An estimated 150 vehicles were traveling in slow laps around Niagara Square during the noon hour Monday, horns blaring, as its occupants held signs and flags in a protest against New York State's extended NY PAUSE order and the restrictions it has imposed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Overlooking the slow-moving procession was Carl Paladino, the local business developer and former gubernatorial candidate who accused Governor Andrew Cuomo of overreacting with the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. He also said his own business holdings, which include hotels, have been hit hard.
"I have 451 people laid off. It's not pretty. Five or 10 hotels are closed," he said. "It's very difficult for these families, and they can't even get their unemployment checks. It's overreach. Let people go back to work. You don't have to micromanage their lives. Liberals tend to want to micromanage everybody's life. And that's unfortunate."
Ralph, who owns a restaurant in Hamburg, was among the many drivers. While establishments like his are allowed to remain open by offering takeout orders only, he said the prolonged shutdown has still led to a severe drop in business.
"We lost 85 percent," he said. "We signed up for the Payroll Protection Plan, they ran out of money. They're not giving us anything. We haven't got a dime from the government. The shutdown needs to stop, Cuomo needs to go, and Trump all the way."
There was indeed a decisive pro-President Trump and anti-Cuomo sentiment among those occupying the cars. Most of the participants stayed in their vehicles but there were pockets of protesters standing on sidewalks, only a few wearing masks.
Buffalo Police Captain Jeffrey Rinaldo, who hosted a briefing following the rally, was asked about those who defied the public mask requirement imposed by Governor Cuomo last week.
"We're not going to criminalize anybody's behavior through this unless they act in such a way that they become a danger to other people," he said. "If there's an order to wear masks, I'm wearing a mask. We're all wearing masks standing here. It's a face covering. So what we've been doing all along, just like we've been enforcing our social distancing requirements and things of that nature, is we're advising people what to do, what the rules are, what they should be doing and why they should be doing it. And for the most part, we've seen great cooperation in the city as well as all throughout Western New York."
There were also counterprotesters holding up signs urging continued respect for stay-at-home orders. Lona DeNisco, a nurse in the emergency department at Erie County Medical Center, stood just off the sidewalk on the Niagara Square lawn, holding a sign. She was asked if she hoped she could convince even just one person in the cars to reconsider their position.
"If I could do one thing today, it would be for them to understand what they're actually protesting," she replied. "Understand what you're protesting. There's no monetary value on a life. You can't bring that back. People are dying. That's what they need to know."
DeNisco was then asked how she and her peers were holding up at work.
"It's rough. It's rough because you know you're at risk," she said. You know your risk when you walk in there. And all your coworkers are, too, and we have families as well. You know, we don't want to go sometimes. We go because we're trying to protect other people. It's important."
Some among the rally's participants agree if Western New York can reopen for business, it has to be done slowly. Charlene Pocobello of Akron says the key is to have proper protective equipment available. She expects there will be a return of COVID-19 but feels shutting down businesses has been excessive.
"Get the real equipment to people to save them, because we're gonna have a resurgence on this virus. It's been proven in the past, in 1918 with the first influenza thing, that's it's gonna happen again," she said. "We need to be smart about it. We need to go about it in a slow manner but it doesn't mean you shut down and cripple us, and stop families from seeing families, and the churches shutting down."
A common cry among the protesters is that "we're not New York City." Assemblyman David DiPietro, on the scene, says he too has seen the models projecting when COVID cases will peak and he feels the measures meant to clamp down on the virus in New York City are not justified in Buffalo.
"I've got the statistics. In the last week, we've gone up I think 10 or 12 percent," he said. "That doesn't justify closing from May 1 to may 15. The rest of the state, it doesn't justify it. The numbers don't justify it."