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As parts of Erie County go 'yellow,' Poloncarz warns more COVID could shut things down again

A large section of Erie County was officially designated a COVID cluster yellow zone by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday. While businesses and schools remain open, there are some new guidelines for those institutions to follow. There's also a warning from the Erie County Executive that a further rise in COVID numbers could lead to another public shutdown.

The region declared "yellow" by Cuomo covers the northwest and north central part of Erie County and includes Amherst, Aurora, Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Clarence, Elma, Grand Island, Hamburg, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Orchard Park, the Tonawandas and West Seneca.

"We worked over the weekend, our officials, with County Executive (Mark) Poloncarz and his team and his health officials, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello," Cuomo said. "And they are all in agreement, plus or minus I think it's fair to say, about the zones and these restrictions. They are yellow zones. They are not red zones and that's basically it."

Under yellow zone designation, mass gatherings - indoors and outdoors - are limited to 25 people. Houses of worship may admit up to 50 percent of the building's capacity. Businesses remain open. Bars and restaurants must limit seating to four people per table, indoors and outdoors, and must close at midnight.

Schools remain open, but are required to test 20 percent of their students and staff weekly. Poloncarz said Monday the state will coordinate testing with schools.

He also warned that while businesses may remain open, non-essential establishments would be forced to close if the region is downgraded to an orange zone.

"I’ll put this out there now. If it gets worse, I'm expecting us to be moved into an orange zone. If it gets really bad, I'm expecting us to go to a red zone, which is basically a shutdown of everything," Poloncarz said. "None of us want to see that. Our Department of Health doesn't want to see that. And your state doesn't want to see that. So let's do what we can to ensure that doesn't happen.”

Late Monday afternoon, Erie County health officials announced 245 new COVID cases were recorded on Sunday, putting the county's daily positivity report at 6.4 percent.

Previously, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced its first tests of a coronavirus vaccine showed 90-percent effectiveness.

In Buffalo, Poloncarz welcomed news of Pfizer's early test results but urged the public not to squander the short-term opportunity to avoid a state-mandated shutdown.

"Very positive news came out today about the potential for a vaccine. But even if the vaccine gets approved by the FDA, in the next two months, it's still going to be quite some time until it could actually be distributed to the general public," Poloncarz said. "So let's get through this fall together. We all want to see the Buffalo Bills continue. None of us want to see football shut down. Let's do our best as a community to continue what we've done in the past and what we did in the spring and early summer."

Cuomo, speaking in Albany, said Pfizer's development was a mix of good and bad news. The good news is if further testing shows Pfizer's drug to work, a vaccine would soon be available.

The bad news? As Cuomo sees it, an administration he has blasted on numerous occasions for its handling of the pandemic could be responsible for implementing its distribution in the short term.

"When you deny a problem the way Trump did, you can never solve it. And that's true in life," Cuomo said. "The Trump administration denied COVID, so they were never ready for it. There was no mobilization of the government and they're still doing the same thing."

The governor announced SUNY Upstate Medical's Dr. Stephen Thomas was appointed the lead principal investigator for Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial. In this role, Dr. Thomas will support the companies in their preparation of data for submission to regulatory agencies including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That is expected to happen later this month.

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.