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County Exec. Candidates Debate COVID-19 Response

Republican PJ Wendel and Democrat Richard Morrisroe.

Editor’s note: this is the third of a four-part debate between candidates for Chautauqua County executive.

At the outset of the campaign for Chautauqua County executive, neither PJ Wendel nor Richard Morrisroe could have envisioned having to respond to a global pandemic.

At the time of the candidates’ debate held by The Post-Journal and the Observer, the county had 53 active cases of COVID-19 and had yet to see more than six hospitalizations at any given time. However, days later an outbreak at Tanglewood Manor and Memory Garden doubled those numbers and, as of Monday, the county reported 133 active cases and 18 hospitalizations.

Wendel, the Republican interim county executive, said he has been confident in the county’s response since March. He also defended the county’s timing in announcing that an outbreak had occurred at Fieldbrook Foods in August.

“Criticisms could be made about Fieldbrook Foods,” he said. “You look at the timeline. Thursday, the 20th of August was when the impact to Fieldbrook Foods was made known to the county that about 100 people had failed their screening test in the morning. Immediately we reached out to Fieldbrook Foods locally, Wells Enterprises in Iowa and worked with our HR staff, worked with the departments of health at the state and regional level.”

He added, “When you look at a population as large as Dunkirk, it could be critical and yes it was an outbreak, but we quelled that outbreak. The efforts that we did and the contact tracing that we did. The effort we put into this was substantial enough reduce that.”

The outbreak at Fieldbrook also prepared the county for an outbreak at SUNY Fredonia in September, he said.

“The plan was already there,” he said. “That was quelled to 100. We kept that low and helped Fredonia remain open while mitigating the spread in the community. I think it’s substantial. Could we be criticized for mistakes? I think there were some along the way, but the team I’ve had has done a tremendous job of keeping the spread limited.”

But Morrisroe, the Democratic nominee and Dunkirk city attorney, believes geography has played a role in Chautauqua County’s prevention of a major outbreak

“I think we got lucky because of who we are and where we are,” he said, noting that the county’s population is roughly the same size as the town of Amherst. We have a large land mass and we are relatively less dense. … There was enough publicity and enough communication from the national level on down and obviously there’s questions on what the reaction was at both the national and state level depending on your politics and how you feel about the governor and the president. At the local level, a lot of that is derivative. As you’ve said, we have to react to what is happening at the national and federal level. At the local level, we got lucky because of where we are and because we have space. We’re not New York City. We’re not even Buffalo or Rochester. We don’t have that kind of density so we should have better numbers because of that.”

He also was critical of how Wendel and his COVID-19 response team, including public health director Christine Schuyler and former public health director Dr. Robert Berke, responded to the outbreak at Fieldbrook. He claims city officials were not made aware of the outbreak by the county until a week after Wendel was made aware of the failed health screenings.

“What could we have done better? I sit next to (Dunkirk Mayor Wilfred Rosas) on all of these decisions,” Morrisroe said. “The mayor got a call a week after PJ got a call from Fieldbrook Foods. We deal with Fieldbrook Foods all the time because of all the expansion that’s going on there. I handle the sale of the lots for them to expand and build a substation. We didn’t hear a word from Fieldbrook Foods. We heard from PJ and Christine late and that’s an issue. Because this is an issue where the quicker you address it, the better off you are.”

Wendel refuted that claim.

“To say it came a week later wasn’t the case,” he said. “We talked to Fieldbrook Foods on Thursday and the mayor had called Fieldbrook Foods and they said that the mayor had reached out to them and we said we would talk with him about it. That was Friday afternoon.”

He added, “The city doesn’t have a health department, the city doesn’t have contact tracers, the city doesn’t have the testing capabilities. As soon as we had a plan enacted, and all the pieces in play, that’s how we rolled it out.”

He maintains that the county has been steadfast in its approach COVID-19, citing the county’s concerns over a weekend festival at Pumpkintown in Busti that forced organizers to cancel the festival.

“We have been aggressive in how we’ve done things,” he said. “There were a lot of people frustrated by (the Pumpkintown festival cancellation), but you’re looking at several hundred individuals in schools. School-aged children. The question I pose is if you are willing to assume that risk. Seventeen school districts are affected by that decision. … We have to be aggressive. Did I take a lot of heat from that? Certainly.”

He added, “We’ve based everything we’ve done on the facts and on the science. … We take what comes down and we implement it to the best of our abilities.

Still, Morrisroe believes that more could have been done.

“This isn’t easy for anybody. God willing, whoever of us gets elected come inauguration day we have a vaccine and we turn a new page. But we don’t control it. We deal with the cards we’ve been dealt so if this is still going on and I get elected, then we come up with a plan to deal with it and we get the right people in place.”

Wendel questioned why Morrisroe would want to change the current COVID-19 response team.

“It’s ironic to say that we have a 40-year veteran of our public health service who is our former public health director, our current public health director and two other physicians and we need to redo our team,” Wendel said. “I think our team is very substantial and I think our team is very well spoken. I don’t know that we need to change everybody when we’ve been successful.”

And, compared to how the rest of the state is handling the crisis, he is confident that the county is following “best practices.”

“I feel confident in what we’ve done and we’re not done yet,” he said. “We’re still here. We’re still fighting this and we are still dealing with what is happening. We’ve had a great team approach and I feel confident with the health and safety of our residents was maintained throughout this whole pandemic and will continue.”

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