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The Thanksgiving conundrum

You probably know that pretty much all of Erie County is now one big yellow micro cluster focus zone for COVID-19 infections. While some parts of the country are raging out of control, New York as a whole is doing much better. But Erie County has seen a spike in infections that resulted in an 8.12 percent positivity rate last week. That’s way above the state goal of under 1 percent, and even above the statewide average of 2.93 percent.

It’s not as bad compared to say, the Dakotas, Montana, Oklahoma, Utah, Iowa, and Texas, where the virus is raging out of control, but the plan in NY is not to let that happen here. And we have a potentially big holiday-super-spreader coming up—Thanksgiving.

That’s why Governor Cuomo limited in and outdoor holiday gatherings to ten people (if you are a family of eleven or more, you don’t have to throw anyone out). This includes private homes. "If you look at where the cases are coming from, if you do the contact tracing, you'll see they're coming from three main areas: establishments where alcohol is served, gyms, and indoor gatherings at private homes," Cuomo said in a statement.

Last Thursday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz held a COVID-19 briefing: “We are advising the public to limit holiday gatherings, starting with at least Thanksgiving, to only your household.”

A tricky subject

The question becomes, how does the state enforce such a rule? “We all know if everybody in Erie County decided they were going to have a large gathering, it would be pretty near impossible for us to police that,” Poloncarz said in his statement.

Attorney and Constitutional expert, Paul Cambria, was a bit more pointed in his assessment: “This is the first time that I’ve been exposed to any government agency trying to control what happens inside a house.” He added, “If somebody came to my door and said, ‘I want to come in and inspect how many people are in your house,’ I would say, ‘Well, where is your search warrant?’”

Poloncarz stresses the responsibility to the community, saying, “Too many people like to talk about ‘me.’ Too many people like to talk about ‘I.’ ‘You’re infringing on my rights. I have a Constitutional right to do what I want.’ We have to think about ‘we.’ We are all in this together.”

Who gets hurt?

It’s not just individuals that are potentially harmed by a COVID spike; it’s businesses. Gyms, for instance, have invested heavily in safety measures to protect customers. They only recently were allowed to reopen. If the county moves to orange zone status, such nonessential businesses, along with health centers, barber shops, hair salons, tattoo parlors, and personal care services, would again be closed. Restaurants too, would be required to limit service to takeout. Bars and restaurants already must close at ten p.m.  Houses of worship are capped at half their maximum capacity. Regal Cinemas at Walden Galleria and Quaker Crossing had just reopened with COVID restrictions and protocols in place, when, last Wednesday, it announced it is closing again. There are fears that another lockdown would be the final deathblow for many local businesses.

Tick-tock

The yellow designation began November 13. The county will be reviewed in fourteen days, and if there is no improvement, it could go to orange, or even red. That would be devastating. Your Thanksgiving gathering of over ten could negatively impact everyone.

Sheriff Howard strikes again

It’s one thing to acknowledge that enforcing limits on Thanksgiving gatherings is difficult, and another thing altogether for law enforcement officials to signal their support for doing any stupid thing you want. That’s what Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard did. The controversial conservative law enforcement leader has announced that his department will not enforce the limit. "I have no plans to utilize my office's resources or deputies to break up the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner," Howard said in a news release last Thursday. "This national holiday has created longstanding family traditions that are at the heart of America, and these traditions should not be stopped or interrupted by Governor Cuomo's mandates."

What’s the risk?

Curious how much risk a gathering of thirty entails? Here’s an interesting National tracker that allows you to calculate by county the percentage risk of a coronavirus outbreak according to the number of attendees at your home. The risk might look small, but you have to consider all the other homes that might be doing the same thing. 

Dumb and ...

You might remember back on October 15, when the car of a young black North Buffalo man was spray-painted with racist and homophobic graffiti. Swastikas, “Go away,” a pro Trump message, repeated use of the n-word, and profane attacks against Black Lives Matter were sprayed all over the BMW X5. The car’s windshield was smashed and sugar was poured into the gas tank, as it was parked on Saranac Avenue in North Buffalo.

Pictures of the car appeared on social media and were widely shared. A local collision shop owner offered to repair the vandalized vehicle. But many comments suggested that the car owner, eighteen-year-old Clifton Eutsey, did it himself, something the teen vehemently denies. "Who would do that to their own vehicle?" Eutsey asked 7 Eyewitness News, "Who does that? Nobody does that to their own car. How are you going to get around now if you do that to your car?"

Not so innocent, say police

"It turns out that Mr. Eutsey did it himself," says Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. Last week, Flynn charged Eutsey with doing the vandalism to his own car, then filing false reports and insurance claims. Flynn says there is video evidence, which given the preponderance of Ring and similar doorbell cameras, along with street surveillance devices, seems almost a given these days. Eutsey faces a third-degree insurance fraud charge, a class D felony, and three misdemeanor charges.

