Closed Erie County business owners want to see the COVID-19 data

Erie County

Government officials have been reluctant to share industry specific statistics

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WIVB) — Dana Burgio reopened her salon in June after government officials reduced the novel coronavirus restrictions.

But as of Friday, she had to shut her doors once again, leaving her and other business owners miffed over the lack of publicized data that is driving orders that some businesses shut down as Covid-19 infection rates increase in communities across western New York and particularly in Erie County.

Salon La Moda, her salon in the Town of Tonawanda, had served hundreds of customers between June and this most recent shutdown. She required everyone to fill out a screening questionnaire and have their temperatures checked. She had a mandatory mask policy, as required, and sanitized every station after every customer.

In other words, she followed the rules. And according to her, not a single person contracted Covid-19 and her business has never been called by any contact tracer.

Based off Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s orders, gyms, barbershops, spas and nail salons also had to close, and restaurants are mandated to delivery or take out. Schools changed to virtual classes.

“I know a lot of salon owners,” Burgio said.

“Everybody I’ve talked to, nobody’s had an issue. I haven’t heard anything on the news about outbreaks at salons.”

In fact, health officials in Erie County called for limiting Thanksgiving guests to less than 10 people to prevent “living room spread,” which they said last week was a major cause of the burst in infection rates.

But Cuomo calls the shots and the impacted business owners are wondering where is the data and science that points to their industries as a problem, while grocery stores, box stores and other retail remains open.

“They sort of have an argument,” said Dr. Thomas Russo, infectious disease expert at UB Jacobs School of Medicine. 

“I think the difference between a grocery store or a retail store is that you can package together both masks and distancing. So, we know that distancing then sort of makes up for the imperfect mask use and imperfect protection from masks. Whereas in the nail or hair salons, you’re unable to distance. I believe that’s the likely rationale for the governor’s decision.”

But that’s not good enough for Burgio and Philip Pohlman, a stylist at R Salon in Williamsville.

“And we have followed all of New York State’s guidelines from sanitizing every station after a client leaves to new wardrobes for every client, to decreased amount of chairs in the salon for social distancing, which led to decreased amount of clients in the salon, which led to longer hours,” said Pohlman, who has been a stylist for 35 years.

“We have now just finally started to get rolling to where clients actually feel more comfortable coming in. It’s very frustrating to then all of a sudden have the brakes put on, especially when you see that the malls are open. You’re not to have social gatherings of 10 or more inside and you see the malls packed, stores packed. Why are we affected first?”

News 4 asked Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz Monday on News 4 at 5 about any recent data he has that shows gyms, spas, salons, barbershops and even schools rank high for spreading the disease.

“It’s not like these businesses were just picked out of a hat, okay, these are industries we’re going to shut down” said Poloncarz, who added that the orders come from the state and he has no authority to change them.

“It was based on empirical evidence and that’s why the state includes them in their cluster zone model.”

News 4 Investigates has also asked for this data, but so far nothing has been released.

“I really just wish I had some reasoning,” Burgio said.

“Like, we haven’t heard anything all along that salons have been a problem.”

Russo said “theoretically” if everyone in a hair salon or nail salon properly uses a mask, “even if you’re within six feet that should afford a significant degree of protection, but we know masks aren’t perfect, as well.”

Burgio said she is very strict about the guidelines in her 2,000-square-foot salon that she opened in 1996.

“They walk in the door, it’s immediate hand sanitizer, temperature check and questionnaire,” she said.

“Masks do not come off at all for any reason. We have three private rooms, I’m more than 6-feet away from (other stylists and customers) … I do not allow any more than 10 people in here at a time.”

Shutting down twice in a year is devastating for the self-employed hair stylists.

“After 35 years of doing this, we’ve never ever experienced anything like this, but personally, with holidays coming, this is a very, very busy time of year for us,” Pohlman said.

“So, it’s going to take a deep financial cut in our family, personal needs, but we just have to work it out and work through it.”

And Burgio said, “I’m a single mom of two children. I have a home to cover.”

“Honestly, I’m worried about a lot of people making it, even like I said, my staff, they’re family to me,” she said. “And kids, single parents, we have bills to pay. The financial hardship to put on us rather than giving us some (more restrictions), but I don’t know how much safer we could be here.”

Gym and restaurant owners are asking the same questions. They want to see the data that supports closing their businesses.

Russo said that there is “pretty good data and very strong plausibility” that indoor restaurants are a “significant risk.”

“And that makes sense because people are going to be indoors where the risk of infection is much greater than outdoors not wearing masks for a prolonged period of time and as we all know, there’s nothing magical about six-feet, particularly when the ventilation is poor.”

As for gyms, Russo said there is data that demonstrated gyms were an increased risk, but this study was done early in the pandemic and some enhanced measures have been put in place to mitigate those risks.

“Having said that, I always worry about gyms because when people undergo at least aerobic exercise they’re going to be breathing heavily, they’re going extrude a much larger number of respiratory particles,” Russo said.

If a person is infected and huffing and puffing on an exercise machine without optimum mask usage, then “gyms are a reasonable concern,” he said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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