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Mask Refusal At Legislature Creates Tension

Several residents would not wear a mask in the county legislature chambers, even though they were asked to do multiple times so by the chairman. Photos by Gregory Bacon

MAYVILLE — Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel’s decision to not enforce the mask mandate locally created some tension at this week’s legislature meeting when some residents refused to wear masks even though they were asked to do so.

On Wednesday at the start of the county Legislature meeting, Chairman Pierre Chagnon requested everyone in the chambers to wear a mask. “I would appreciate everyone conforming with that,” he said.

In the back of the legislature chambers are seats for the general public. Some audience members present chose to wear a mask while others didn’t. A county employee could be seen offering masks to every person and many declined.

Sheriff Jim Quattrone was sitting directly in front of the public but did not turn to face any of them. There are also sheriff’s deputies that greet the public as they enter. They, too, did not approach any of those in attendance not wearing a mask.

At the end of the regular meeting, Chagnon invited people to speak to the legislature. He again reiterated his request for anyone who speaks to wear a mask as they approached the microphone.

The first woman who approached the microphone said she “can’t wear a mask,” but promised to keep her distance from others.

The woman, Kathy Abbate of Ashville, thanked Wendel and others for “the decision to stand against the illegal and unconstitutional mandates and fines associated with non-compliance.” She was referring to Gov. Kathy Hochul enacting a mask mandate for all of New York state, which went into effect Monday.

For the next 40 minutes resident after resident approached the microphone with the majority criticizing the state for the mask mandate. Some were calling for “alternative drug therapies” and others said the state is trying to chip away the freedoms of all Americans.

One woman said she is a nurse and is disappointed she can’t work. Another woman said her local restaurant is in fear that it could still be be fined by the state, even though the county executive said he’s not going to enforce the mask mandate. Another resident called on the legislature to refuse any state or federal funds that are given to promote the vaccine.

At one point, Chagnon did ask a resident to wear a mask before speaking. “You are guest in the chambers of the Chautauqua County Legislature. I requested you to wear a mask and I would expect and appreciate some respect for this chamber, for these legislators, and my position,” he said. She refused, saying the government doesn’t have the right to tell her what to do with her body.

While she was speaking, Legislator Bill Ward, R-Mayville, asked Chagnon if the legislature was going to “go on record ignoring the state mandate” but the chairman said Ward comments were out of order.

Ward apologized for interrupting and later took to the floor to speak. When it was his turn he again asked Chagnon if it’s the legislature’s position to ignore the state mandate, but the chairman didn’t respond.

As this was his last meeting, Ward replied, “I’m going to leave my disappointment and just say that I stand with the county’s stance, the health department’s stance that encourages folks to wear a mask, that encourages all business, schools and public gatherings to follow the health department guidelines and require masking and social distancing. I would encourage the Chautauqua County government to support those practices and save lives.”

Legislator Chuck Nazzaro, D-Jamestown also spoke during the second privilege of the floor. Wednesday was his final meeting as well. He said he was speaking “not as a legislator” but as a lifelong resident of the county. “I’m pretty bi-partisian and non-political so I’m not here to debate the political issues,” he said.

Instead he shared how the day before he went to the ICU at UPMC Chautauqua in Jamestown saying good-bye to one of his best friends who was dying of COVID-19. “He refused the vaccine — his choice, that was his right. He would not wear a mask unless he had to, again freedom of choice. He thought he could beat the COVID. Today I went with his wife to Lind Funeral Home to help make arrangements for his burial,” Nazzaro said.

He also was at a funeral earlier in the day from a family member who died of COVID-19. “Not a good couple of days for me,” he said.

Nazzaro called on residents to “do the right thing” and take precautions and get vaccinated. “We are in a health crisis. Over 800,000 people died nationally. We can debate the issue. Sure we can. This county, we had 11 deaths last week. Two weeks ago we had over 800 new cases. … The reason I wear a mask is I believe it is the right thing to do. It is my right. But also, I don’t want to give this virus (to others),” he said.

Hochul has the mask mandate in place at least until Jan. 15. The organizational meeting of the county Legislature is set for Jan. 3 while the next regular meeting will take place Jan. 26.

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