NEW YORK – New York City is reliving some of the nightmares it suffered earlier this spring as coronavirus cases begin to rise, again with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio pointing fingers and offering conflicting instructions.
The recent outbreaks have sparked fears of a second wave in America’s largest city, which was once the national epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak. Nine zip codes with large Orthodox Jewish communities form the nucleus of emerging cases, and city officials have been warning for weeks that they will spread to surrounding neighborhoods – a Pandora’s box that could transport the city back to the days of overcrowded morgues and wars. Zone hospitals.
De Blasio hosted a marathon call Saturday night with more than a dozen city officials and public health experts, according to two people who answered the call. The mayor assured the surge was a continuing trend, not an anomaly, and surprisingly announced on Sunday that he was ordering schools and businesses to close in these nine neighborhoods.
But Cuomo, who has ultimate authority over the decision, hadn’t completely signed off. The governor, a Democratic compatriot, held his own press conference Monday to say he would not close shops even though he would close schools a day earlier than de Blasio had suggested. He then accused the mayor of not being more aggressive in enforcing public health guidelines.
The city and state now have better testing, equipment and supplies, and better visibility into the spread of the coronavirus than in March and April – and health officials still believe the new outbreaks can be contained.
But they also have the same political clashes – between Cuomo and de Blasio, public health officials and powerful community leaders – neither of which has allayed fears of a new wave as the city walks into the winter months.
“This public disagreement between the governor and the mayor is not helpful,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Columbia Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative and once informal advisor to the mayor. “It is not acceptable to have the governor of New York state override the mayor. If he’s any different from the mayor, give him a call, come to a conclusion, shout at him. This shouldn’t be in the public forum. “
Cuomo claimed Monday that non-essential businesses were not yet a significant threat to public health. He also said he would allow religious gatherings with limited capacity to continue, even though he said such events represent an opportunity for the virus to spread.
“Businesses are not mass disseminators,” he said, giving them a lower priority than schools, religious institutions and large gatherings. The governor left the door open to order closings in the coming days but said he did not want to force shutdowns through zip codes and was instead trying to draw more precise boundaries for places where the virus could spread.
De Blasio said he would not take no for an answer, even though he acknowledged that he cannot act without government approval.
“Until we hear something else, our plan is to push enforcement Wednesday morning,” he said. “What we cannot afford is delay.”
Cuomo also pledged that the state will take on the task of enforcing pandemic restrictions at hotspots, including requiring people to wear masks in public. A task force run by the state police and the Department of Health will put NYPD officials or other city officials in charge of enforcement, the governor said.
De Blasio, in turn, said he would not allow city officials to take orders from the state and questioned the legality of such an agreement.
It is just the latest in a series of arguments between the governor and mayor over dealing with the New York pandemic.
De Blasio warned New Yorker on Tuesday March 17th to prepare for a shelter but was immediately shot down by Cuomo. Then the governor turned and essentially enacted the Blasio policies he advocated, but not until the following Sunday evening – a delay, researchers say likely cost many lives.
Early April de Blasio advised New Yorker wearing face covering in public. The next day Cuomo and his health commissioner questioned the effectiveness the measure. Almost two weeks later, Cuomo given an order Make masks mandatory across the state.
And if de Blasio announced that City schools would stay Cuomo was closed for the remainder of the academic year that ended in June, insisting that this was just the mayor’s “opinion” and that no decision had been made. Ultimately, schools across the country remained closed.
“The back and forth between mayor and governor … echoes what we saw in mid-March when delays and power games resulted in deaths,” said Jumaane Williams, the city’s public attorney and frequent critic of de Blasio and Cuomo said in a statement on Monday: “Since then, the only thing that has been consistent between them is inconsistency. The message is mixed and the results are clear – cases are rising and New York is at risk of yet another widespread outbreak if proper precautions are not taken. “
During the mayor’s conference call with advisors on Saturday that lasted more than three hours, he urged his health officials for dates that would justify such drastic measures.
