties of the state's Western New York economic region (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara) were anticipating entry into Phase Four on Tuesday, June 30.

Movie theaters, gyms and shopping malls have been left on hold at the start of Phase Four, despite continued overall declines in coronavirus cases statewide through late Thursday.

The Cuomo Administration, which repeatedly has pushed the theme of "smart" reopening, points to other states where COVID-19 cases have surged amid reopening. The State of Texas halted further reopening Thursday amid a spike in new cases.

"We're going to get it right," Hochul said. "We're not going to succumb to the pressure just because people have loud voices. We understand and I understand exactly why they're doing what they're doing. They have to understand. We're not going to end up like the other states. We are not going backwards."

Nearly two weeks ago, as Western New York entered Phase Three of reopening, State Assemblymember Monica Wallace stood with owners of shops located within Walden Galleria and with leaders from the Town of Cheektowaga and its Chamber of Commerce to call for reopening of the Galleria. Wallace, on Thursday, renewed that call during an appearance in Lancaster.

"It is very frustrating and I would like to see it open. It is an economic driver for our community," Wallace said. "And I do believe that it can be done in a safe way. If I did not believe that, I would not be advocating for it. I don't want to do anything that's going to further infect our community. I understand that this is a very serious crisis that we're facing. But I think that we've seen if people use the appropriate precautions, and we do things like close the food court, closing every other stall in the bathroom, making sure they're sanitizing stations, all these things that are part of the Galleria mall's plan, that it can be done in a safe manner."

That strategy, Wallace added, also includes limiting admission into the Galleria to 50-percent capacity.

Among the concerns expressed by Governor Cuomo regarding malls is the air systems within such facilities. Critics of keeping malls closed say big box retailers have been allowed to operate. Hochul argues the difference between malls and the big box stores is that malls are a place where people intend to gather and socialize, while they go about their business at a Walmart or Target location and then leave.

She backs the governor's caution.

"People have to understand this virus has not taken a summer vacation. Just because we have this strong desire, it does not mean that every single activity is deemed safe at this moment," Hochul said. "It does not mean that there won't be decisions made sooner than later, that just because Phase Four is starting in some regions (Friday) and Western New York probably early next week.

"It doesn't mean that there won't be announcements forthcoming in the near future. Anyone who does not see their business or activity listed as a Phase Four first-day activity, don't give up hope. Decisions are being worked on right now to make sure that we do it in a smart way."

Hochul heads Western New York's "control room," which under Forward NY has evaluated and advised the governor of readiness to advance to a next level of reopening.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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