Ontario, Wayne and Seneca County officials on idea of bringing back mask mandates

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Local leaders declared plans to move slowly now that their communities have seen their official coronavirus infection categories elevated, bringing them under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for new restrictions.

“I was a little bit surprised but knew that it was probably coming soon,” said Kate Ott, Ontario County’s Deputy Director of Public Health.

Ott said before the county’s infection rate officially became "substantial," its COVID numbers had been inching up for weeks, largely among young people but also those who’d been traveling, overwhelmingly people who aren’t vaccinated.

On Monday the CDC changed the infection rates from “moderate” to “substantial” in several New York counties including Ontario, Wayne and Seneca.

That designation includes recommendations for measures like indoor masking regardless of whether people have been vaccinated. In a Monday briefing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged county leaders to crack down because, in the absence of emergency powers (which expired in the spring), the state can’t.

"It’s up to the local governments,” he said. “But, local governments, you should adopt that CDC mask guidance. Learn the lesson from last year."

In Wayne County, Administrator Rick House says this week, administrative, health and emergency leaders will convene into a newly formed "COVID-19 control room" to develop a response, which could include masks, testing or proof of vaccination requirements. But there are no plans for those now.

Health Commissioner Diane Devlin said she was hit with the infection rate news early Monday afternoon. She said businesses can choose as they deem appropriate but that the county is in a "hold status."

Ott says Ontario County is poised to wait and see.

"County government is not diving in to make any type of knee-jerk reactions,” Ott said. “This is our first day in the new category of risk. We are looking at options, weighing options."

Likewise, Seneca County Manager Mitchell Rowe tweeted out urging people to mask up but saying the county can’t force the issue.

Ott said vaccination rates in Ontario County have been “great” but that the first step now should be more education.

"We’re going to do everything we can to encourage people to take some responsibility,” Ott said. "Before going down the road of ‘OK, that’s it. Everybody’s back in a mask.’"

Local officials say they don’t want to overreact after their COVID-19 numbers have only barely inched up over that "substantial" threshold but that it’ is time for some "conversations."