© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Erie County mandates masks in public places, more restrictions to come if COVID numbers don’t go down

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz wears a mask as he walks off the podium Aug. 23, 2021, after announcing masks will be required in all K-12 schools in the county this upcoming school year.
Tom Dinki
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz wears a mask as he walks off the podium Aug. 23, 2021.

Erie County is implementing a mask mandate starting Tuesday, part of a potential series of new restrictions as the county faces a fourth wave of COVID-19.

The mandate, which takes effect at 6 a.m., applies to both patrons and workers at all indoor public spaces in the county, from restaurants and bars, to movie theaters and gyms.

“We know how to do this. We went through it before,” said County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who made the announcement during a Monday afternoon virtual briefing.

The order, according to Poloncarz, is being done through the emergency powers granted to him under New York state’s Public Officers Law. The county legislature in June voted to rescind Poloncarz’s emergency spending authority it gave him at the start of the pandemic, but Poloncarz said Monday that the county’s state of emergency order was never lifted, in order to deliver vaccines and testing faster.

“We didn't think we'd need it for a situation as it is today, but we do,” he said.

It comes exactly one week after Poloncarz and Monroe County officials held a joint briefing warning restrictions could be coming if COVID cases didn’t slow down.

Poloncarz said not much had changed since that public plea. Statistics as of Sunday from the county Department of Health showed the county’s positive rate was at 9.3% and that 91% of county hospital beds were occupied.

“We've seen the data, we’ve been out in public, we've seen what people are doing,” he said. “No one was wearing a mask in most places, or just a handful. And we feel it's necessary to protect what will certainly be the further spread of COVID 19.”

The mask mandate may be the first in what could ultimately be four phases of restrictions, as Poloncarz laid out three additional steps the county will take if hospitalizations continue to rise. Phase 2 would be a vaccine mandate for indoor entertainment venues, Phrase 3 would include capacity restrictions, and Phase 4 would be outright shutdowns.

County officials will re-evaluate the mask mandate and whether to implement an additional phase on Dec. 13.

However, Poloncarz said it won’t come to additional phases if the public does their part by masking, getting vaccinated and receiving booster doses.

“Trust me, folks, we only want to do Phase 1. Nobody wants to go to Phase 2,” he said. “Phase 2 is unnecessary if we act appropriately.”

The mandate is a sign that individual counties will be responsible for determining their own thresholds for restrictions, unlike during the first year and a half of the pandemic under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Gov. Kathy Hochul released a statement Monday commending Erie County, adding she spoke with county executives across the state this weekend about their “first-hand plans to combat the Delta variant.”

However, not all counties are implementing mandates. Niagara County Chairwoman Beck Wydysh released a statement shortly after Poloncarz’s announcement, saying her county is not under a state of emergency and therefore the legislature would have to vote for mandates. She said the majority of legislators do not support mandates.

“We believe businesses, employers and other institutions across Niagara County should implement the safety protocols that make sense for their particular operations,” Wydysh said.

Poloncarz said the county’s plans have the support of some local business leaders. He said executives from M&T Bank, Rich Products and the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership were consulted on the plan.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.