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Sports, schools and restaurants highlight Erie County COVID briefing

Nick Lippa

Numerous subjects were discussed at Erie County’s weekly COVID-19 update. The numbers continue to remain low across the board, but Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein warns most people are still susceptible to COVID-19.

“Many Erie County residents have not been exposed to COVID-19 and do not have any type of antibodies, which we're hoping will lead to some type of protective immunity,” Burstein said. “But still, most Erie County residents are susceptible.“

Only 5.5% of the almost 2000 Erie County residents that were tested last week tested positive for antibodies. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz also addressed testing for school districts once school is in session. He said it would be no different than if we had an outbreak and a church.

“If we feel that we need to do an advanced clinic, we would work with New York State and that's what was done in the church,” Poloncarz said. “We worked with New York State to provide that pop up clinic where our department of health staff actually administered the test. But the tests were performed and analyzed by New York State at its lab in Albany. So if we had to do it, that we would, there's going to be additional requirements.”

Poloncarz said despite being asked what the Erie County is going to do, they don’t get to make the decision on schools reopening. That would fall on New York State Education Department in consultation with the school district.

Burstein added the Department of Health can’t be the testing agency for every school.

A large portion of Wednesday’s conference discussion was about sports, including Major League Baseball.

It’s no secret there’s excitement around the Toronto Blue Jays playing in Buffalo. But after 21 Miami Marlins members tested positive for COVID just over a week ago, Erie County officials expressed concern.

The Marlins will be the first visiting team to visit Buffalo August 11. Burstein stated last week the risks of the situation could outweigh the benefits. But Wednesday, she said Major League Baseball reassured many of their concerns via a conference call.

“Players will be quarantined in a hotel so that they're not going to hang out in the bar,” she said. “They really have to stay in their rooms, except if they have special communal meals just for the team. However, the exposure to the community will be minimal.”

Erie County’s positive testing rate for COVID currently is higher than the MLB’s. Poloncarz said they were assured players are now taking the matter much more seriously.

“They're worried even though we have very low testing rates here. They're worried about their own players coming in contact with members of our general public, where our testing rates over 1%. And their testing rates are .1%. So of all the people that are tested-- the players, the managers, the coaches, the bat boys, the ball boys, everybody that's involved, they actually have a better testing rate than we do locally,” he said. “And we have one of the best testing rates in the country.”  

The Miami Marlins returned to action this past Tuesday after missing a week’s worth of games. For now, officials are still on board for baseball in Buffalo this summer.

“I we feel confident based on that conversation that we can do this and safely protect the public and at the same time, safely protect their players from the public,” Poloncarz said.

Restaurants and bars fighting violations has additionally been a hot topic this past week in the Erie County Legislature.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Erie County has investigated over 2,000 complaints when it comes to restaurants and bars.

In an effort to better inform local eateries, Burstein announced there will be a free Restaurant Owners Workshop on August 17 with help from the Erie County Business Task Force and SUNY Buffalo State. Information on health regulations will be a major focus.

“We just want to announce that we are really trying hard to make sure that all restaurant owners know the right thing to do with keeping their restaurants safe for them,” Burstein said. “For their workers and for their patrons, and then also figure out the new financial challenges of working in COVID-19.”

This comes after Erie County Legislators called for more guidance and less threats from Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz regarding restaurants. Poloncarz responded citing there’s not much he can do given he’s following the New York State Sanitary Code.

“I'm shocked that legislators don't understand the rules associated with the departments that they oversee. But they do it all the time. How many times legislators have said we need a law for that. It's like no, we don't because it already exists. They just don't know it,” Poloncarz said.

In a response to Poloncarz later Wednesday afternoon, Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo said he was tired of Poloncarz avoiding accountability and would like to see more transparency.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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