Outbreak hotspots in the Hudson Valley towns of Ramapo and Palm Tree are facing a return to lockdown regulations not seen since the first few months of the pandemic in New York State, as Governor Andrew Cuomo acts to tamp down clusters of COVID-19 infection that have been spreading for weeks in the community.
In a new plan for managing the outbreaks, Cuomo will order schools in and around the hotspots to go remote-only, impose stricter limits on gatherings and houses of worship, close some businesses, and limit dining. The severity of the restrictions will be based on “zones” determined by the intensity of the outbreak.
On Tuesday, Cuomo called a surprise afternoon press conference to announce the “Cluster Action Initiative,” a targeted effort to get control of spreading local infections before they become too large to manage. Hotspots in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Monsey, Spring Valley, and Kiryas Joel—along with Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens dubbed the “Ocean Parkway Cluster” by New York City officials—have consistently topped a list of 20 zip codes in the state where test positivity rates have been rising far beyond the statewide average in recent COVID-19 testing. A zone encompassing the greater Binghamton area, where rising community spread has been linked to bars and restaurants as well as other businesses in the area, will also be subject to the new restrictions.
On Tuesday afternoon, local leaders and reporters alike scrambled for details on the plan. While Cuomo has been using zip codes to talk about infection rates in the hotspots for more than a week of rising case counts, the zones will not be zip code-based. Instead, the state is developing “heat maps” based on the actual addresses of infections, drawing red, orange, and yellow zones around them, with the strictest restrictions in the center of the maps.
Schools will be closed in both the red and orange zones, and weekly testing will be mandated for students and staff in the yellow zones. Houses of worship will be forced to scale back to a maximum of 10-person gatherings in the red zone, and 25-person gatherings in the orange zone. Those in the yellow zone must abide by 50 percent occupancy limits.
According to Cuomo’s briefing and information put out by the governor’s account on Twitter, gatherings in the red zone are banned entirely, an action that seemingly treats nonreligious gatherings differently from religious ones—an approach that has already earned Cuomo a lawsuit from the NYCLU. Gatherings will be limited to 10 people in the orange zone, and 25 people in the yellow zone. Dining in the red zone will be takeout-only; orange zone dining will be outdoor-only and restricted to four people per table, and yellow zone dining will be allowed indoors and outdoors but with a four-person table limit.
The state will force closings of nonessential businesses in the red zones, and high-risk businesses, including gyms, in the orange zones. Cuomo has said in briefings that closing businesses is a lower priority for him than large gatherings, religious settings, and schools.
Rockland County Executive Ed Day, who crossed swords with Cuomo often early on in the pandemic over issues of local authority and enforcement, greeted the governor’s announcement with relief on Facebook live shortly after Cuomo’s briefing ended.
“My hat is off to him for this approach,” Day said. “We’re working with the governor and his people. It’s a logical approach, and frankly it’s a necessary approach right now.”
Details of how the plan will work are still being hammered out, said, who had not yet seen detailed maps. One of the concerns is that it was unclear to him how far east the hotspot would extend into the neighboring town of Clarkstown.
After Day’s briefing, shortly before 6pm on Tuesday, Cuomo’s office released detailed maps for the Rockland and Orange County hotspots. While the New York City hotspot neighborhoods have orange zones, Rockland and Orange have only a central red zone and a yellow buffer.
The use of heat maps, rather than zip codes, for drawing the boundaries of the zones was welcome news to Day, who said that he told one of Cuomo’s aides on Sunday that zip codes would not be a good tool for drawing boundaries around the problem.
County officials will seek to minimize any unnecessary impact on local businesses. “We’re looking to make sure the maps make sense, that the concern for spread from the red zone is consistent with where the protection is going in the orange zone,” Day said.
Rockland County will make an effort to notify all businesses, schools, and other affected places in the hotspot zone by the close of business on Wednesday, Day said. The county has no authority over deciding what actions would be taken by New York State to combat the outbreaks, but the governor’s office is taking local input on the geographic scale of the intervention and working with local law enforcement on plans for enforcement, Day said.
Local law enforcement from both the Town of Ramapo Police Department and the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office will aid the New York State Police in enforcing the regulations, Day said. In recent briefings, Cuomo has raised the possibility of a state task force, with local police departments donating manpower to the New York State Police to enforce pandemic regulations.
Also under discussion: Efforts to ensure that local district attorneys, some of whom have balked at prosecuting pandemic violations, will prosecute any fines or summonses that are handed out under the plan. “The governor directly assured me that he will speak to the DAs to make sure they understand it is their job to enforce these orders,” Day said.
The effort to contain the clusters will be a test of whether Cuomo can take effective action in a time of intense friction between state and local governments, much of which is the governor’s own making. Cuomo has feuded with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, angered counties and sheriffs by pointing fingers and making threats over a general lack of enforcement of pandemic guidelines, and ridden roughshod over local government bodies, health departments, and schools with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new mandates.
But there’s a lot at stake on both the local and state level. Positivity rates in the clusters are currently about five times the rate of the state at large, and hospitalizations are on a distressing upward climb. If the state cannot work effectively with local government, community leaders, and law enforcement to bring rates down, the clusters risk dragging New York back to a level of suffering not seen since the spring.
New York State has provided rapid testing machines and other support in outbreak situations before, but this is the state’s first real crackdown on outbreaks that sets the reopening clock back in a meaningful way. If it succeeds, the Cluster Action Initiative could be a roadmap—or at least a first draft—of what local rollbacks may look like if new hotspots continue to crop up in future. Local governments, pay attention.
Update, 10pm: Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus posted a short video briefing on Facebook on Tuesday evening in which he echoed Day’s support for the initiative and said that he had also urged Cuomo’s team not to use zip codes to draw the boundaries of the maps.
“I had a lot of businesses in the town of Monroe, restaurants, stores, that didn’t want to get penalized for being in 10950,” Neuhaus said. The 10950 zip code spans two towns: Monroe and Palm Tree, created by a voter referendum in 2017 when the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel essentially seceded from Monroe.
Neuhaus also said the New York State Police will take the lead on enforcement in Palm Tree. “The county will play a supportive role, like we have with the health department,” he said.
Update, 10:25pm: In a joint statement late on Tuesday evening, several legislators representing Orthodox communities in New York blasted Cuomo’s plan, calling it a “duplicitous bait-and-switch” and stating that the governor’s “utter lack of coordination and communication with local officials” has been a problem throughout the pandemic. The statement was signed by state Senator Simcha Felder, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, and New York City Council members Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch.
“The governor informed Jewish community leaders in a conference call that synagogues in ‘red zones’ would be permitted to operate at 50 percent, and he requested community cooperation (which he was assured would happen). Outrageously, just hours later, Governor Cuomo announced a draconian return to restrictions that would shutter thousands of New York businesses and limit houses of worship to a maximum capacity of 10,” the legislators wrote. “Instead of working alongside our community to build on our work [on encouraging masking and compliance], the governor has instead chosen to respond with threats and aggressive enforcement—a tactic which has historically failed in all communities throughout New York.”
The legislators wrote that the communities they represent would continue to worship. “Americans are constitutionally permitted to worship freely, and Governor Cuomo may be assured that we intend to exercise that right without his interference. G-d Bless America.”
Lissa Harris is a staff writer for The River. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017. Follow her on Twitter @lissaharris.