BUFFALO, N.Y. — Erie County health officials announced a mask mandate for public locations in the county starting at 6 a.m. Tuesday. Masks will have to be worn by anyone 2 years or older who can medically tolerate a face covering, as well as staff of establishments who interact with the public.

"This is being done in conjunction with the emergency powers that are provided to me under the New York State's Public Officers Law, as well as the powers that are given to Dr. [Gale] Burstein as a commissioner in the commissioner orders under the New York State Public Health Law,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. “The state of emergency still exists in Erie County. We kept it in place so that we could deliver faster vaccine delivery as well as testing in the summer. We didn't think we'd need it for a situation as it is today, but we do."

The mask mandate is the first phase of the plan to combat the virus in the county. Phase two would be a vaccine mandate for indoor dining, bars and entertainment venues. Phase three includes capacity restrictions for all public locations, and phase four would be a total shutdown of the county.

"Now trust me folks, we only want to go into phase one,” Poloncarz said. “Nobody wants to go to phase two. And phase two is unnecessary if we act appropriately."

Poloncarz says they will only move to following phases in the plan after looking at COVID-19 case data. As of Nov. 21, there were 371 new cases of COVID-19. Poloncarz says the county has had 4,353 total new cases in the past seven days – one of the largest seven-day periods the Erie County Department of Health has seen. Hospitals are at or near capacity depending on the hospital based on their staffed beds. He says nearly 91% of all beds available in county hospitals are full.

“If we're decreasing in hospitalizations and cases, as in positivity rate, there would be no reason to go to phase two,” said Poloncarz. “At that point, we'd have to question whether or not we should end the mask mandate. So I think it is important that we look at it as we have to look at everything in total, as we always have. It's the totality of the circumstances, not one particular item. Though the hospitalization rate is key."

County health officials urge people to follow the mandate, and get vaccinated.

"We got 25% of adults in Erie County who haven't even gotten their first dose yet,” said Poloncarz. “If they had gotten their dose and we'd been over 90%, I think we'd have reached herd immunity in a better position, but because we're not, we need to protect everyone."

Meanwhile, Niagara County says it will not be implementing any mandates at this time.