By Alice E. Gerard
On Monday evening, the Grand Island Town Board passed by a 4-0 vote a resolution expressing opposition to Erie County’s mask mandate, which went into effect Nov. 23. In the resolution, the councilmembers went on record as opposing any future mask mandates, vaccination mandates, or any other COVID-19 restrictions. It requested the town and the state refrain from enforcing the mask mandate on Grand Island.
Town Supervisor John Whitney, who was not at the Town Board meeting, said in a written statement, “While I issued a press release and the Town Board in my absence passed a resolution not in support of the county executive’s mandates, nothing in either of them purports to supersede the county executive’s mandates. Therefore, I am directing all Town of Grand Island employees to comply with the mandates. I am asking all Grand Island businesses and citizens to comply as well. I hope this clears up any confusion.”
The vote to support the resolution, which was introduced by Councilman Mike Madigan, came after a public comment period, when 17 town residents, both in person and via Zoom, expressed their viewpoints.
Kathy Masse, who supported the resolution, said, “I’m of the idea to encourage people to wear masks, encourage people to vaccinate. But the idea of someone in the government telling people that they have to do that, which affects businesses, which affects everyone’s personal lives … I think that we lose our liberties, bit by bit.”
Rose Bugman, who opposed the resolution, said, “When I was young, when polio and smallpox and all of these diseases were wrapping around the earth, I had a cousin who was four years older than me and who had polio. Her mother had polio. Then we got our vaccinations. Everyone lined up in school, and they gave us our shots. Polio and smallpox were eradicated. This is an airborne disease. It is not a huge inconvenience to put a mask on, at least when you’re out in public.”
The polio epidemic occurred between 1949-52, and the polio vaccine came out in 1955.
Roger Cook said, “Like Rose, I lined up as a schoolchild and got my polio shot. It was one of the most wonderful things we could do. We were greatly relieved because polio was a real scourge. Of course, diphtheria, smallpox, we’ve used vaccines. Are they perfect? We don’t know. There are still a lot of unknowns. Supervisor Whitney has noted that there are some unknowns. Instead of discouraging people from wearing masks, we should encourage (people) in the Town of Grand Island to get vaccinated. These seem to be the sound public health measures that we are using.”
Dean Morakis, who supported the resolution, said, “So, the government was telling us who could be close, how many people they could have working, and what the output was, and that was also miserably failed because look at our economy. Last week, I was visiting my mother in the D.C. area. She was like, ‘I don’t know if I should hug you or kiss you because you’re not vaccinated.’ I said, ‘Mom, isn’t a vaccination supposed to protect you from people like me?’ Now, she’s 90 years old and she still has her faculties and she’s really smart. She goes, ‘You know, you’re right.’ And she hugged me and kissed me.”
Melissa Rayhill, who works as a physician, described the toll the pandemic is taking on health care professionals: “I came on late because I was seeing patients all day. I am trying to take care of my two young kids. I am tired. I am burnt out. My colleagues are leaving medicine in droves.”
Rayhill, who opposed the resolution, said, “Masks do work. When you wear a mask, you keep your germs to yourself. I don’t like mandates. But encouraging people to do the right thing clearly hasn’t worked. The government tells us all the time what to do within reason. We wear seat belts. We follow the speed limit. We don’t yell fire in a crowded movie theater. We do things to protect each other all the time that might infringe upon our individual liberties a little bit, but they’re worthwhile. Is wearing a cloth mask really that much of an inconvenience for you? These layers of mitigating strategies actually encourage more people to visit Island businesses. They are a means to keep schools open. And the same thing for businesses. I, for one, am not going to feel comfortable going to Island businesses without other people wearing masks. So, I encourage you to please vote against this resolution.”
Jenn Pusatier, who opposed the resolution, said, “I live in a home with a medical doctor who works for one of the biggest groups in Western New York. We’re the first phone call to many families that are sick and don’t know what to do in their next turn. And I also have a daughter who, right now, is working her second shift in Mount St. Mary’s Hospital, on the COVID floor, trying to keep those people alive.”
Amy Graff, who supported the resolution, said, “This is not about wearing a mask. This is about standing up for our freedoms and saying enough is enough. If this truly was about health, they would have allowed alternative treatments, instead of restricting them.”
Carol Hamm, who supported the resolution, said, “I know the lady that actually had a fight in the hospital … this is local … they wanted to give her Remdesivir, and they were really arguing with her. She got her daughter to help her get Ivermectin. An older lady, and she got herself home. Most masks are useless. They are designed for bacteria, not the tiny virus.”
