LITTLE VALLEY — Despite the recent surge in local COVID-19 cases, you don’t see many masks in Cattaraugus County offices and meeting areas.
The county remains in a red zone, or community of high transmission of COVID-19, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends both unvaccinated and vaccinated people wear masks indoors due to the delta variant.
Just over half of eligible county residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and most all of the recent serious illnesses and hospitalizations have been among unvaccinated individuals.
The CDC last month had eased general masking recommendations to unvaccinated individuals indoors only. That has since changed.
As the number of new COVID-19 cases, including breakthrough cases of positive tests among vaccinated people and hospitalizations began to rise across the country, the CDC revised its masking recommendations.
In late August, there were more than 100 people packed into the Cattaraugus County Legislature chamber on the third floor of the County Center in Little Valley.
County Legislature Chairman Howard VanRensselaer had issued a directive strongly encouraging visitors to wear masks for the protection of lawmakers, staff and others. There were only a few masks worn by about 75 visitors who came to support a resolution naming Cattaraugus County a constitutional county and revising the county legislature’s mission statement. None of the legislators were wearing masks. The directive expired the next day.
VanRensselaer has previously said most people in the county building were vaccinated and should not have to wear masks.
During recent negotiations between the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the county legislature’s negotiating committee, the union insisted everyone in the room wear a mask.
Labor Committee Chairman Ginger Schroder and other members of the team were unmasked and refused. One member of the CSEA team had communicated with committee members that she was not committed to be in a room with anyone who was unmasked, she said.
"The chairman has not required masks," Schroder, R-Farmersville said Friday. "We have not had any problems, no issues. We don’t have a plan to go back to masks.”
Schroder said the county negotiators accommodate the union negotiating representatives by setting up ZOOM teleconference equipment unstead of canceling the negotiating session.
“It wasn’t just me,” Schroder said. “None of the (county) negotiating team were wearing a mask. We were in our room and we were unmasked.” Any documents were shuffled between the two rooms by someone who was masked, she added.
Ironically, Schroder said the ZOOM video appeared to show several people in the room with the CSEA negotiators and representatives were unmasked.
The county’s negotiators met in the large committee room adjacent to the legislative chamber, where the union was gathered. They are separated by a doorway.
Meanwhile, Dr. Kevin D. Watkins, Cattaraugus County public health director, notes the county “continues to be in the red zone where there is a high level of COVID-19 transmission.”
Watkins said that “based on the CDC guidance, any time you are in a community where there is a high level of transmission, you should wear a mask indoors — vaccinated or unvaccinated.”
That mandate, Watkins said, “is up to the chairman of the legislature.” He said he has spoken with VanRensselaer about the CDC recommendations, but declined to discuss his reaction.
“I’ll keep the chairman informed,” Watkins said.
With more than 100 cases per 100,000 people, Cattaraugus County and most other counties in the state are in the high transmission category.
Many county departments, including the health department, Community Services and the county jail require masks in certain circumstances.
Watkins said he wears a mask, as do others in his department, vaccinated or not.”
Schroder said the county hasn’t received any mandate that legislators and employees be masked in county buildings. “It’s not just me,” she said. “I don’t make the rules.”
She said there hasn’t been much support for masks for a period of time. “We’ve had no outbreaks. There are no transmission worries, because there is nothing going on.”
Schroder said VanRensselaer made a suggestion that people coming into the legislative chambers on Aug. 25 wear masks. “There has been no COVID, no impact, no positive tests” from that meeting, she said.
Schroder noted county lawmakers, department heads and staff “are like a family. We have no problems or concerns."
She said she had strong antibodies from a bout with COVID-19 last year, but declined to say whether she was vaccinated.
Contacted by the Times Herald, VanRensselaer said he had been briefed again Friday on the COVID-19 situation in the county.
“It’s hard to keep up with the recommendations; they are fluid and change frequently," he said. "What is clear is those who are not vaccinated are at risk. The risk is more elevated” with the delta variant spreading more quickly.
“We are considering all our options on masks in county buildings,” he said. “In the meantime, I encourage everyone who is not vaccinated to make plans to do so."