Officials, some of whom had suggested more aggressive measures a few weeks ago at the start of the spikes, told the mayor the neighborhoods had reached a worrying level: a transmission rate of more than 3 percent for at least seven days, which was a pre-established standard for more aggressive actions.
Additionally, they’ve increased the citywide average transmission rate – data officers are tracking whether public schools can safely stay open.
“Really, it was the data we analyzed on Saturday that convinced all of us that it was time to do something more rigorous,” said de Blasio during his weekly interview on Monday evening at Inside City Hall. He had hoped that rates would improve with enforcement, as they did after a surge in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but this did not occur in those areas.
Several officials, including Jay Varma, a senior de Blasio health advisor, and Health Department commissioner Dave Chokshi, had requested aggressive enforcement action following signs of a surge earlier in August, three people involved in the city’s pandemic response said.
“The town hall never listens to the actual experts. The numbers are already rising in the city, and not just in those zippers, ”said one person familiar with the discussions.
“He’s doing everything he can to avoid using the word ‘ultra-orthodox’ or to look like he’s singling them out and that strategy has failed,” said another person involved in the talks. “It’s a frustration for management professionals.”
De Blasio, who has ruled with heightened sensitivity to Orthodox Jewish communities in the past, wanted to hand out masks to those who don’t wear them rather than immediately issue tickets, as some of his officials had suggested. But anyone who refused a mask would be summoned, said de Blasio.
“If someone refuses a mask, they are immediately fined, but the goal is to change behavior,” he said on Monday evening.
His head of the public hospital, Mitch Katz, reiterated potential concerns in the targeted neighborhoods, and Pinny Ringel, who serves as the mayor’s liaison to those areas, also urged full community involvement to mitigate backlash.
The three sources said officials are now closely monitoring a possible spike in infection rates two weeks after the gatherings for the Jewish high day, including last Monday’s Yom Kippur.
As with outbreaks in Rockland County and New Jersey, the increased numbers tend to come from Orthodox communities, where religious gatherings, weddings, and other celebrations have often taken place without the use of masks or social distancing.
“Medical experts have identified a number of important steps people should take to protect themselves,” said a letter sent Thursday from the American Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, an umbrella organization of more than a dozen Orthodox rabbis. “Social distancing, face covering, hand washing, special precautions for the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions, and staying home if symptoms of COVID-19 occur.”
The next day, five high-ranking Orthodox leaders in Far Rockaway wrote a letter to their community advocating similar precautions.
“The neighborhoods in N.Y.C. and in Nassau with the highest infection rate, all of which have the common denominator of dense Orthodox populations, ”reads the letter, which urges parishioners to wear masks, avoid crowds, social distance and quarantine when sick .
“Government guidelines must be followed,” the letter said.
However, it is unclear how many in the community are following the advice of rabbinical leaders and whether it is 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 widespread in a politically conservative community suspected of outside interference.
After a major outbreak earlier this year, many said they had achieved herd immunity or enough people contracted Covid-19 to fend off a second wave. Most public health experts have said that herd immunity would need to be much higher and effectiveness with Covid-19 remains unclear.
Many others stuck to right-wing topics of conversation broadcast on social media saying the severity of the disease was a joke.
“It’s like any other American: you have to be pretty convinced that something is a joke to suddenly believe everything that’s forwarded on WhatsApp,” said Yosef Hershkop, manager of Kāmin Health Crown Heights Urgent Care, referencing on the popular messaging program. “Remember, WhatsApp is also used for forwarding [credible] Information from Orthodox Jewish doctors and Hatzolah. Not just crazy or fake memes. Most people get a steady stream of both types of content. “
Despite De Blasio’s slight contact with the Orthodox community, he became more aggressive during the pandemic and faced a violent backlash after warning the “Jewish community” in April to heed the city’s warnings. The mayor has been accused of scapegoating Jews, and the concentration on ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods creates an ugly specter of anti-Semitism.
“People will panic every time they see a kippah on their street,” said Hershkop, using a different term for a yarmulke.
Erin Durkin contributed to this report.