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Cuomo eases COVID-19 restrictions in upstate Hasidic hub despite concerns that some refuse to test

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo eased restrictions Wednesday on the coronavirus “red zone” centered on the Hasidic hub of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., while leaving other red zones in Brooklyn and Rockland County — also surrounding large Orthodox Jewish areas — intact.

Kiryas Joel’s red zone, in Orange County, which limited religious gatherings of any kind to 10 people, will be downgraded to an “orange” designation, which allows for religious gatherings of up to 25 people. Businesses that are not considered high-risk locations for transmitting the virus, such as gyms and nail salons, are allowed to open as well. Schools will remain remote-only.

Red zones in south Brooklyn, primarily around the neighborhood of Borough Park, as well as a red zone in the Hasidic hub of Monsey, in Rockland County, will remain red, Cuomo said.

Cuomo has repeatedly cited the state restrictions as the cause of the declining rates of positive tests for the coronavirus in designated red zones.

“In Orange County, the red zone was at 12% three weeks ago,” Cuomo said on a conference call with reporters. “It’s now 2%. Thats obviously dramatic progress.”

Yet last week, Orange County’s health commissioner suggested that the change in the positive rate in Kiryas Joel may be linked to reports she has received from doctors that town residents showing symptoms of COVID-19 are refusing to take test for the virus.

“This is not a typical declination in percent positive rate, which would be more gradual and over a longer period of time,” Gelman told the Forward in an email. “I suspect there is some degree of correlation between the physician reported patient refusal to test and the dramatic decline in the currently reported test positive percent.”

Gelman added that the New York state coronavirus task force has also received reports of test refusals from Kiryas Joel.

Gelman said that Kiryas Joel, a densely populated town of about 26,000 people, has also seen increased hospitalizations and a decline in the number of overall tests, heightening her concern that the reported positive test rate is hiding an ongoing outbreak. Neither Gelman’s office nor the state Department of Health have responded to multiple requests for data on hospitalizations and overall tests from Kiryas Joel.

“These are not anecdotal accounts, and there is an inherent, serious population-wide health risk that impacts all residents of our county,” Gelman said.

Gedalye Szegedin, the town administrator of Kiryas Joel, disputed Gelman’s accounts, saying that the town is conducting 800 tests a day.

“There could always be one or two people in any community that, for whatever reason, refuse to test,” Szegedin said in an interview Monday. “But I believe that from a village-wide perspective, testing is very popular, and it’s done very aggressively and rapidly.”

Gelman’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the newly eased restrictions; the Forward was unable to ask Cuomo at the Wednesday conference call whether the Department of Health has determined whether the reports of refusals are contributing to Kiryas Joel’s drop in the rate of positive virus tests. A spokesperson for the Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at feldman@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

Cuomo eases coronavirus restrictions in Kiryas Joel

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Cuomo eases COVID-19 restrictions in upstate Hasidic hub despite concerns that some refuse to test

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