Orthodox Jewish Communities Chafe Under NYC Mask Crackdown

Jewish elected and community leaders in New York City are chafing under sudden public-health education and enforcement actions in neighborhoods identified as coronavirus hot spots.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has targeted 20 ZIP codes, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens, where positive tests have spiked after months of improvement and stability. Many have large Orthodox Jewish communities, where mass gatherings are common, especially during the recent High Holy days. Sukkot, a weeklong festival, begins Friday and is marked with celebrations in temporary huts outdoors.

Cuomo has spoken to Orthodox Jewish leaders in areas with the highest infection rates. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration this week sent out mobile-testing units, along with sound trucks blaring safety messages in Yiddish and English. The city is also making thousands of robocalls and warning of fines for mask noncompliance and shutdowns of businesses that ignore social-distancing rules.

But approaching insular communities whose distrust of secular authorities is widespread is fraught. Many residents speak little English, shun television and the Internet, and recognize rabbinical authority above municipal.

“Most people in the community have the sense that the city is very quick to point fingers at us and even impose threats upon us for not abiding with what the city says,” Rabbi Avi Greenstein, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, which provides social services to 25,000 residents. The neighborhood, home to one of the largest Orthodox communities outside Israel, has seen its positive test rate jump to more than 7% in recent days.

Surges are happening outside New York City as well. In the largely Orthodox Jewish town of Lakewood, New Jersey, positivity has surged as high as 27%. The hot spots threaten to upset the recovery of the two states that were hardest hit at the start of the U.S. outbreak. They have reported more than 675,000 cases and 48,000 deaths combined. After months on lockdown, the region has been slowly reopening.

New York’s first outbreak — and one of the earliest in the U.S. — occurred in New Rochelle, a Westchester County community with a large Jewish population. A cluster of more than 100 cases was reported after a funeral and then a joint bar and bat mitzvah attracted hundreds to a synagogue.

In New York City, where more than half of the state’s cases were reported, average positivity had dropped to about 1% before the recent spikes. In the past two weeks, 30% of the new cases in the city have come from 11 neighborhoods that represent 8.7% of the population. The seven-day average is 6.43% for those ZIP codes, and 1.08% for the other 135.

In Borough Park, where there was 7.09% positivity over the past two weeks, the Jewish council held an event Thursday to give away 400,000 masks that were paid for privately by a supporter, Greenstein said. The city has been quick to point fingers at the Jewish community, but lax to approach leaders as partners, he said.

“They have not done enough to collaborate,” Greenstein said. “I shouldn’t be learning about the city launching a massive enforcement effort in my neighborhood from the media.”

In recent days, mobile loudspeaker units have blared mask-wearing and social-distancing instructions into homes and shops, while others have seen police and sheriff’s officers patrolling, issuing warnings and fines.

Mitchell Katz, president of the city’s public hospital system who also runs its test-and-trace program, said he has been in contact with many Jewish leaders. “If there are people who feel left out for whatever reason, we’re happy to redouble our efforts,” he said.

Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who represents a swath of South Brooklyn that includes Asian, Latino, Irish, Italian and Jewish residents, said he warned officials during a conference call two weeks ago not to identify all hot spots as Orthodox, but his pleas were ignored.

“I told them, ‘It’s going to increase antisemitism. You’re going to sound like the Jews are spreading the Covid-19 virus,’ but they went ahead anyway,” he said. “If you drive around the city, mask compliance is low in many neighborhoods. When the Jewish areas are not wearing masks, why are they being called out?”

Cuomo said it’s clear that the hot spot ZIP codes have an “overlap with large Orthodox Jewish communities.”

“That is a fact,” Cuomo said at a Sept. 29 briefing. “This is a public-health concern for their community. It’s also a public-health concern for surrounding communities. I’ve said from Day One, these public-health rules apply to every religion, atheists — it just applies to every citizen of the state of New York, period.”

The groups have no religious objection to wearing masks, the governor said. He urged local governments to enforce the mask law and to close down ceremonies that are too large and violate the gatherings law. “Those are much easier than doing significant economic damage, especially at a time when we have this unemployment rate and this deficit,” he said.

De Blasio, who represented Borough Park as a city councilman, has tried to maintain good ties with leaders of these communities as mayor, but those lines of communication have frayed, Deutsch and other leaders say. Last year, de Blasio sparked anger when he declared an emergency and ordered measles vaccines after an outbreak in Orthodox Jewish communities.

Outlying Outliers

The link between tightly knit religious groups and virus spread has been established by epidemiologists. Covid clusters, though, have been reported in all kinds of close-living settings, from college campuses to nursing homes.

Outside New York City, Cuomo has identified hot spots in the ZIP codes that include Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village upstate; and in Westchester, site of the early outbreak.

In Lakewood, New Jersey’s fastest-growing municipality, large families that are typical in the community pose a challenge. In other Ocean County homes hit by the virus, one or two people might be affected, said Daniel Regenye, the county’s public health coordinator and health officer. A mid-September analysis of 19 stricken Lakewood households averaged four to five infections in each.

During the last week of September alone, when Lakewood positivity hit 27%, health officials conducted almost 3,000 tests, Regenye said. Though at least 30 additional contact tracers have been assigned to Ocean County to handle the surge, what ordinarily is a seven-day-a-week effort is reduced to six in Lakewood.

“Not being able to answer the phone during Sabbath, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, limits work that can get done,” Regenye said.

— With assistance by Keshia Clukey, and Elise Young

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