From the Erie County Department of Health
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Erie County Department of Health has conducted complaint-based investigations of food service establishments in addition to regular inspections.
As the Western New York region has entered phase four of “New York Forward,” many businesses – including restaurants and bars – have reopened with substantial adjustments to their operations.
To date, ECDOH has received more than 1,200 COVID-related complaints about food service facilities. Public health sanitarians investigate these complaints and follow up with inspections to verify that operators are following “New York Forward” guidance.
“Guidance from New York state has changed over the past several months, and it may change further,” Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein said. “Our public health sanitarians work closely with food service operators to educate them on NYS guidance as it relates to COVID-19 and enforce those guidelines when required.”
She added, “The majority of restaurants and bars that we inspect demonstrate that they are taking COVID-related requirements seriously, in addition to other food safety and hygiene standards. Generally, these operators and their employees take their role in protecting public health seriously and appreciate feedback from our public health sanitarian on site.”
“New York Forward” food service guidelines are very specific about physical distancing, the use of protective equipment, communication and screening. Local health departments are empowered to enforce these guidelines in the interest of public health and safety.
Many Erie County COVID-19-infected young adults report to contact tracers that they had recently attended large crowded events where people, including themselves, do not wear masks. Large gatherings, lack of physical distancing and failure to wear masks significantly contribute to COVID-19 community transmission.
“By the time our sanitarians have to return to a restaurant or bar for a second or third time, it is clear that the business is having difficulty taking the safety guidelines seriously,” Burstein said. “That is the point where we escalate to enforcement, issuing fines for violations and closure if needed.”
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, “We cannot say this enough: We are all in this together, including every bar, restaurant and every business that welcomes members of the public through their doors. We all have a responsibility to keep those patrons and their employees safe. Our county has done so much to reduce our new COVID-19 cases in Erie County and we have to keep pushing ahead on prevention efforts.”
During recent inspections by public health sanitarians in Erie County, violations of New York state executive orders related to COVID-19, social distancing and/or face mask use by employees were found at:
In addition, violations were found during an inspection at The Cowboy in Buffalo, and that establishment was issued a close order on July 11. That business will be required to submit a corrective action plan/safety plan to the Division of Environmental Health, which must be reviewed and approved before the establishment can reopen.
Also, ECDOH issued a close order to The Stage in Amherst on July 14. As part of a corrective action plan, this operator reaffirmed on July 15 it will comply with “New York Forward” guidelines related to COVID-19 and it will be allowed to reopen.
Close orders issued by Erie County are reported to the New York State Liquor Authority.
Public health sanitarians are enforcing state executive orders, which have been added to New York State Codes, Rules and Regulations (10 NYCRR Subpart 66-3). These assist in the enforcement of existing executive orders mandating face coverings, social distancing requirements, restricting nonessential gatherings, and the operation of nonessential businesses. The regulation allows violations to be charged as a violation of public health law, subject to penalties including fines.
ECDOH recommends a COVID-19 diagnostic test for anyone who feels they are at risk for COVID-19, those with a recent travel history to states with a high level of community transmission, close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases, and people who have COVID-19 symptoms. These tests are available at no cost through ECDOH. Call 716-858-2929 to schedule, or visit www.erie.gov/covidtestsites for a location near you.
The age range of 20-29 has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Erie County, followed by the age 30-39 range. More than 50% of all new cases last week fell within these two age groups.
“Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you’re immune to COVID,” Poloncarz said in a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
In terms of COVID-19-related hospitalizations in Western New York (51 on July 13, with 10 in the ICU), “The numbers are trending upwards; we’re not happy about that,” Poloncarz said.
“We’re in a very scary trend,” Burstein added. “We’re seeing more people turn positive; we’re seeing more people admitted to the hospital.”