Western New York officially began Phase Two of reopening Tuesday, although the announcement was somewhat clouded by growing unrest and new curfews due to the killing of George Floyd.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as expected, announced Tuesday morning that Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties can begin Phase Two of New York’s reopening plan due to declining COVID-19 numbers. The five counties have just 53 new positive cases, and there were only 154 new hospitalizations statewide over the last day, the lowest since the shutdown began in March.
“We’re doing very, very well when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Buffalo, Western New York enters Phase Two today,” Cuomo said during his daily briefing.
Eligible Phase Two businesses include offices, real estate, in-store retail, as well as hair salons and barbershops. Prior to reopening, businesses must certify they will follow new public health guidelines.
Lt. Gov Kathy Hochul, who is overseeing the region’s reopening, said in a statement that small businesses have been “patiently awaiting” the reopening.
"It's going to reopen so many businesses and services that all of us have been waiting for," Hochul said. "It's also an important path to get us to Phase Three, which is the restaurants. So, again, this is a good day for Western New York. I want to thank everyone for the sacrifices you made and on behalf of the governor and myself, we thank you for continuing to work together to make sure that we get into Phase Three and Phase Four and make sure that we eventually win this battle against the COVID pandemic."
"Go shopping. Go shopping in a safe method," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "I have it here. Wear your masks. If you can't socially distance, we are socially distant from you. I'm socially distant from you. That's why I don't have a mask on. But do so in a socially distant manner, in a safe manner, wearing your masks. Let's continue to invest in our community. Support our local businesses. Support our small businesses that have been hurting tremendously and we will all be better for it."
Hochul said restaurants should be making their plans now so customers can start making reservations.
However, those businesses will be impacted by new curfews put in place Tuesday. Erie County will have a county-wide curfew Tuesday night through Wednesday morning, while the city of Buffalo will have a curfew every night through Sunday.
The emergency orders come amid civil unrest that has followed Buffalo protests over the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer last week.
A 20-year-old Buffalo man has been charged with arson for allegedly starting a fire at City Hall Saturday evening. An SUV drove through a police blockade on Bailey Avenue Monday night, striking a Buffalo police officer and two New York State Police troopers.
Plus, many Buffalo businesses have boarded up their windows to protect against the looting and property destruction seen after protests.
Cuomo spent a large portion of his briefing Tuesday discussing the nation-wide unrest. He said it’s important to separate peaceful protesters seeking police reform with those who are looting and damaging property, as well as what he described as “extremist groups who are using this moment for their own purposes and exploiting this movement.”
“Two very different things,” he said.
The governor also acknowledged the difficulty in responding to both the COVID-19 crisis and the civil unrest, saying the two crises occurring at the same time are creating confusion.
“So you’re trying to deal with these two situations that are very different in the middle of a dynamic in this country of racial division and a hyper-political environment,” he said.
Cuomo also expressed concern that the protests could result in a spike of new COVID-19 infections and complicate reopening. He said protestors should continue to protest, but have to be “responsible” about it.
“COVID is still a problem and COVID still kills also,” he said.
Based on the state’s parameters, the earliest Western New York can move to Phase Three is June 16.
WBFO's Mike Desmond contributed to this story.