ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza hosted their third weekly briefing with media Thursday to give an update on the county’s ongoing pandemic response efforts.
With Halloween Saturday, and the holiday season to follow, family and social gatherings remain a big question for many in the community.
“Like everyone else, I want to be able to celebrate with my family, and that’s what holidays are for, spending time with people you care about most and we can still do that,” Bello said. “We cannot tell you exactly what to do,” Bello said. “People have always asked me what’s the appropriate size. I can’t tell you what to do and neither can Mendoza, but what we can do is give you some things to consider and talk about the risks. If the positivity rate is 2% that means 1 of out every 50 people can be infected. A month from now when we’re all planning on celebrating Thanksgiving, the positivity could be at 3% or 4%, which would mean an even greater risk of someone being contagious.”
The county executive said it’s important for people to weigh the risks while planning for the holidays.
“Its all about mitigating the risk,” Bello said. “At the end of the day this isn’t just about protecting ourselves — wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and using hand sanitizer is not a selfish thing — it’s about protecting the people we care about most.”
Bar concerns and alternatives
The health commissioner said he is worried about bars as colder weather settles in.
“I’m growing increasingly concerned about bars,” Dr. Mendoza said. “I think most bar patrons, and most bar owners, are doing the right things. As the cold weather sets in, I think more people will be coming inside, and enclosed spaces like bars, many of which are small, pose a threat.”
The health commissioner encouraged Monroe County residents to consider different ways of socializing.
“Think about if there are safer alternatives; for example gathering around a fire pit at your home with your friends, or other socially distant opportunities,” Dr. Mendoza.
For folks who still prefer to go out for a drink, the health commissioner reiterated restrictions and precautions that have been issued under state guidelines.
“The capacity should be no greater than 50% of the maximum occupancy of the establishment,” Dr. Mendoza said. “Employees should always wear a mask. I urge all bar owners and all bar patrons to be observant to this, and we want to make sure we enforce mask wearing as much as possible.”
Although he hopes enforcement doesn’t become necessary, the health commissioner said his department could step in if it needs to.
“When I see these examples of people making unhealthy choices, I look inside and say ‘what can the health department do to connect better with that bar owner or individual,'” Dr. Mendoza said. “If we have to enforce, we will, and the health department is no stranger to that. I’m certainly not afraid of that, but I would like to get through this without having to take that step.”
Addressing COVID fatigue, the county executive admitted that he and most know the term well, but it’s important to not let the guard down as far as preventative measures go.
“We know that COVID fatigue is a real thing,” Bello said. “Everyone I know is tired of the new normal and wants to get back to the old way of doing things. I want that too, but we’re just not there yet.”
The health commissioner agreed, saying the fatigue is what separates the current wave of increasing cases from when the pandemic began earlier in the year.
“Where we do struggle is pandemic fatigue,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We didn’t have pandemic fatigue in March and we certainly have it now, and that is a concern for me because we as a community control our destiny.”
Echoing the sentiments of last week’s briefing, the local officials agreed that local COVID-19 numbers are on the rise.
“We are seeing, as you know, an increase in numbers and a lot of fluctuation from day-to-day, so we will be adding a seven-day rolling average to our daily report,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We’ve added a map that shows the rates by zip code.
The health commissioner says the increased testing allows the health department to narrow their focus to specific neighborhoods and areas for viral spread.
“As we have more numbers, our ability to drill down in smaller areas, and do further outreach, and focus testing — at the end of the day we don’t want to be driving blind,” Dr. Mendoza said.
The health commissioner says it would be helpful if more residents used the local symptom tracker, ROCCOVID.org.
“We are starting to see a correlation between the responses on ROCCOVID.org and the number of cases,” Dr. Mendoza said. “When we see more symptomatic individuals, that will allow us to identify potential areas of concern. We don’t unfortunately have enough participation to get to that level.”
The health commissioner says that what separates the community from what we went through in March is that we know more about the virus now than we did then.
“Last March we didn’t know very much about this virus,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We didn’t know about the precautions that made a difference. I think while there are similarities, the reality is we’re in a very different place, we know a lot more.”
What about second shutdown?
The local officials said that the shutdown which occurred earlier this year was because of the widespread unknown regarding the virus, treatment, and community transmission.
They agree that the state’s targeted hotspot cluster approach is more effective given the current circumstances, but they also say that if Monroe County were to become a hotspot cluster, that they can learn from what we went through earlier in 2020.
“The way we approach the reopening with phase one, two, three, and four is a reasonable way to go in reverse if we ever needed to,” Dr. Mendoza said.
Regarding the recent increase in cases, the health commissioner said school shutting down shouldn’t be a concern at this time.
“I would put them at the very end frankly because they’ve proven they can keep the infection rate low,” Dr. Mendoza said.
The county executive said the newly launched program, Fast Forward Monroe — a grant initiative to give small businesses access to funds — is going well.
“To date we’ve had 1,200 completed applications, many more are in various stages of being filled out,” Bello said. “The application period is still open and small businesses up to 50 employees can still apply.”
The county executive also said that there are options for people facing eviction or foreclosure.
“If you are facing eviction or foreclosure because of the economic downtown, the economic results of COVID-19, you simply need to call 211,” Bello said.
Keeping up with the leaders
On Wednesday afternoon, Bello and Mendoza came to News 8 for a coronavirus townhall to answer questions from the public on our status as a community.
Two weeks ago they announced that Monroe County had the lowest virus positivity rate in the country, among communities with more than 500,000 people.
Check back with News 8 WROC as we continue to update this developing story.