New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio speak during a news conference on the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York on March 2, 2020. | David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
NEW YORK — New York City is reliving some of the nightmares it endured earlier this spring as coronavirus cases begin to surge, and once again Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio are pointing fingers and offering conflicting guidance.
The latest outbreaks have sparked fears of a second wave in America’s biggest city, once the national epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak. Nine zip codes with large Orthodox Jewish communities have formed the nucleus of rising cases, and city officials have warned for weeks that it’s begun to spread to surrounding neighborhoods — a Pandora’s Box that could send the city back to the days of overflowing morgues and war-zone hospitals.
De Blasio held a marathon call Saturday evening with more than a dozen city officials and public health experts, according to two people who were on the call. Assured that the uptick was a sustained trend, and not an anomaly, the mayor made a surprise announcement Sunday that he was ordering the shutdown of schools and businesses across those nine neighborhoods.
But Cuomo, who has the ultimate authority over the decision, hadn’t fully signed off. The governor, a fellow Democrat, held his own news conference Monday to say he would not close the businesses, though he would close schools a day earlier than de Blasio suggested. He then chided the mayor for not being more aggressive on enforcing public health guidelines.
The city and state have better testing now, better equipment and supplies, and a better handle on how the coronavirus spreads than they did in March and April — and public health officials still believe the new outbreaks can be contained.
But they also have the same political infighting — between Cuomo and de Blasio, public health officials and powerful community leaders — none of which has allayed fears about a new wave as the city heads into the winter months.
“These public disagreements between the governor and the mayor are not helpful,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia and once an informal adviser to the mayor. “To have the mayor overridden by the governor of New York State, it is not acceptable. If he’s got a difference with the mayor, call him up, come to a conclusion, yell at him. This should not be in the public forum.”
Cuomo maintained Monday that non-essential businesses were not yet a significant threat to public health. He also said he would allow for religious gatherings to continue, at limited capacity, even as he said such events are an opportunity for the virus to spread.
“The businesses are not mass spreaders,” he said — calling them a lower priority than schools, religious institutions and large gatherings. The governor left the door open to ordering closures in the coming days, but said he did not want to force shutdowns by zip codes and is instead looking to draw more precise boundaries of locations where the virus was spreading.
De Blasio said he would not take no for an answer, even as he acknowledged he cannot act without state approval.
“Until we hear otherwise, our plan is to move ahead Wednesday morning with enforcement,” he said. “What we cannot afford to do is delay.”
Cuomo also vowed to have the state take over enforcement of pandemic restrictions in hotspots, including a requirement to wear masks in public. A task force run by the State Police and state Department of Health will deputize NYPD officers or other city employees to carry out enforcement, the governor said.
De Blasio, in turn, said he would not agree to have city employees taking orders from the state and questioned the legality of such an arrangement.
It’s just the latest in a series of clashes between the governor and the mayor on how to manage the pandemic in New York.
De Blasio warned New Yorkers to prepare for a shelter in place order on Tuesday, March 17, but was immediately shot down by Cuomo. Then the governor turned around and enacted, essentially, the policy de Blasio espoused, though not until the following Sunday evening — a delay that researchers say likely cost many lives.
At the beginning of April, de Blasio advised New Yorkers to wear face coverings when out in public. The next day, Cuomo and his health commissioner questioned the effectiveness of the measure. Almost two weeks later, Cuomo issued an order making masks mandatory across the state.
And when de Blasio announced that city schools would stay closed for the rest of the academic year that ended in June, Cuomo insisted that was only the mayor’s “opinion” and no decision had been made. Ultimately, schools statewide remained closed.
“The back and forth between the Mayor and Governor … is an echo of what we saw in mid-March, when delays and power plays led to lives lost,” Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate and a frequent critic of de Blasio and Cuomo, said in a statement Monday. “Since then, the only thing that has been consistent between them is inconsistency. The message has been mixed, and the results are clear — cases are rising and New York is at risk of another wide-scale outbreak if proper precautions are not taken.”
During the mayor’s Saturday conference call with advisers, which lasted for more than three hours, he pressed his health appointees for data that would justify such drastic action, the sources said.
