Increased coronavirus restrictions imposed in Western New York on Wednesday will aim to combat the region’s growing COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, while controversial raises for state elected officials will be temporarily deferred as the pandemic continues.
Five municipalities in Erie County, or Buffalo and the surrounding Western New York metropolitan areas, have the highest developing coronavirus numbers in the state, with 9.8% in Hamburg, 9.4% in Lancaster and 7.5% in Orchard Park, with 7.3% in Buffalo and 6.8% in Tonawanda.
Parts of Niagara County, which borders Erie, will enter a yellow precautionary zone, which starts at 2.5% positivity. Parts of Erie County, especially Buffalo and the surrounding areas, will be designated an orange focus area, which start at 3%, and closes schools and high-risk nonessential businesses such as gyms or personal care, limits houses of worship to 25 people or 33% capacity, restricts indoor and outdoor mass gatherings to 10 attendees and restaurants to outdoor-only dining with a maximum of four people to a table.
“Western New York never lived the full pain of COVID’s wrath,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday afternoon during a coronavirus briefing in the state Capitol in Albany. “They read about Long Island, they watched it on the TV news, but the numbers were never as bad in Western New York. I believe they didn’t have the same level of fear.
“It’s those areas which are astronomical compared to the rest of the state,” he added of the region’s mounting COVID clusters. “They’re dramatically higher than anywhere else.”
Cuomo said Wednesday he will not accept an upcoming pay raise next year as New York state faces an estimated $50 billion budget deficit over two years after the state Commission on Legislative, Judicial & Executive Compensation recommended no raises for state elected officials for the next four years in a report Monday.
Cuomo, the highest paid governor in the nation, is scheduled for a salary increase from $225,000 to $250,000 on Jan. 1, 2021. The pay hike was approved in 2019, after 10 years of keeping the New York governor’s salary flat at $179,000. Cuomo’s salary rose to $200,000 that year, then increased to $225,000 in 2020 and $250,000 next year. A state committee on pay recommended the raise for the governor, and the New York State Senate approved it.
On Wednesday, Cuomo said both he and members of his cabinet will not take a raise given the state’s budget deficit, adding he will issue an executive order to stop the salary increase.
The commission declined to provide raises for state judges last year when the state had a budget deficit of about $6.7 billion.
New York City target zones, which have existed in parts of Brooklyn and Queens since early October, expanded yellow warning areas in parts of the Bronx and through Astoria, Queens, on Wednesday.
Officials on the state’s Coronavirus Task Force have worked to tackle budding COVID microclusters with thousands of targeted tests, contact tracing and isolation of infected residents. Lingering yellow zones in Broome and Orange counties were eliminated Wednesday. Areas of Brooklyn in an orange zone were downgraded to yellow, which shows the microcluster approach works, Cuomo said.
“Following the rules works,” he said. “It’s very simple — if you socially distance and you wore a mask and you were smart, none of this would be a problem. It’s all self-imposed. If you didn’t eat the cheesecake, you wouldn’t have a weight problem.”
New York has the fourth-lowest coronavirus infection rate of 50 U.S. states at a seven-day average of about 2.9%, with Vermont the lowest at 2%, and Hawaii and Maine close behind at 2.02% and 2.15% new COVID cases, respectively.
South Dakota holds the nation’s highest infection rate at 56.3%, with 51% positive in Iowa, 43.8% in Kansas and 40.1% in Idaho. More than half the nation have spiking infections higher than 10%.
“You’re higher than New York was when it was ambushed eight months ago? How can that possibly be?” Cuomo asked. “Remember, we were ambushed [by COVID-19] coming from Europe. Nobody told us. It exploded — it was like sending a bomb.”
New York’s statewide positivity rate peaked at 46% on April 8. The states surging now were not as hard-hit by the coronavirus when it first arrived at the beginning of the year.
The governor expects cases to continue to surge nationwide in the coming weeks — especially with next week’s Thanksgiving holiday. Private gatherings are limited statewide to 10 people or fewer by an executive order Cuomo signed earlier this month.
“These are the states that did not get hit hard in the spring ... that was eight months ago,” Cuomo said. “There can be a sense of denial that we’re immune from this. ‘That was New York. That was New Jersey — that’s not happening here in our state. It’s not happening to us.’ ...Yes it is, and it can.”
Of the state’s 10 regions, Western New York had the highest positivity Wednesday at 5.1%, with yellow or orange microcluster rules threatening the Finger Lakes with 4.3% positivity. The Capital Region increased to 2.3% new infections Wednesday, with 3.7% in Central New York and 1.8% in the North Country. The Southern Tier has the state’s lowest infection rate with 1.2% positive.
New York City, the original epicenter of the original virus outbreak this spring, has fluctuated between 2.5% and 3%. All New York City schools will indefinitely transition to remote learning starting Thursday, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced to school officials in an email after 2 p.m. Wednesday, because of the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate reaching 3%.
The shutdown will impact more than 300,000 children in more than 1,700 schools after resuming classes in late September.
“Some places haven’t yet experienced the full pain of COVID,” the governor said. “They’ve read about it, but it’s been happening somewhere else. It hasn’t been happening here and people are parochial. If it isn’t happening here, it’s not as real.”
New York’s daily COVID-19 positivity rate increased to 3.1% Wednesday after 154,434 diagnostic tests, down from 3.4% Tuesday.
State hospitalizations surged to 2,202 patients Wednesday, or an uptick of 78.
Thirty-five New Yorkers died from COVID complications Tuesday — the state’s highest daily death count in months.
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.
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