ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Local government, health, and business leaders came together at the Wegmans Conference Center Monday morning to announce new campaign called “Vax-Boost-Mask — Let’s Keep Monroe Open.”

Officials say the new campaign aims to keep local businesses operating and cut down on COVID-19 hospitalizations. Officials say the collaborative campaign will leverage influence from Monroe County, the City of Rochester, Wegmans, the Greater Rochester, Chamber of Commerce and the community to encourage safely celebrating the holidays while gathering, working, and shopping.

The new campaign will focus around new “Let’s Keep Monroe Open” signs that businesses — who are complying with the vax or mask mandate — can hang to signify their environment is a safe one. Overall, the campaign will be more about education and encouragement rather than enforcement, officials said. Monday’s announcement included:

  • Monroe County Executive Adam Bello
  • Wegmans CEO Colleen Wegman
  • Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Duffy
  • Rochester Mayor-Elect Malik Evans
  • Monroe County Public Health Commissioner
  • Dr. Michael Mendoza
  • Dr. Michael Apostolakos, the Chief Medical Officer of Strong Hospital
  • Dr. Robert Mayo, Chief Medical Officer of Rochester Regional Health

“We are asking the community to ‘Vax-Boost-and Mask’ in a way to support our businesses and our schools as we navigate this holiday spike of the virus and prepare for the omicron variant here in Monroe County,” Bello said.

“It [omicron] is coming,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It is probably here and we expect to see a surge very soon. Because of the surge, we can expect more people to need hospital beds, and stress our hospital systems more than they already are. We can stop it from spreading. The evidence is still coming in, that the vaccine is highly effective, but we still have a lot of people who haven’t gotten their boosters, we still have a while to go.”

The county executive last week said that Monroe County will comply with the state’s new indoor masking mandate for public places that was put in place to combat rising COVID-19 rates statewide. The mandate requires all indoor businesses and venues to require customers to wear masks, or require proof of vaccination for entry.

The mask mandate is in effect until January 15, 2022, after which the state will re-evaluate based on current conditions.

Some major regional retailers, like Wegmans and Tops, have already announced they will comply with the mandate.

“This is our hometown,” Colleen Wegman said at Monday’s press conference. “We care about our community. We would like to keep our community open. That is why we ask everyone to please consider three things: Get vaccinated, get your booster, and also wear your mask just a little longer.”

A violation of any provision of this measure is subject to all civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation. According to the governor, the respective business would face the fine for a violation, not an individual for not wearing a mask.

“Masking works,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It is among one of the most important things that we could do in the short term. Every business and every customer who understands how important it is remain safe is accounted for and thanked.”

Local health departments are being asked to enforce these requirements, officials from the governor’s office say — a change from previous compliance check crackdowns under the Cuomo administration earlier in the pandemic when State Liquor Authority and State Police also assisted with enforcement monitoring.

This new campaign, though, appears to be more about education and encouragement rather than enforcement, especially in terms of potential confrontations.

“We strongly encourage for people to not do that [confront people,” Duffy said. “For those who are going to be defiant — we don’t want to go back to a shutdown. I think we need to appeal to common sense. People who say they won’t lead by this example are politically led. We do now want to be shutdown. We urge businesses, I would not confront customers — for the safety of staff, I would not encourage that.”

Several counties, including Livingston, Wyoming, and Ontario locally, have announced they would not enforce the mask mandate. Other counties, like Erie in Western New York, implemented an indoor mask mandate before the state intervened.

“This is about respect and public health — this isn’t about politics,” Duffy said. “I hate wearing masks, but I cannot imagine infecting someone and having them lose their life. I don’t think anyone has died from the vaccine or masking, but I do know that 800,000 have died from COVID [in the U.S.].”

Part of the new campaign announced Monday will include the distribution of “Let’s Keep Monroe Open” posters to businesses, organizations, and employers to show their customers and employees that they provide a protected and safe environment.

“The center focus of this campaign is our businesses,” Dr. Mendoza said. “They have been doing the right thing, asking their customers to follow easy instructions, to wear a mask. That will undoubtedly keep someone from getting COVID. It will undoubtedly keep someone from going to the hospital, and maybe even save someone’s life.”

Part of the campaign will also include more endorsements of vaccine efficacy.

“Talk to someone you trust, get information that’s not third hand, not from social media,” Malik Evans said.

“I have news: Social media is not real,” Bello said. “Facebook is not the real world. Twitter is not the real world. Walking into Wegmans and seeing 98% of customers where masks is the real world. Most of the businesses in this community are participating. You can see it with your own eyes. Let’s work together with as many lives saved as possible.”

“We are asking people to please get their information from a trusted source,” Wegman said. “This team is a trusted source. We are going to rely on them to do the right thing for our customers.”

Bello declared a state of emergency for Monroe County in late November due to rising COVID-19 case rates and regional hospitalizations. While those metrics continue to surge near all-time pandemic highs for the area, Bello says he still does not support widespread shutdowns like those that were implemented in the spring of 2020.

“I don’t think we need more restrictions, we need to avoid it,” Bello said. “Our businesses suffered from them so much. We can’t go back. We need to support or businesses and schools so I would not support a shutdown.”

While hospitalizations are as high regionally as they have ever been since the start of the pandemic, local hospital leaders say they’re doing what they can to prepare for the anticipated omicron surge.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been meeting twice a day on how to take on the pandemic,” Apostolakos said. “One of my concerns that I’ve had during the last surge is to care for non-COVID illness. What technically is non essential by the state, but I can tell you some patients do not think their care is non- essential. Our system is stressed.”

“We are assessing our staff day-by-day,” Dr. Mayo said.

The URMC Chief Medical Officer said if more and more COVID patients get admitted to the ICU, more care options would have to be limited.

“We are getting to that point,” Dr. Apostolakos said. “If we continue to admit COVID patients to our ICU, than we are going to have to limit care that we provide. Now we are talking about essential surgeries that would have to be stopped, in order to bring staff in to care for more patients.

“People have to think about … What if we don’t have an ICU bed and you have a heart attack?” Dr. Apostolakos said. ” Of if you have a stroke? Or if you need major surgery and we can’t provide it?”

Full Press Conference:

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