The officials, some of whom had suggested more aggressive action several weeks ago when the spikes began, told the mayor the neighborhoods had hit a troubling benchmark: A transmission rate of more than 3 percent for at least seven days, which was a standard previously set for more aggressive action.
What’s more, they were raising the citywide average transmission rate — the data officials track to determine whether public schools can safely remain open.
“Really, it was the data we saw that we analyzed Saturday that convinced all of us it was time to do something more rigorous,” de Blasio said during his weekly interview on Inside City Hall Monday night. He had hoped rates would improve with enforcement, as was the case following a spike in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, but that did not occur in these areas.
Several officials, such as Jay Varma, a top health adviser to de Blasio, and Department of Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi, had wanted aggressive enforcement actions earlier, following signs of a spike in August, three people involved in the city’s pandemic response said.
“City Hall never listens to the actual experts. Numbers are already rising around the city, not just in these zips,” said one person familiar with the discussions.
“He goes out of his way not to use the word ultra-Orthodox or look like he’s singling them out and that strategy has backfired,” another person involved in the talks said. “It’s a frustration for professionals in the administration.”
De Blasio, who has historically governed with heightened sensitivity toward Orthodox Jewish communities, wanted to hand out masks to those not donning them, rather than immediately issuing tickets, as some of his officials had suggested. But anyone who refused a mask would be given a summons, de Blasio said.
“If someone refuses a mask, then you’re getting a fine right away, but the goal is to change the behavior,” he said Monday night.
His public hospital chief, Mitch Katz, reinforced potential concerns within the neighborhoods that would be targeted, and Pinny Ringel, who works as the mayor’s liaison to those areas, also urged extensive community involvement to mitigate a backlash, the sources said.
The three sources said the officials are now closely tracking a potential increase in infection rates two weeks after gatherings for the Jewish high holidays, including Yom Kippur last Monday.
Like outbreaks in Rockland County and New Jersey, the increased numbers tend to originate from Orthodox communities, where religious gatherings, weddings and other celebrations have occurred often without the use of masks or social distancing.
“Medical experts have identified a number of important steps people should take to protect themselves,” read a letter sent Thursday by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, an umbrella group of more than a dozen Orthodox rabbis. “Social distancing, face covering, hand washing, special precautions for the elderly and for those with pre-existing medical conditions, and staying at home when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.”
The next day, five senior Orthodox leaders in Far Rockaway wrote a letter to their congregation, advocating for similar precautions.
“There has been much focus on the neighborhoods in N.Y.C. and in Nassau with the highest rates of infection that all share the common denominator of dense Orthodox populations,” the letter stated, urging congregants to wear masks, avoid large crowds, social distance and quarantine if sick.
“Government guidelines must be followed,” the letter reads.
But it’s unclear how many in the community are heeding the advice of rabbinical leaders and if it’s too late to contain the spread.
City health officials and members of the Orthodox community who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity say misinformation and conspiracy theories have been rampant in a politically conservative community suspicious of outside interference.
After suffering a severe outbreak earlier this year, many said they believed they had achieved herd immunity, or enough people who had contracted Covid-19 to fight off a second wave. Most public health experts have said herd immunity would need to be much higher and it’s effectiveness in Covid-19 remains unclear.
Many others adhered to right-wing talking points, disseminated through social media, that said the severity of the disease was a hoax.
“It’s like any other American: you need to be already pretty convinced that something is a hoax for you to suddenly believe everything that gets forwarded on WhatsApp,” said Yosef Hershkop, manager of Kāmin Health Crown Heights Urgent Care, referring to the popular messaging program. “Remember WhatsApp is also used to forward [credible] info from orthodox Jewish doctors and Hatzolah. Not just nutty or wrongful memes. Most people are getting a steady stream of both kinds of content.”
Despite De Blasio’s light touch with the Orthodox community, he grew more aggressive during the pandemic and faced stiff backlash after warning the “Jewish community” in April to heed the city’s warnings. The mayor was accused of “scapegoating” Jews, and the focus again on ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods raises an ugly specter of anti-Semitism.
“People are going to panic anytime they see a kippah on their street,” Hershkop said, using another term for a yarmulke.
Erin Durkin contributed to this report.
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