LITTLE VALLEY — With a growing sense of despair among Cattaraugus County small businesses, county lawmakers continued to press this week for a phased opening of Southern Tier counties apart from Erie and Niagara counties, from which COVID-19 metrics extend to all Western New York.
The Cattaraugus County Legislature approved a resolution Wednesday asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow the county to reopen under Phase 1 guidelines that apply to construction, manufacturing and agriculture.
On Friday, the county took things a step further, apparently agreeing with Allegany and Chautauqua counties to petition the governor to create a subregion encompassing the three Southern Tier counties, which all meet the state’s seven metrics.
Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel said the three counties would petition Cuomo to consider the Southern Tier counties a subregion.
Cattaraugus County Legislature Majority Leader Michael Brisky, R-Franklinville, said county officials preferred to say they were “strongly advocating” that the governor “recognize that our portion of the Southern Tier has widely different stats than Erie and Niagara counties.”
The three counties, as a subregion, could be cleared to reopen under Phase 1 guidelines, he said. Brisky is the county’s representative on the Regional Reopening Group headed by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
“We have consistently asked that there be consideration” for the fact the Southern Tier has a very low number of residents who test positive for coronavirus.
As of Friday, Cattaraugus County had a total of 49 COVID-19 cases including two deaths; Allegany County has had 43 cases and Chautauqua County, 44.
By comparison, Erie County has had 4,579 cases, including more than 300 deaths, and Niagara County had 766 cases.
Cattaraugus County Legislator Joseph Snyder, R-Ischua, emailed colleagues Friday that the county should consider filing a lawsuit in order to safely reopen sooner than now seems possible under the weight of increased COVID-19 hospitalizations in Erie County.
“On Thursday the region met five of the seven metrics and now we meet four,” Snyder said. “We are sliding backward.”
Snyder called it “unjust” that the three Southern Tier counties, which have fulfilled the metrics, are not allowed to reopen due to “an arbitrary line” on the map.
“We meet the metrics,” he said. “Why can’t we start Phase 1 now?”
Businesses have been preparing for a Phase 1 opening and the Phase 2, which would follow two weeks later, Snyder said.
“Everybody I know has done the sanitizing, they have face masks, and tape on the floor for social distancing,” Snyder said. “The ones that are suffering the most are the small business owners. People can flock to Walmart and buy a nonessential set of golf clubs, but you can’t go to Rick’s Golf World in Olean where you could buy clubs one-on-one and maintain social distance.”
Snyder said he disagrees with the governor that all of society should be shut down and the economy halted.
“People aren’t staying home,” he said. “The spread here has been family member to family member. People need to be vigilant, to wash their hands and don’t hug grandma.”
Legislator Ginger Schroder, R-Farmersville, said legislators are very concerned “over the level of desperation among business owners in the county. They are afraid they are not going to get through this.”
An attorney, Schroder said the options include another three weeks of businesses being shut down, filing a lawsuit to get a judge to overturn the governor’s executive orders or civil disobedience.
“A majority of Cattaraugus County legislators are very much against this plan tying us to Erie County,” Schroder said. “The question is what can we do about it?”
The county has such a low number of cases compared to most other counties, and two deaths from COVID-19, she said. Manufacturing and construction jobs should be able to start Monday.
“Look at our stats,” she said. “We can’t be like this forever. People are losing their businesses. They are not making any income. They are going to the food pantries.”
Schroder noted that Cattaraugus County has 60 people per square mile, while Erie County has 960.
Schroder also asked how Steuben County, with it’s high number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths, could open with Southern Tier counties to the east while Cattaraugus, Allegany and Chautauqua counties, with far fewer deaths and declining COVID-19 cases, can’t begin to reopen because they are part of the Western New York Economic Region.
“Does this make sense?” she said. “The fact that he won’t consider the three counties separately is unacceptable.”
Olean Legislator Kelly Andreano said Friday she received numerous calls in the previous 24 hours since learning Western New York would not be among the regions reopening under Phase 1.
“Cattaraugus County and the other Southern Tier counties “have met all seven metrics,” Andreano said. “We’ve had four days with no new cases. ... We are meeting every bar the governor has set including nursing homes.”
Andreano said the state rejected a 12-point reopening plan the county prepared because it was not based on a regional reopening.
“We feel we have a low medical impact, but the economic impact is just devastating,” she said. “People are angry and they are confused. They don’t understand why we can’t start to reopen.”
She pointed out the city of Olean is an economic driver in the county and noted that most business owners she is aware of “have an amazing reopening plan that is solid,” based on OSHA and Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
“We’ve hit every mark,” Andreano said. “We have risen to the challenge in Cattaraugus County. How much longer do we have to flatten the curve? We need to reopen.”
Snyder said that while bars and restaurants weren’t planning to open this weekend, they were hoping Phase 1 got underway to pave the way for Phase 2.
“This sets them back,” he said. “The real question is how many of our local businesses can survive? The longer this goes, fewer will be able to come back.”