ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Earlier this week, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz detailed a plan to allow the Buffalo Bills’ Highmark Stadium and the Buffalo Sabres’ KeyBank Center to operate at full capacity next football and hockey seasons.
In order to do so, he said all ticket holders in the county-owned venues would require their COVID vaccinations.
"We're not mandating everybody in the community be vaccinated. We're just saying, if you're going to enter this public space — which will have, as we all know when you're in the football stadium and walking through the concourses and so forth, everyone is packed tightly together — there's really no way to get a full house in there unless everyone's vaccinated," Poloncarz said on WBEN-930AM Thursday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a day earlier, suggested Poloncarz was speaking out of turn in saying the decision was his to make. Cuomo believes the state ultimately must sign off on any plan.
"I don't think the county executive is legally correct, but besides that we tend to work in a collaborative with local government and we're just not there yet," he said.
Poloncarz said he believes it's the governor who is wrong.
"The county sets the rules for the stadiums," he said. "That's why you can't smoke in the stadium. That's why you can't walk in with an alcoholic beverage. We believe we have the power."
The county executive pointed out the state Legislature rolled back some of the extraordinary powers it granted the governor for most of last year.
"The governor still has certain powers, but we don't believe the governor can control every facet of what we do at our facility," Poloncarz said.
Cuomo said it's too early to start talking about what happens next season with professional sports because things can change quickly over the course of a pandemic. Poloncarz said if circumstances change, plans can be revisited, but with football preseason coming in August, time is running out.
The county executive said he hasn't had direct conversations with the governor in the past few weeks, but that's not unusual during budget season. He said the county worked with the teams and it will work with the state on stadium and arena plans.
State Senator Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, whose district includes Orchard Park, is siding with the county executive when it comes to plans for fans in the sports venues. He agreed both with attempting to get the stadium and arena to full capacity, and that requiring vaccinations is the only way to do that.
Ryan said when the Legislature pulled back some of the governments COVID emergency powers, that included extra control over county government. He believes Poloncarz should be able to make the decision in the case of the county-owned facilities.
"I really don't think it matters at this point who's right and who's wrong," he said. "We just need to get the policy in effect so that we can get a full stadium, and hopefully next year we have a Sabres team that people want to go see and we can get that arena filled up too."
Ryan said the governor and county executive have worked well together during the pandemic, and he doesn't think their current disagreement will be an issue.