new York restaurant shutdown
A woman waits in line at L&B Spumoni Gardens during the dinner hour, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in the Bensonhurst/Gravesend section of the Brooklyn borough of New York. Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he has asked the state for permission to close schools and reinstate restrictions on nonessential businesses in several New York neighborhoods, including this one, because of a resurgence of the coronavirus. Image Credit: AP

New York: For many weeks, public health officials had expressed concern that a second wave of the coronavirus would hit New York City, which until recently had achieved striking success in beating back the outbreak after a devastating spring that left more than 20,000 residents dead.

On Sunday, with those fears growing, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an emergency crackdown, saying that he intended to impose new restrictions in 20 hot spots in Brooklyn and Queens that have been experiencing rising positivity rates.

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The plan is a major setback for New York City, amounting to the first significant reversal in the reopening and offering further evidence of the challenges in curbing the pandemic. The city over the last month had taken several strides forward, allowing indoor dining for the first time and becoming the first major school district in the country to bring children back into its public schools.

But under the new restrictions, de Blasio would close all schools - public and private - in nine of the city’s 146 ZIP codes, as well as all nonessential businesses. Indoor and outdoor dining in restaurants in those areas will not be allowed. “Today, unfortunately, is not a day for celebration,” de Blasio said. “Today is a more difficult day.”  The nine areas have large populations of Orthodox Jews - communities where the virus has been spreading rapidly and where public health officials have struggled to persuade many residents to adhere to guidelines on mask-wearing and social distancing.

Positivity rates

Those areas all have had positivity rates in recent days of more than 3% of those tested - and some as high as 8% - in contrast to the city’s overall rate of about 1.5%. Public health officials have been worried that the uptick in cases would jump from Orthodox neighbourhoods to others, leading to a resurgence of the virus across the city. In another 11 ZIP codes, the city would allow schools to remain open but would ban indoor dining, the mayor said. If approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the plan would go into effect Wednesday.

Reaction to the restrictions began to emerge from Jewish leaders Sunday evening, after celebrations of the Sukkot holiday ended. “I think it’s unfortunate that New York City continues to single out a couple of Hasidic Jewish neighbourhoods when there are now 20 neighbourhoods with serious spikes,” said David Greenfield, who represented Borough Park on the City Council until 2017 and now runs an anti-poverty group.

Many of the 20 ZIP codes that the city is focusing on do have sizable numbers of residents who are not Jewish, and the new restrictions could increase tensions between them and Orthodox Jews. Most of the schools set to close are nonpublic schools - largely yeshivas in Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods that have been open for weeks. About 200 private schools will close as well as 100 public schools, officials said.

The new restrictions come just days after the city’s system, which has about 1,800 public schools, fully reopened. Children returned to elementary school classrooms Tuesday and to middle and high schools Thursday. Principals and teachers have been working for months to prepare for in-person learning. Health officials and City Hall first started talking in earnest about closing down parts of the city Friday as health indicators continued to worsen, a City Hall official said. In his remarks Sunday, the mayor emphasized that the school closures were not prompted by outbreaks in public schools but came “out of an abundance of caution.”

“We have seen very little coronavirus activity in our schools,” he said. He said the virus spikes appeared to be confined to the ZIP codes he was targeting. “There does not have to be a second wave,” de Blasio said. “The fact is that these communities are experiencing a problem.” There have been mounting concerns for weeks about transmission in yeshivas, which educate tens of thousands of children and play an essential role in Orthodox Jewish life in New York City. As early as May, when the city was still under a lockdown, a large yeshiva in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was shuttered for violating the ban on in-person schooling.

And last month, the city ordered two yeshivas to close after coronavirus cases were detected. Some people in the Orthodox community, which includes several Hasidic groups, have privately raised concerns about social distancing and mask compliance in yeshiva buildings.

Houses of worship open

City officials said a federal court order requires them to keep houses of worship open in the city, even in the nine ZIP codes. However, they are subject to 50% capacity limits. De Blasio said he planned to work with the state on enforcement measures. He said he was not certain about the details but that “we want the maximum education, maximum mask distribution, maximum enforcement.” Asked whether transmission out of the affected ZIP codes was a major concern, de Blasio said that so far it had not been. “We’re obviously going to watch carefully to see if people moving around from community to community is having an effect,” de Blasio said. “But to date we do not see that happening on a wide scale.”

Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, said closing businesses at the neighbourhood level could work to tamp down on the virus but that it would not be easy. “Shutdowns are tricky, and targeted ones have shown both pros and cons,” Popescu said. “The hard part is really communicating with people so that you’re not pushing them to seek resources outside that affected area and potentially just pushing that ring further.” Cuomo offered no immediate comment on whether he would approve de Blasio’s plan. The two have a combative relationship and have often feuded over how to respond to the outbreak.

But as de Blasio was making his announcement, Cuomo did issue a statement that criticized unnamed local officials around the state for their failure to curb the virus. “Local governments have not done an effective job of enforcement in these hot-spot ZIP codes,” Cuomo said.