BATH | Steuben County officials announced Thursday a “strong recommendation” to limit or cancel public gatherings in order to avoid possible transmission of the COVID-19 virus.


The county’s action is not an enforced ban on gatherings.


“It is our strong recommendation based on the current situation, which changes daily,” Steuben County Public Health Director Darlene Smith told the media at a press conference in Bath.


However, County Manager Jack Wheeler noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday already issued a statewide order banning gatherings larger than 500 people as of 5 p.m. Friday, March 13.


”The governor under his emergency declaration has the authority to enforce those rules,” Wheeler said.


He said the county itself is not setting a specific number on the size of gatherings.


Wheeler said the measures being taken by the county are precautionary.


“We want to stress there are no positive cases of COVID-19 in Steuben County at this point,” he said.


Smith said it’s important to act before there are known infections in the area -- but she said that doesn’t mean the virus can be kept out of Steuben County.


“By taking these steps, we are hoping to limit the harm of the disease by taking action early,” she said. “We won’t be surprised to see COVID-19 reaching Steuben County, as it continues to spread across the country.”


Smith said there are currently four individuals within the county who are under in-home quarantine and being monitored for possible infection. She said some, but “very few,” people within the county have been tested for the virus, but “we don’t have that number” specifically.


The county does have the ability now to conduct tests for the virus locally, with the option to send tests to Albany in specific cases for a faster turnaround, according to Smith.


As far as more stringent, legally-enforced measures to contain the virus, Wheeler said the county has the ability to make that call if it’s necessary.


“Both [Smith] and I have authority under New York state law to declare emergencies,” Wheeler said. “And [Smith is charged] with enforcing public health law in terms of quarantine, if someone will not [comply].”


But he said they don’t foresee having to take that action on their own.


“We prefer the state takes the lead so we have a unified approach,” Wheeler said.


He noted that the county is benefiting from having the time to study the situation, plan and prepare -- something areas downstate and in the Pacific Northwest with early outbreaks didn’t have.


“Since a few months ago, our dedicated staff here at public health, nursing, emergency management and others have been working very hard on this issue,” Wheeler said.


Wheeler also said he and Smith have been in communication with public school superintendents within the county to keep them informed of the county’s actions and the most up-to-date information on the virus.


One clear step the county has taken is canceling events it directly controls.


“Congregate meal sites are being canceled in Corning, Hornell and Bath,” Smith told reporters. “Meals on Wheels will deliver those meals to homes.”


She said that’s particularly important because of who attends those meal sites.


“The senior population and those with underlying health issues are at most risk of developing serious illness with COVID-19,” Smith said. “[They] are strongly urged to reconsider attending any public gatherings.”


She said beyond limiting mass gatherings, the steps residents should be taking are relatively simple, common-sense measures.


“If we practice everyday health habits, it is one of our best lines of defense against COVID-19 and other illnesses -- regularly washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, not touching your face with unwashed hands where viruses can enter through the nose, mouth and eyes, disinfecting high-touch surfaces and staying home when you are sick,” Smith said.


She said the best information about the virus is on the county’s website at https://www.steubencony.org/ or the CDC at CDC.gov.


Smith said county residents should not look to Facebook or other social media for information about the disease, which may be misleading or false.