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Cuomo, pointing finger at Orthodox community, will shut down schools in virus hotspots

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a striking challenge to leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community on Monday, demanding that they comply with state rules capping attendance at religious gatherings and enforce mask wearing in order to avoid a total shutdown of religious institutions.

The challenge came after the governor announced that, effective Tuesday, he was shutting down all schools, private and public, in nine New York City ZIP codes that have seen spikes in positive coronavirus tests.

“If you cannot agree to enforce the rules, we will close the institutions down,” Cuomo said. “I am prepared to do that.”

Cuomo said he would meet with Orthodox leaders Tuesday to make sure the community would agree to follow rules about gatherings and comply with state enforcement of those rules.

On Sunday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed shutting schools and businesses down by Wednesday in the city’s hotspot areas. Rates of positive tests of the coronavirus in those areas are as high as six times the state’s overall rate.

Cuomo did not mention business closures, but said that all schools in the affected areas would close Tuesday. At a later press conference, de Blasio said the city would go ahead with shutting down nonessential businesses in the nine hotspot ZIP codes.

During Cuomo’s news conference, he showcased two pictures that he said showed massive religious gatherings of hundreds of Hasidic Jews from recent weeks.

“You’ve all seen pictures like this for weeks,” Cuomo said. “What did you think was going to happen?”

cuomo coronavirus

Cuomo used photographs of Hasidic religious gatherings to point out lax adherence to state rules — and lax enforcement of those rules — within the Orthodox community. Image by YouTube/screenshot

However, shortly after the press conference ended, the Jewish Insider reporter Jacob Kornbluh suggested on Twitter that one of the pictures Cuomo used in his slide was from 2006.

Cuomo added that he wants to see rabbis in the community advocating compliance with the state rules. He said he was not sure that the Orthodox leaders would agree to compliance, since he has heard rabbis say that they believe the community has herd immunity — a claim that health experts say is erroneous — or that they believe, as Donald Trump has repeatedly said, that wearing a mask is not effective in preventing the spread of the virus.

He pointed to the earliest hotspot in New York, and in the country — an Orthodox synagogue in New Rochelle, N.Y. — which led to dozens of cases of COVID-19, and seeded an early and devastating spike in cases of the disease in Orthodox communities across the New York City area.

“I wanna have that conversation directly, myself,” Cuomo said of the Orthodox leaders. “This cannot happen again.”

He said the conversation would be “uncomfortable,” given his long relationship with the Orthodox community.

“I have a very close personal relationship with them. This is the last thing I want to do — forget the politics. Personally, I don’t want to have this conversation,” he said. “And you’re right on the line of government intrusion into religion.”

Orthodox communities have shown a spotty record of enforcing state rules.

Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn have seen large outdoor gatherings in recent days during the High Holiday season. On Friday, a top committee of Orthodox rabbis at Agudath Israel of America, the community’s main umbrella and lobbying organization, said that large gatherings “should be avoided” to stave off a shutdown of community institutions, and pointed to mask-wearing and hand washing as widely touted ways to prevent virus spread. The statement put the onus on local rabbis to encourage safety measures.

Cuomo’s order does not cover schools in Rockland and Orange counties, which have the state’s highest rates. The ZIP code including the Hasidic hub of Kiryas Joel, in Orange county, has a three-day average positive test rate of 21.2% as of October 4, according to state data, more than 20 times the state’s average rate.

“We don’t have the same level of problem” in those areas, Cuomo said in response to a reporter’s question about the discrepancy. He said that the Orthodox leaders he will be speaking to Tuesday will include people from the upstate communities.

“There’s some disparity in what the infection rates are, and we want to drill down on the data, but it’s the same basic conversation we’re having here,” Cuomo said in response to another reporter’s question.

Cuomo said that the state would take over enforcement of mask-wearing and distancing rules within the city, using city personnel, after what he described as the city’s lax enforcement of state virus spread prevention rules.

Approval of the shutdown was expected by city officials.

“I don’t see a reason why [Cuomo] would say no to the closures,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said on a radio appearance Monday morning of de Blasio’s initial proposal.

The neighborhoods in de Blasio’s proposal include the Hasidic hub of Borough Park, and the South Brooklyn neighborhoods of Gravesend, Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, which have large Orthodox populations but are otherwise diverse areas. The plan also includes Kew Gardens, in Queens, another diverse area with a sizable Orthodox community.

Yet Cuomo suggested, with a graphic, that even within diverse ZIP codes, the Orthodox community is showing the majority of the cases.

He showed the location of positive coronavirus tests by address in the 11210 ZIP code, which includes East Midwood, a heavily Orthodox area, and Flatbush, which has a large Black community.

The cluster of positives hewed more closely to the Orthodox area of that ZIP code, where there are numerous synagogues and yeshivas.

Cuomo has suggested that the spikes in cases in these areas can be isolated, likening them to embers in dry grass that can be put out.

“The activity in the cluster is very different than what’s going on in the rest of the state,” Cuomo said in a press conference on Wednesday. “That’s actually good news in some ways because you have effectively identified the genesis of the potential growth of the virus.”

Yet given the size of the spikes, they could cause a second wave of cases for the wider region, said Dennis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the City University of New York.

“I fear now, just looking at some of the numbers coming from the city and certain ZIP codes, it’s crossed a point where contact tracing and individual isolation could work,” Nash said.

Health officials have long predicted a second wave of the virus. Yet health experts who spoke to the Forward last week said that the Orthodox community’s unique demographics — large families, dense neighborhoods — as well as a spike in social events in the community in the late summer and large crowds at High Holiday services last month, can explain why the second wave, much as the first wave, appears to be originating there.

“A shtiebl and a fraternity house are all of a sudden looking more alike,” said Dr. David Abramson, a professor of public health at New York University, using the Yiddish word for a small synagogue. “It’s the time together, the proximity, the nature of the interactions, singing and loud speaking.”

Orthodoox Jews in Brooklyn also attended numerous weddings in August, during the community’s peak wedding season. Health experts within the community tried, with little success, to discourage the weddings or encourage the wearing of masks, and some are now attributing the increase in positive tests to those events.

In a letter to Orthodox communities published last week, Glatt pointed the finger for the recent spike to large gatherings over the late summer.

“This all ‘re-started’ with the flagrant disregard for scientifically vetted guidelines around weddings and kiddushim, large public gatherings, with many people eating unmasked and in close proximity,” he wrote.

What could have prevented an explosion in cases in tight-knit communities like the Orthodox world, Nash said, was contact tracing when cases were low. But New York City’s head of contact tracing admitted last week that there were fewer than a half-dozen Yiddish-speaking contact tracers on the city’s team.

Indeed, Agudath Israel, the Haredi umbrella and lobbying organization, has accused city contact tracers of being insensitive to the community.

“The contact tracers we have worked with have often been unprofessional and, to be blunt, ignorant of our community,” wrote Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel. “They are in dire need of cultural sensitivity training if there is any hope of them being effective.”

The 20 ZIP codes in New York state with the highest rates of positive tests for coronavirus, mapped below by the 3-day average rate. (Data current as of October 4.)

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman


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