But there’s more

On Oct. 24, Buffalo police officers observed Eutsey leaving a vehicle unattended with the engine running outside a home on Erskine Avenue. Many people don’t realize—or don’t care—that this is illegal. He returned and started driving, and police pulled him over. Flynn says he was driving without a license and had two loaded, illegal firearms on his person.

Eutsey was arrested and charged with felony weapons possession, as well as driving without a license and leaving a motor vehicle unattended.

 

Dumber

Michael Cremen of Franklinville failed twice to show up for his arraignment on charges stemming from an August 28 incident in which he attempted to stop a Black Lives Matter protest march from proceeding down Hertel Ave. He was video recorded wielding a knife during the incident, though he never used it.

He didn’t just skip the arraignment. He sent an email to the court explaining why: "I will not be compelled by any means to violate my conscience; therefore I will not wear a mask to any court proceeding or attend any court proceeding in which any person involved is wearing a face mask." It went on: "If you do issue warrant for my arrest, it is unlawful and please understand that anyone that approaches my person, wife or property, especially armed, wearing a badge and or face mask, I consider to be a very dangerous threat to my life, and my lord will severely punish those in violation of his order of protection over my life." Cremen admitted to the Buffalo News that he sent the wrath of god email threat. Police were not particularly worried about the vengeance of the Almighty, but Cremen seemed dangerous.

A warrant for arrest

On October 14, Buffalo City Court Judge Barbara Johnson-Lee issued a warrant for Cremen's arrest. Police did not rush over to his house to enforce it, perhaps waiting for a low-risk opportunity.

Last Monday night, a neighbor heard arguing and gunshots inside Cremen's home, says Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. Cattaraugus County police and a State Police Special Operations Response Team converged on the house. Initially, Cremen refused to come out, but police got him on the phone and eventually convinced him to walk down the driveway. He was taken into custody for the outstanding bench warrant and arraigned Tuesday.

The email comes back to bite Cremen

Under the state's reformed bail laws, there must be proof that the accused willfully failed to show up to a court appearance. That’s a pretty high bar, but the email was convincing. Cremen's lawyer argued that there was no proof Cremen sent it.  

Buffalo City Court Judge Shannon M. Heneghan set bail at $2,500 cash or $5000 bond. Cremen returned to court Friday—wearing a mask—for a hearing about his previous failure to appear in court. He pled innocent, posted bail, and was freed. His attorney attempted unsuccessfully to have hate charges thrown out, but the August video included numerous incidents of Cremen shouting racial epithets. Again, pretty convincing.

Cremen’s next scheduled appearance is a felony hearing set for January 13, 2021. "I can assure you that a felony hearing is never going to happen with Buffalo City Court,” said District Attorney John Flynn in an NPR story. “This case will go with the grand jury, and then, after that, they can make all the motions they want."

Cheap gas

It’s not clear if anyone envisioned this when Buffalo gave away part of downtown Buffalo to the Seneca Nation for a gambling casino. But as per the Seneca Settlement Act of 1990, that is now Seneca land, and the tribe is building a new gas station and convenience store at Michigan Avenue and Perry Street across from the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. That means cheap gas, tobacco products, and other tax-free items. 

In Niagara Falls, a similar venue was titled a "tax avoidance center" by nearby businesses facing an impossible competitive disadvantage. "They seek to monopolize the local gasoline and tobacco market with prices that are dramatically but artificially lower because they exclude applicable state taxes, even though New York state law requires those taxes to be collected on sales to non-Indian customers," says James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores.

Construction on the new Seneca One Stop is underway.

Now this is serious

It’s bad enough that COVID-19 is spiking again across the country and in Erie County, but at least we have been able to order our favorite takeout comfort foods and watch TV at home. But one classic variation on a Buffalo favorite is being threatened by shortages.

Cup-and-char pepperoni, a distinctive feature of Buffalo-area pizzas, is now hard to come by. These small pepperoni slices curl up in the oven thanks to a collagen casing, resulting in burnt-crisp edges, forming tiny meat cups that retain all the essential saturated meat fat, enhancing the overall Buffalo pizza experience.

Why?

There are several theories as to why presliced cup-and-char pepperoni has become hard to obtain, with available supplies spiraling in cost. Eater.com blames razor-slim profits on the work-intensive product, and the impact of COVID-19 on meat processing factories. Why risk an outbreak for so little profit? Some think it’s due to worker shortages in general.

Some local pizzerias have taken to slicing their own, using Buffalo-based Battistoni Italian Specialty Meats pepperoni, which comes unsliced. Battistoni’s costs are also going up, but the spike in demand has offset the increases.

You can read the full story here.

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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