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The Editorial Board: Poloncarz dropped the ball by reversal on vaccine mandate for Bills games

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Buffalo Bills fans are all too accustomed to missed opportunities. (The names Ronnie Harmon and Scott Norwood spring to mind.) The latest misfire, however, is in the public health arena, after Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and his Health Department dropped the idea of requiring spectators to be vaccinated to attend Bills games.

Poloncarz in the spring announced his intention to require fans at Bills and Sabres games to be inoculated. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed back on the idea, saying Poloncarz did not have the authority, even though the county owns Highmark Stadium. Poloncarz dropped the idea in June, when Covid infection rates were significantly lower than they are now.

Poloncarz should revisit that idea. Yes, a vocal segment of Western New York’s population will march in the streets to protest vaccine mandates or even mask requirements, which they mistakenly see as trampling on their rights. Some of the Bills’ own players are vaccine resisters. But it's the right thing.

The Seattle Seahawks, Las Vegas Raiders and New Orleans Saints are the only NFL teams to require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours. Erie County, too, could have been an early adopter, but the season is about to begin with Sunday’s opener in Orchard Park.

Let the ticket-buyer beware: A gathering of some 70,000 people, even in an open-air stadium, carries Covid risks.

Fans were packed into college football coliseums this past weekend. TV cameras showed masses of humanity crowded together, with masks few and far between. There are no reports yet of Covid outbreaks from the games, but the popularity of college football in the South – where vaccination rates have stalled and hospitalizations have surged – does not bode well for the rest of the season.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN that maskless fans clustering together was not very smart.

“Outdoors is always better than indoors, but even when you have such a congregate setting of people close together” there is still a concern, Fauci said.

“A packed football stadium now is not a good idea,” Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, a professor of medicine and public health sciences at the University of Miami’s medical school, told Kaiser Health News. “When there’s a lot of shouting and yelling” without masks, “it means they’re spraying the virus.”

A question confronting the Bills now is how much do stadium personnel need to act as mask police? The team requires all fans to wear a mask in enclosed areas of the stadium, regardless of vaccination status. Unvaccinated fans are required to wear masks at all times, except when eating or drinking. Is there any practical way to enforce those rules?

Many fans attending the University at Buffalo’s home football game last Thursday were seen maskless, though face coverings are required in UB Stadium at all times, except when eating or drinking.

We still believe, as we said in April, that the county vaccination mandate for the stadium was a good idea. Unvaccinated fans will pose a risk to each other and to those with compromised immune systems. Anything that prods more Western New York residents to get vaccinated helps the whole community.

Ticket-buying fans who oppose vaccine requirements are obligated to follow the masking rules and do their best to avoid causing outbreaks that would force the Bills or the county to revise their admissions policies.

Anyone buying a ticket to an NFL game is consenting to the league’s official ticket policy, which includes a “waiver and covenant not to sue.”

The waiver says: “An inherent risk of exposure to Covid-19 exists in any place where people are present. By entering the stadium and stadium grounds, holder voluntarily assumes all risks related to exposure to Covid-19.” It's there for a reason.

It’s up to every fan to do his or her own calculation of risk vs. reward in attending a Bills game. It could have been different.

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