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COVID becomes a swelling political football, as restrictions continue

Mark Poloncarz and Stefan Mychajliw are at it again. This time, Poloncarz - the current Democratic County Executive and former County Comptroller - and Mychajliw - the current Republican County Comptroller - are at odds about fines levied against businesses for violating state COVID-19 health and safety mandates.

Mychajliw is backing opponents of the shutdown rules, particularly an Orchard Park gym owner facing a $15,000 fine for violating the rules. On Wednesday, the Comptroller announced a change in county policy, saying his office will now administer such fines instead of the Health Department. With that change came new payment plans that allow violators up to 100 years to pay a COVID-related fine. That essentially does away with the fines.

Later in the afternoon, Poloncarz told a briefing that is not in the Comptroller's job description.

"A very vocal minority is part of the reason why we see increases in regards to our cases and hospitalizations," Poloncarz said. "80-90% of the public is acting appropriately, but 10-20% are not. They're gathering in groups. They're not wearing masks. They're getting sick. We know there are people who don't like wearing masks who are getting sick and being hospitalized and, unfortunately, dying."

A new study from University at Buffalo scientists projected COVID cases may quadruple here if something isn’t done to persuade citizens to follow the new rules of the new reality. The numbers are shooting above the worst of the pandemic in its first wave in the spring.

Poloncarz said the fines collected help pay for PPE and contract tracers.

"All I can say is, he's more interested in trying to prove a political point than he is in protecting the public health," Poloncarz said of Mychajliw. "To all those out there who think this is about subjugation of rights, it's not. It's about protecting the public health, so we can get to a point where we have a vaccine, provide the vaccine to everyone in our community, so that we can cut down on further cases, hospitalizations and eventual deaths from COVID-19."

Credit Stefan Mychajliw, Twitter / Mike Desmond, WBFO News
Republican Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw (l) and Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz have been sparring over COVID-19 restrictions.

The County Executive and Comptroller have long been at sword’s point, particularly when it looked like Mychajliw would run against Poloncarz last year. However, as the pandemic lingers, there has been a rising tide of opposition to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo tightening COVID-related restrictions.

County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein told the briefing there is one way to stop COVID-19, but no one would like it.

"If the Governor were to place Erie County in some type of emergency stop, a PAUSE, where all non-essential businesses were shut down, just like we experienced over the spring, what we would see is, over the course of a couple of weeks, we would finally see a decrease in hospitalizations," Burstein said.

Burstein warned that cases could rise again from the upcoming Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, as they did from Thanksgiving.

Western New York would be in the state's "Red Zone" if Albany hadn’t shifted from cases to hospitalizations as its gauge for implementing more public health restrictions. Cases are are starting to cripple the hospital system and block other health care like elective surgeries.

“Today we received the official 'Directive to Postpone all Non-Essential Elective Procedures in Erie County' from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), which requires all hospitals in Erie County to postpone non-essential elective procedures until further notice," said Kaleida Health in a statement Wednesday. "Postponing these non-essential elective procedures are part of a multipronged approach to help flatten the curve, reduce hospitalizations and mitigate the second wave of COVID-19 in Western New York."

Kaleida also appealed for the community's help.

"While we are well prepared for dealing with this second wave, we still need the community’s help with the three W’s: wearing a mask, washing their hands and watching their distance," it said. "If, not for anything else, but to help protect the frontline healthcare workers who deal with COVID-19 every day.”

Kaleida said it is currently treating 172 COVID-19 cases at its four local facilities, including four cases at Oishei Children's Hospital and 27 cases in intensive care units.

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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