Cuomo: Too early to make decisions on vaccine requirement for stadium attendance

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo says Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz might have gotten ahead of himself Tuesday when he asserted that vaccinations will be required for fans to attend Bills and Sabres games this fall.

Cuomo was asked directly about Poloncarz’s claim that Erie County — which owns both the Bills’ Highmark Stadium and the Sabres’ KeyBank Center — would be able to make the call on its own to host a full-capacity, fully vaccinated crowd.

“I don’t think the County Executive is legally correct,” Cuomo said Wednesday during a conference call with statewide media. “But besides that, we tend to work in a collaborative with local government and were just not there yet to make those decisions. … Legally, the state would have to sign off on it. Practically, we tend to do it as a collaborative.”

A spokesperson for Poloncarz pushed back on Cuomo’s statement later Wednesday, saying “the county does have the power to determine what happens there.”

Stadiums in New York are currently allowed to host 20% of their full capacity. Fans must either show proof of full vaccination or have a negative COVID-19 test result to gain entry.

Poloncarz’s announcement indicated a negative COVID-19 test would not be enough. “No Vaccine = No Entry,” a slide in his presentation plainly declared. Erie County is believed to be the first region in the nation to announce plans that would require all fans to be vaccinated.

Cuomo said he anticipates stadium attendance to be an ongoing question as we progress through the pandemic.

“I was with the Islanders today, it’s going to be the same question all across the board: What do you do with sports attendance when you get down toward the end of the year and the seasons restart?” Cuomo said. “And I think you have to see where you are. Things change so quickly. ‘Where are you going to be in four months?’ I’ll tell you in four months. If the immunizational goes right; if there’s no variants of interest; if, God forbid, there’s not another virus or pandemic … so, I just think it’s early to make a decision months ahead.”

Poloncarz said Tuesday he had discussed his plan with the Bills.

“Our plan is that unless you are vaccinated, you will not have entry to the stadium,” Poloncarz said. “It is easy, it is safe. We can then guarantee 70,000-plus people at the stadium.

“I want to see that stadium full, I know the Bills want to see that stadium full,” he added. “We want to return fans back to the stadium. That’s why the county supports returning all fans to the stadium and (hockey) arena for this fall … We know there’s a way to do it. We know there’s a way to ensure it. That’s that all fans and staff are fully vaccinated.”

Cuomo did say one part of Poloncarz’s statement was true.

“The County Executive, I think said something like he would hope that everybody would be immunized, and if everybody were immunized then everybody could go to the game. Which is also true,” Cuomo said. “If everybody’s immunized — and, by the way, (if) there’s no variant of interest, and the vaccinations work the way we hope they’re going to work — if everyone’s immunized, then theoretically we’re back to normal.

“I have too much experience to try to guess what four months down the road looks like,” Cuomo said. “I think the past year has taught us that.”

In response to Cuomo comments, Poloncarz’s office released the following statement:

It is very early to make any decisions, and that’s something everyone realizes; after all, we are currently in a third wave of COVID-19 locally and numbers are rising, so anything could happen and in that light, in-person attendance at any sporting event seems far off until those numbers come down. The start of the season is still 4.5 months away, so a lot can happen in that time. However, both the stadium in Orchard Park and the Key Bank Center are county facilities, so (like any county facility) the county does have the power to determine what happens there. We have worked with NYSDOH all along and will continue to follow their guidance as to what “maximum capacity” might be by the start of the football season, but the bottom line is that the more people who get vaccinated in the next few months, the better the chance of a full stadium in the fall, which is what everyone wants.

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