Remdesivir is currently the FDA-approved medication for COVID-19, while Ivermectin is approved for animal, but not human use, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Celia Spacone, who spoke in opposition to the resolution, said, “I just returned from a cross-country flight, where I was required to wear a mask for over eight hours, including airport time. It wasn’t that bad. I was willing to do so, even though I am fully vaccinated with a booster. I know that the mask has two purposes. Yes, it protects me from COVID-19 infection, not extremely well. But the biggest issue is that it is most effective in preventing me from spreading the illness to others. In the two to three days before showing symptoms, you are most infectious and likely to unwittingly spread the disease to others. Elderly, immunocompromised, young children, disabled. That is the importance of the mask. It’s not about personal liberty. It’s about community.”
J. Wolcott said, “I want to disagree with statements that this is a health issue and not a political issue. It absolutely is a political issue when it’s talking about civil liberties, about freedoms, about individual rights. Our country is founded on individual rights, not on collectivism. If you want to wear a mask, if you want to get vaccinated, go ahead and do it; but don’t tell anyone else that they have to do it. That’s not the American way.”
Kristin Cascio said, “Erie County is currently setting records, not in a good way, for COVID-19. We’re at a 10.4% positive testing rate and, just yesterday (Sunday), 664 people tested positive for COVID. Hand washing is not 100%, but it helps. Social distancing is not 100%, but it helps. Vaccinations are not 100%, but they help. Masks are not a 100% solution, either, but they help. They all help. These are the tools that we have right now to keep ourselves, our families, and others safe. These are the tools that we should use. It is the responsible thing to do. This is a novel virus, so it is adapting. Medical professionals and people are adapting as it happens. People keep asking: When does it stop? When it’s safe. It is not now safe. For the Town Board to pass this resolution, I find it to be reckless and irresponsible and certainly not in the best interest of the health, welfare and safety of this town.”
David Pratt, who submitted a written statement on behalf of the Grand Island Democratic Committee, said, “Is it not the primary duty of an elected official to maintain the safety and well-being of their constituents? According to the Grand Island Town Board, protecting individual freedoms and economic gain is a greater priority than mitigating a deadly pandemic and saving lives! Individual freedoms are not sacrosanct and should not supersede public safety. An individual does not have the freedom to ignore scientifically established mitigation procedures and government guidelines and jeopardize the health and safety of others.”
Just prior to voting, Town Board members expressed their viewpoints.
Jennifer Baney said, “Our job, as elected officials, day in and day out, during this pandemic has been listening to you: those who spoke tonight and those who spoke during the last two years. On Grand Island, it is abundantly clear that this (the mask mandate) is not acceptable. Those views that are widely represented and held by those who elected us are that this is not OK; this is not what is wanted.”
Mike Madigan said, “It’s a serious situation. There’s a point where we have to accept and not continue to deny certain things. People should have the right to take action for themselves and for their business and for their schools. It should not be dictated.”
Tom Digati expressed concern about the effectiveness of Erie County’s mask mandate, since none of the other seven counties in Western New York have chosen to implement mask mandates. “We have Erie County … one county … trying to enforce that. And here on Grand Island, more than anywhere, we can shoot over the bridge and be someplace else,” he said. “Having a mask mandate that’s only applicable here isn’t going to help, and especially now. This isn’t how government is meant to function, under any circumstances.”
Pete Marston said, “To me, it’s more about your personal choice to do what you feel is best for you and your family.”
The county, however, is working on ensuring that residents and business owners understand the mask mandate. According to Kara Kane, public information officer at the Erie County Department of Health, “Our public health sanitarians have started going to stores, restaurants, bars and businesses to educate them about the mask mandate and to distribute masks for employees and customers. The overwhelming, on-the-ground response from these owners and operators has been positive and appreciative. They want their employees, customers and clients to be safe and healthy. That’s our shared goal.”
Kane explained, “As the county executive noted in our press conference (Tuesday), municipalities have certain responsibilities related to the services they provide. As a county health department, our responsibilities include the protection of public health and prevention of disease and infection. Our responsibilities are outlined by Public Health Law, Sanitary Codes, and other regulatory authorities, including emergency orders.
“COVID-19 is caused by a virus that doesn’t care about town borders. Grand Island may be an island, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Each part of Erie County is intricately connected to surrounding towns and the greater Western New York community. Masks work. Vaccination reduces the risk of moderate and severe COVID-19 illness. Working together, we have the power to protect the public’s health. These are the facts.
“In responding to a pandemic and reducing our county’s COVID-19 disease burden, actions matter much more than words. And Erie County and our department are choosing to act to protect public health. With our county’s – and region’s – very high COVID-19 case rates, increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations, and rising fatalities, individual and community actions are the only things that will turn those trends around.”
The Town of Marilla has also recently passed a resolution expressing opposition to the mask mandate.