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Cuomo eases some coronavirus measures, but keeps largest Orthodox centers in strict ‘red zones’

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo relaxed coronavirus control measures Wednesday for parts of the state with elevated rates of infection, but several areas in the New York City area with large Orthodox Jewish communities will remain within the state’s most restricted zones.

Under the new rules, two parts of the borough of Queens — around Kew Gardens and Far Rockaway, both neighborhoods with large Orthodox communities — will go from “red” zones with the highest restrictions, to “yellow” zones, meaning that schools and all businesses can open. Religious gatherings can happen at 50% capacity of the worship space.

Businesses now in yellow zones can reopen Thursday, while schools can begin again in person on Monday.

Red zones, however, will remain entirely intact in south Brooklyn and Orange and Rockland Counties, with those areas’ halo of “orange zones,” which have slightly lesser restrictions than red zones, now being designated as yellow.

Those areas have seen drops in rates of positive tests for the virus, Cuomo said, but just not enough to downgrade them to lighter restrictions.

“We made progress, but not enough,” Cuomo said of Rockland County.

Red zone restrictions limit religious gatherings to 10 people, and require schools and nonessential businesses to close.

Cuomo declined to apologize Wednesday for how the restrictions were communicated to leaders of the Orthodox community on Oct. 9 when he first announced them. On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed his “regret” at not pursuing “more dialogue” with Orthodox leaders over the implementation of coronavirus rules.

“No,” Cuomo said in response to a question from a reporter about whether he would apologize to Orthodox communities over the restrictions and what those communities have described as lack of adequate communication from the government. “I’m sorry that they are disrupted, their religious ceremonies are disrupted.”

“In the same way I’m sorry to the Catholic community, and to the Muslim community, and to all New Yorkers — I’m sorry that we are going through this,” Cuomo said. “I’m sorry that the state has to impose disruptions on people’s lives.”

Cuomo has generated considerable resentment in the Orthodox community over the restrictions, which they felt were aimed directly at them. Hours before announcing the restrictions, Cuomo held a meeting with Orthodox leaders in which he told them synagogues would be allowed to have 50% capacity, people involved in the call said. Cuomo has said that state health officials pushed for the 10-person worship limit after that call ended.

Cuomo blamed the elevated infection rates in some areas on poor adherence to social distancing and mask wearing rules and lack of local enforcement of those rules.

“The infuriating thing here is, there’s no mystery here, it’s just discipline,” he said. “They don’t want to comply, they don’t believe in the rules… Alright, then you have to enforce them.”

The restrictions have worked, Cuomo said, pointing to the drop in infection rates.

For example, in Brooklyn, positive test rates went from 7.7% in the last week of September to 5.5% over the previous seven days.

Those zones in Brooklyn and Rockland and Orange Counties must nonetheless remain red, Cuomo said, because those areas have not gone below the 3% threshold of positive coronavirus tests the state is using to determine where to ease restrictions.

Cuomo also said that changes to an areas restrictions are determined by factors other than the testing threshold, including rates of hospitalization, whether law enforcement is enforcing the restrictions and whether the local community is cooperating with the restrictions.

Rockland County went from 13.1% to 4.8%, while Orange County went from 34.2% to 4.2%.

The Kew Gardens area of Queens went from 41.% to 2.5%, while Far Rockaway went from 3.2% to 1.8%.

Cases have seen sharp drops in Brooklyn neighborhoods that had coronavirus restrictions.

Cuomo’s comments about the Orthodox community came two days after he had a phone call with a small group of Orthodox leaders, primarily from the Satmar group of Hasidic Jews, after he ordered a shutdown of a Williamsburg wedding that was advertised as potentially drawing more than 10,000 people.

People involved in the meeting, in which the Orthodox people on the call largely praised Cuomo’s efforts at quelling the spread of the virus, called it “productive” and hoped for a “reset” in relations between Cuomo and the Orthodox community.

At the Wednesday press conference, Cuomo repudiated the idea that the state government has failed in any way to communicate its coronavirus rules.

“Do I believe we could have communicated the rules of social distancing and mask-wearing more than we communicated them? I suppose it’s always possible,” Cuomo said. “But I think I have communicated more with the people of the state of New York than any governor in the history of the state of New York.”

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

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