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Look back at the 7 top stories of 2021 in Western New York

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Posted at 4:44 PM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 16:44:25-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Western New York saw moments of change in 2021, from a new governor and reopenings to navigating the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. 7ABC is looking back at the seven stories that defined the year for our region.

Andrew Cuomo resigns; Kathy Hochul becomes New York State governor

On August 10, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would resign, effective August 24, following an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him. The announcement came one week after New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced the results of an independent investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, which found he had sexually harassed multiple women and violated state and federal laws.

Swearing In
August 24, 2021 - Albany, NY - Governor Kathy Hochul is sworn-in as New York State's 57th Governor by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore during a midnight ceremony at the New York State Capitol. First Gentleman Bill Hochul holds the Bible. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Following his resignation, then-Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, a Western New York native, was sworn in as governor at midnight on August 24. She is the first woman to hold the position. Prior to becoming lieutenant governor in 2015, Hochul served one term in congress as the representative for New York's 26th congressional district from 2011 to 2013. Before that, Hochul served as Erie County Clerk from 2007 to 2011 and on the Hamburg Town Board from 1994 to 2007.

Vaccinating Western New York

On December 14, 2020, RN Sandra Lindsay of NYC became the first healthcare worker in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. At that time the vaccine was made available to healthcare workers. New York State then implemented a phased approach, beginning with healthcare workers, medical first responders, staff in contact with patients, nursing home workers and nursing home residents in congregant settings.

On January 11, COVID-19 vaccines were made available to anyone age 65 or older, people who are immunocompromised, police and firefighters, public safety, corrections, and other essential workers. Appointments for the vaccine were often hard to find as vaccination sites faced lack of supply.

By March 23, vaccines were made available to anyone 30 and older, and by the following week. anyone over 16 was able to register. As of the end of 2021, anyone 5 or older can be vaccinated, and anyone 16 or older can receive a booster shot if they were vaccinated more than six months ago.

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Volunteers help distribute the COVID-19 vaccine at Niagara County's vaccination clinics.

With the accessibility of the vaccine came proof of vaccination requirements at some venues and businesses. On September 14, Pegula Sports & Entertainment, the owners of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, announced with Erie County that attendees to Highmark Stadium and KeyBank Center would be required to show proof of vaccination. The requirement at first was only required for those 12 and older, but was expanded in December to include children ages 5 and older.

Restaurants, bars and the ever-changing protocol for indoor dining

Local restaurants, bars and venues faced another year of changes in 2021. After adapting to indoor dining shutdowns in 2020 and reopening only to shut down again, on January 14, restaurants in regions then under orange zone restrictions were allowed to offer indoor dining at 50% capacity. The change was the result of a preliminary injunction issued by NYS Supreme Court Justice Henry J. Nowak.

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On March 19, restaurants were able to increase capacity to 75%. On May 31, curfews were lifted for restaurants statewide.

Restrictions returned on November 23, when Erie County implemented a mask mandate for indoor public venues, including restaurants. The state instituted a similar mandate, taking effect on December 13. In both cases, businesses that require proof of vaccination to enter are exempt from the mandate.

Reopening of the U.S.-Canada border

Western New York saw families and friends reunite in 2021. After being shutdown since March 2020, The Canadian side of the border reopened to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens on August 9. However, Canadians had to wait another three months before crossing into the United States. The border restrictions were extended each month through October, The American side finally reopened on November 8.

Congressman Higgins reacts to US extending non-essential travel at U.S.-Canada border

Race for Buffalo Mayor

In a major political upset, challenger India Walton defeated City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary on June 22. Mayor Brown later called his lack of campaigning a mistake. He did not debate his challengers before the Democratic Primary.

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On June 28, Brown announced he would run in the general election as a write-in candidate. Meanwhile, his campaign pursued getting back on the ballot in court. On August 16, he launched a petition to appear under a "Buffalo Party" line. However, the deadline to file to be on the ballot was May 25. A judge initially ruled in Brown's favor, but rulings to have Brown included on the ballot were overturned in federal and state courts.

On November 2, election day, write-in candidates amassed 59% of the votes, agains Walton's 41%. Erie County started counting write-in ballots on November 16. Counting was completed on November 19, with Mayor Brown receiving 38,338 write-in votes. Walton had 25,773 votes. Brown is the first mayor in the city's history to be elected to a fifth term in office.

Sentencing of Christopher Belter

Christopher Belter, a former Lewiston resident who pleaded guilty to rape and sex abuse in 2019, was sentenced on November 16 to eight years of probation. The sentence drew outrage from community members as to why the sentence did not include jail time.

Belter was initially granted youthful offender status in 2019, as long as he followed the terms of his probation. The crimes Belter pleaded guilty to committing occurred when Belter was a teenager. He was charged in November 2018, when he was 17 years old. On October 29, Judge Matthew Murphy III determined Belter would be sentenced as an adult and was denied youthful offender status. Judge Murphy said of Belter, "we now know from his documented failure to to follow the rules imposed by the Court about abstinence from pornography that this defendant does not hesitate to ignore the rules when they compete with his own carnal appetites."

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Christopher Belter appearing in court for sentencing.

However, the same judge also handed down a sentence that did not include prison time. Instead, on December 2, Belter was assigned Level 3 violent sex offender status.

A group has filed a complaint against the judge involved.

Buffalo Bills Stadium

On August 31, a source close to the stadium negotiations for the Buffalo Bills told reporter Hannah Buehler that a plan had been submitted to the state and county for a 60,000-seat open-air stadium to be completed in Orchard Park by 2027. The new stadium would have a $1.4 billion price tag.

Highmark Stadium was built in 1973, and the team's current lease with Erie County is up in 2023. On August 17, a Pegula Sports & Entertainment spokesperson said a renovation of the stadium was no longer an option.

On September 29, Governor Kathy Hochul announced contracts with two firms to help negotiate the deal for a new stadium. One of the contracts was with real estate/infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, which was asked to review and analyze size, location, and other options for a new stadium.

The state released the AECOM study on November 2. According to the study, it will cost $862 million to renovate the current stadium and $1.354 billion to build a new stadium next to the current site. A downtown stadium could cost about $2.1 billion. On December 23, Empire State Development, the state team working with AECOM on stadium research and negotiations, released renderings for what each option would look like: a new stadium in Orchard Park, a new stadium in Downtown Buffalo, or a renovated Highmark Stadium.

Orchard Park rendering

Governor Hochul shared where the state sat on a potential stadium location when she was asked to provide an update on stadium negotiations on December 20. She said, "we have had conversations and I've made it clear to the Buffalo Bills organization that we wanted to accommodate both options and let them see the cost of downtown and Orchard Park but not putting our finger on the scale and if their desire is Orchard Park, it's Orchard Park, we've never said otherwise."