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Cuomo: Western New York has not lived the full pain of COVID's wrath

'Western New York read about New York City. They read about Long Island. They watched it on the TV news, but the numbers were never as bad in Western New York.'

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement Wednesday about the current infection rate in the Western New York region, the governor spent some time discussing his opinion about the area.

The governor said in his personal opinion, "Western New York never lived the full pain of COVID's wrath. Western New York read about New York City. They read about Long Island. They watched it on the TV news, but the numbers were never as bad in Western New York."

Cuomo added that people need to believe it's real in order to dramatically change their behavior.

"For me to make these dramatic changes in behavior, I have to believe this is real," Cuomo said. "And it wasn't real because it wasn't real to me. You know when it becomes real? When it's real to me. I get it was real in New York City, but I'm in Buffalo. Buffalo is much different than New York City, and it wasn't real to me."

The governor went on to say that he believes Western New Yorkers didn't have the same level of fear, saying Western New Yorkers never felt that same level of reality as downstate New York.

"What caused so many people in New York to change their behavior? It was the fear. Why do you guys wear the masks now? Oh, 'because you said we have to' — 'there's a law that says.' No. You wear the masks because you're afraid of COVID and because you're concerned about other people, but because you think it's real. Because it is real for you. Western New York never felt that same level of reality."

At this time, the Western New York region has the highest infection rate in New York State. Because of that, Buffalo and the surrounding areas in Erie County are going from a Yellow Zone to an Orange Zone.

A portion of Niagara County has also been added as a Yellow Zone.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz was asked about the governor's remarks during a county COVID-19 briefing. 

Poloncarz told reporters, "I think the governor was just talking about a comparison of what New York City and downstate was dealing with. We did not deal with that. But that doesn't and shouldn't limit the pain that people in our community have felt because of the loss of a loved one or someone who's dealing with the serious aftereffects of COVID-19."

Some elected officials say the governor's comments were even insulting.

"For him to minimize what people in Western New York have gone through is despicable and his behavior today was a playbook right out of the president's and I don't think anybody liked it," Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo said.

Lorigo added, "It's disheartening to hear someone who is on TV or the radio every single day, and is supposed to be representing all New Yorkers, tell us that what we've been through isn't enough and that we're dumb and not listening."

Added said Rebecca Wydysh, the Chairman of the Niagara County Legislature: "To say that we're not taking this seriously is just incorrect in my opinion." 

Wydysh explained, "We've had 103 residents in Niagara County that have passed away due to COVID which is devastating to our families and to our community. We've watched our businesses shut down, many of them permanently because of the situation. We watched families struggling to pay their bills and buy food because they're out of work either temporarily or permanently. We have absolutely felt the pain of COVID here in Niagara County and we have taken it seriously."  

Dr. Thomas Russo, the chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo, believes the governor's assessment is only partially correct and that many factors could contribute to the spike in Western New York. 

"I don't think this is completely on our behavior. I think a majority of people here are actually taking this very seriously, wearing masks and doing distancing and there is a significant minority, unfortunately, that are not following the rules and because of that all of us have to face the consequences," Dr. Russo said.