Masks again required in western NY county as virus spreads

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — People have to wear masks indoors again in western New York’s most populous county because of a spike in COVID-19 positives and hospitalizations in the region, officials said Monday.

Starting Tuesday, anyone 2 and older must wear masks at all indoor public locations in Erie County, including bars and restaurants, grocery stores, gyms and fitness centers, hotels and banks, and hair salons.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz said if the mask mandate doesn’t work by mid-December, the county will require vaccine mandates for indoor dining.

Erie County, home to the city of Buffalo, recorded 456 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, more than quadruple the federal government’s threshold for high transmission, according to Poloncarz.

“This is one of the largest seven-day periods we’ve ever seen,” Poloncarz said in a virtual briefing Monday.

Poloncarz said that cases among K-12 students and staff are rising and that 30-39 year-olds represent the most cases. He said COVID-19 hospital admissions have increased by 50% in the past two weeks.

Hospitals in Erie County reported 249 patients as of Sunday, up from 168 as of Nov. 7.

About 63% of residents in Erie County are fully vaccinated.

But rates are lower in southern and eastern parts of the county: including 38.4% in the 14034 ZIP code that includes Collins in southern Erie County.

The vast majority of the state’s 62 counties are seeing sharp upticks in new COVID-19 positives, from those on Long Island, to Niagara County in western New York.

And much of the state, from Saratoga to Erie County, is also seeing sharp increases in hospitalizations.

The county’s reinstitution of its mask mandate follows Gov. Kathy Hochul’s warning last week that a continued uptick in COVID-19 rates could mean New Yorkers will again face more virus protocols in high-risk communities.

But the governor hasn’t laid out any specific protocols that she could re-institute, including where or when they’d take effect.

Health care workers in New York had until Monday to get their first vaccine dose under a statewide mandate that has survived court challenges.

About 95% of health care workers had a completed vaccine series as of Nov. 17, according to state data.