With daily coronavirus case rates reaching record numbers and area hospitals more than 90 percent full, local officials in the Buffalo area reinstituted a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces that went into effect on Tuesday.
“We really need to keep the hospitals from being inundated,” Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County executive, said on Monday in a news conference announcing the new policy. “These numbers are not good.”
The mask mandate applies to all staff and patrons at stores, restaurants, bars, salons, and other public indoor spaces in the county, regardless of their vaccination status. It is the first phase of what Mr. Poloncarz warned would be increasing restrictions if virus numbers do not begin to stabilize.
Erie County, which encompasses the city of Buffalo, is the first New York county to impose a blanket mask mandate for public indoor spaces since May, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccinated people could safely take off their masks in most settings.
Federal officials eventually reversed that recommendation as the Delta variant spiked, but New York did not reinstitute a statewide mask mandate. Currently, most of the state, including New York City, only requires masks in specific locations such as in schools, on public transportation, and in medical settings.
Western New York, a bustling five-county region of some 1.4 million people along the Canadian border and the Great Lakes, has seen cases spike dramatically in recent weeks. In Erie County, cases have doubled in the last month. Hospitalizations are up 50 percent in the last two weeks.
Vaccination rates have not been high enough to head off the surge, even though about 75 percent of adults in Erie County have received at least one dose. County officials said that local case numbers now are actually higher than they were at this time last year. Rates among children and staff in schools are also at the highest levels since the start of the pandemic, Mr. Poloncarz said.
“Until we can get through this, masking is necessary,” he said.
Erie County decided to institute a mask mandate instead of requiring people to show proof of vaccination for entering most indoor public places, after hearing concerns from local business leaders that requiring masks would be less harmful to trade.
But if the mask rule fails to curb virus rates, the county will require vaccination for indoor dining and entertainment, as New York City has. If that fails to work, it will bring back capacity restrictions in restaurants and other indoor public settings. And if that also fails, shutdowns will occur, Mr. Poloncarz said.
Local officials said they were most closely watching the load in hospitals, which are already strained because of staff shortages. The wait time at emergency rooms for people who are not critically ill has risen to eight hours or more, officials said. And seasonal flu has yet to hit hard in New York State, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our hospitals are in dire straits,” the Erie County health commissioner, Dr. Gale Burstein, said.