Houses of worship, 'non-essential' businesses brace for more restrictions, closings

Nov 17, 2020

An announcement was expected Wednesday that Erie County, which has seen a rise in COVID case numbers, will move from "yellow zone" status to orange or possibly red. That change would mean many institutions which were able to reopen a few short months ago would be ordered to close again.

Under the yellow zone status which covered most of Erie County through Tuesday, mass gatherings - indoors and outdoors - are limited to 25 people. Houses of worship may admit up to 50% of the building's capacity. Businesses remain open, but bars and restaurants have been ordered to close at 10 p.m., with the latter allowed only to serve at curbside during overnight hours. Seating in establishments is limited to four per table.

Houses of worship are among the institutions that would face further restrictions if COVID-19 rates remain high and the region moves to orange or red status.
Credit WBFO file photo

If the region were to go "orange," businesses deemed high-risk including gyms and movie theaters would be ordered to close, just a few short months after they were allowed to reopen from New York State's original "PAUSE."

"We have only been safe, diligent and again, I will say, a center for physical and mental health," said Amy Bueme, owner of Catalyst Fitness. "They should come to our facilities and actually see what they made us do. And then maybe they would say, 'Wow, this truly is safe.' But see, they sit from an office and they dictate these rules, but they don't even know what they've made people do or how safe fitness facilities are on every aspect."

Bueme tells WBFO she spent $100,000 of her own money to make the modifications ensuring her gyms were compliant with state health guidelines. She adds that masks have been required at all times, even while exercising.

If the region goes "red," houses of worship would be required to limit congregations to 25% or 10 people, whichever is lower. Most churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship have held online services through the pandemic, even when limited numbers of worshippers were allowed back inside their facilities.

Pastor George Nicholas of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church in Buffalo told WBFO he advised his congregation to stay home and worship online, even before any orders from the state. While it's not the ideal means to worship, he admits, Nicholas says welcoming a congregation inside is not a safe thing to do.

He also suggests the whole nation should have been more willing to undergo a lockdown earlier in the pandemic.

"If we would have had the discipline back then, for 30 days or how long the scientists would have taught us, we wouldn't be in this situation right now in this country," he said. "We're in this situation now, not because of anything the county executive or the governor says, we're in this situation because we, as a people, citizens in this country, have refused to follow the proper guidelines to stop this spread. And we're in this situation now because the federal government and many leaders, and many church leaders, did not take this and continue not to take this seriously and continue to have big gatherings. It's the height of irresponsibility and all it has done is it says prolong this, and will continue to prolong it."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz stated Tuesday that no city or town within the county had an infection rate lower than three percent. While he had no indication of what Gov. Andrew Cuomo might announce Wednesday, his tone and the numbers he has reported indicated he was expecting to hear the region would undergo tighter restrictions.