Credit: Bill Moore photo

In what was once considered the nation’s epicenter for lowering COVID-19 cases, New York is now seeing an uptick in some parts of the city and state and that is bringing shutdowns and closures.

Nine zip codes are at the center of the city’s latest COVID-19 controversy in Brooklyn and Queens where infection rates have remained above 3% over the last week. The neighborhoods include Edgemere/Far Rockaway, Kew Gardens and Pomonok in Queens and Borough Park, Flatlands and Midwood in Brooklyn. Nearly half a million people live in the zip codes known as “COVID clusters.”

On Monday, Oct. 5 Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed 300 schools in the city hot spots to close. Students at those schools will participate in all-remote learning.

“My No. 1 concern has always been schools,” Cuomo said. “I said to the parents of this state, I will not send—I will not allow your child to be sent to any school that I would not send my child, period. And you have my personal word on that.”

Cuomo also blamed local governments for not doing an effective job of enforcing rules to keep COVID-19 from spreading in zip codes throughout the state. He’s also concerned about the lack of testing in schools and threatened to close schools if municipalities don’t start testing immediately.

During his Monday press briefing, Cuomo also mentioned the role religious institutions must play in mitigating the spread. Some of the zip codes seeing an increase in cases are in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Cuomo warned religious institutions of all faiths that they must follow COVID-19 guidelines or he will close them.

“If we’re going to keep religious institutions open, it can only be with two conditions,” he said “One, the community must agree, whether it’s the Jewish community, whether we’re talking about Black churches, whether we’re talking about Roman Catholic churches, the religious community has to agree to the rules and they have to agree that they are going to follow the rules.”

Cuomo unveiled his “Cluster Action Initiative” on Tuesday to slow the COVID spread in hot spots. The initiative is a set of guidelines based on a color-coded system. Red, which is the highest level, restricts houses of worship to have only 25% capacity or 10 people, prohibits mass gatherings, closes non-essential businesses, takeout-only at restaurants and closes schools.

A day before the governor closed schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a proposal to the New York State government to close them. He also asked that non-essential businesses close and non-essential gatherings be limited in the nine zip codes.

However, there was a sort of tug of war when it came to shutting down non-essential businesses between the mayor and governor. De Blasio planned to shut them down despite Cuomo not ordering them to close their doors. Cuomo eventually ordered non-essential businesses to shut down in the impacted zip codes on Tuesday.

“I think the reality is if we’re really trying to restrict movement and activity within the ZIP code, if we say here are nine ZIP codes out of 146 in New York City that are particularly problematic, we really want to bring the level of activity down,” de Blasio said. “So, let’s close the public and nonpublic schools. Let’s close the non-essential businesses. Let’s encourage people to stay home. Don’t go out unless you have to go out and go back to the reality.”

In order for schools and non-essential businesses to reopen there must be less than 3% of positive COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period. If cases rise, closures will extend for four weeks.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said the disputes between the mayor and governor are putting people’s lives at risk.

“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,” Williams said. “Any further decisions to expand closures by geography or institution must be guided by science, framed in equity, and made jointly between city and state leaders.”

Williams added that keeping schools open would see a spike in COVID-19 cases citywide. He noted that students and teachers in the nine impacted zip codes don’t necessarily live in those zip codes and could be spreading COVID-19 to other parts of the city. Williams wants all city schools closed and remote learning implemented until they are all deemed safe.

According to officials, closing non-essential businesses would be a step in the right direction to stop the spread in the zip codes, however, businessowners in those areas said the mayor was over reaching. With the recent reopening of indoor dining and gyms, shutting them down again would bring another financial disaster after being closed for so many months.

Several businessowners gathered for a rally outside City Hall this week to speak out against the closure of non-essential businesses. Holding signs reading “#OpenNYC,” advocates say closing businesses would make things worse.

“Black-owned businesses are dying right now,” said Brooklyn activist Tony Herbert. “And this mayor and his wanting to position himself to being a player and trying to challenge the governor at every turn and trying to beat him to the press conferences, is a problem for us. He hadn’t even gotten authority from the governor or the state yet to say he can even make these decisions. To go out here and create this fear mongering and push a whole community into dire straits and look at everybody like they’re the problem, he’s the problem.”

While efforts are being made to cut down the spread of COVID-19 in the nine specific zip codes, questions linger over how to keep the virus from spreading to other zip codes. Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dave Chokshi said on top of the closures, testing is key.

“We do have a simple and clear message for anyone who lives in the affected areas in particular, which is to get tested immediately,” Chokshi said. “Whether you’re a student or someone else who is in that zip code we think that will also add the layer of protection.”