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While Williamsville urges mask compliance at businesses, 'free your face' protesters say Erie County businesses may see them maskless or not at all

Williamsville's Glen Park is pictured in the spring of 2021.
Emyle Watkins
Williamsville's Glen Park is pictured in the spring of 2021.

The Village of Williamsville is only 1.26 square miles. Five people on the town board represent the little over 5,000 people who live in village boundaries. According to the U.S. Census, at last count in 2012, there were just slightly over 1,000 businesses registered within the municipality. And last week, this rather small community known for its business corridor became the center of a debate over the mask mandate.

“In the wave of Mayor Rogers statements last week, many of our business owners and residents have applauded her statements, while just as many have expressed dismay," said Matthew Etu.

The village has no legislative authority to contravene county mandates because we do not have our own health department. So for those who share the mayor's view, feel free to come to the village and frequent our businesses and please comply with county mandates. For those who don't share our mayor's view, feel free to come to the village and patronize our village businesses and know that they are compliant with the mandates.
Matthew Etu, Deputy Mayor of Williamsville

Etu, the deputy mayor of the village, has spent the past week trying to emphasize that Mayor Deborah Rogers' statements were not reflective of the way the village is operating. Rogers had gone on a local radio station and shared her personal opinions, which are in opposition to the recent mask mandate.

“I want to be really clear our village businesses are compliant with the county mandates. Policy is not opinion and vice versa," said Etu.

Etu stressed that the mayor was expressing her opinions alone and that one member of the board's opinion is their right to express, but does not represent the board's perspective or the village's policy in regards to COVID.

"I have no objection to the mayor exercising her right to free speech, I have no objection to the mayor expressing her opinions on a topic. I just want everyone to understand that her voice is her voice, and not necessarily indicative of, you know, policy of five voices. But more importantly, I want to make it radiantly clear that on this particular topic, on this particular issue, there is nothing that the village board can do legislatively within our powers to alter in any way the mandates that come to us from the County Health Department, regardless of who falls where on what political spectrum," Etu said.

The situation opened up debate among locals over shops' compliance, with some individuals saying they’ll take their business elsewhere if shops do not comply, as they believe the mayor was suggesting. But there are also individuals who say that to avoid the mandate they’ll go to towns that refuse the mandate or counties that don’t have any mask mandate.

Erie County Department of Senior Services staff hand out frozen meals to older adults Nov. 15, 2021 at the Town of Tonawanda Senior Center.
Tom Dinki
Erie County Department of Senior Services staff, wearing masks, hands out frozen meals to older adults Nov. 15, 2021 at the Town of Tonawanda Senior Center.

Etu believes that taking business elsewhere to avoid the mandate only hurts small businesses.

“That only hurts our businesses. That doesn't hurt me. It doesn't hurt the county executive. It doesn't hurt Gale Burstein. The only people who suffer because of that opinion, because of that choice, are the businesses who lose the patronage," Etu said.

This week the county is seeing this debate play out in more than this small village. Several groups that consider themselves “pro-family” are openly protesting the mask mandate by not complying with it, including in schools and indoor public spaces on Friday.

“So this whole week is obviously to get any... yes, to get the legislators, whether county, whether state, but even local businesses to hear us, that we're done with this," said Jina Gentry.

Gentry, who is on the board of the constitutional coalition of New York State, said the protest has a few goals. She said they hope government and businesses will hear that they don’t want mandates and that they want the county to look at other options.

She feels they need more transparency from the government.

“Definitely, transparency and clarity is a goal, because then there's trust, and there's no trust right now in the government," Gentry said.

Students and parents protest masks outside the Williamsville school board meeting Tuesday
Nick Lippa | WBFO
Students and parents protest masks outside the Williamsville school board meeting earlier this year.

Gentry said she got involved because as a parent she chose not to vaccinate her children, even prior to the pandemic, due to her religious perspective. She pulled her kids out of school in 2019 after a bill was signed that would no longer allow religious exemptions to vaccines, which Gentry claimed on the grounds of being a born-again Christian. That exemption closed in part due to the worst measles outbreak the U.S. had seen in decades.

Gentry said if businesses comply with the mandate, some individuals will choose to go places where they don’t have to mask.

“We will take our money elsewhere. There are enough businesses right now that are hurting for people to come to them, because of what the government has done this past 20 months to destroy them," she said.

She was asked whether taking their money elsewhere would hurt Erie County businesses.

“It's happening, whether we suggested or not, I know plenty of people that are like, 'I'm just going to go to Niagara County, I'm going to go to Marilla, I'm going to support the places that support my freedoms.' And yeah, that might kill small businesses, but that's a direct result of what is coming down from our Erie County Executive," said Gentry.

Niagara County
Daniel Stapleton

The idea that Niagara or any other Western New York county that does not have a mask mandate is a place to go mask-free or is in support of anti-masking isn’t fundamentally accurate.

Niagara County Public Health Director Daniel Stapleton said they still expect people to follow CDC precautions, even if there isn’t a mandate.

“I do tell people, because this happened last year, if you recall, when we had different zones and clusters. And I tell people that back then — and I do today — that we expect people to follow the CDC recommendations, regardless of where they are, where they're from, where they live. These recommendations are for everyone. So we want to make sure people are wearing their masks, socially distancing, you know, not going to crowded areas. And above all, get vaccinated. And if you've already been vaccinated, get boosted," Stapleton said.

The reality is, Niagara County can’t impose a mandate, at least not in the way Erie County has. Erie County is under a state of emergency, allowing the county executive to have the power to issue the mandate without the legislature. In Niagara County, the legislature would have to act first before any mandate could be issued.

“I think it's important people realize that that policy decision level, that's at the local legislature level, but we still are fighting COVID. And one way, the main way, we're doing that is to recommend that people mask, but also the number one way is through all the vaccination clinics we're offering," Stapleton said.

Back in the Village of Williamsville, Etu said he agrees with the mayor about the necessity of local government to discuss a long-term COVID plan.

“There's been a lot of fluid decision making that has left ambiguity, vagueness. And leaves a vacuum for people to sort of fill in their own view on things," Etu said.

He believes a lot of angst has come from all the change.

“It's a marathon. It's not a sprint. But unfortunately, the community's endurance is wearing thin. I just, I have to reiterate that we need to focus our attentions and our issues with policymakers and not make the flashpoint the front door of a retailer," he said.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.