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Coronavirus Roundup: Making Sense of the New Limited Lockdowns

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Tuesday, October 6 and Wednesday, October 7.

Governor Cuomo announced the Cluster Action Initiative in a briefing on Tuesday.
Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
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This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Tuesday, October 6 and Wednesday, October 7. 

468,268 cases confirmed (1,360 new)
11,501,629 tests performed (108,246 new)
Positive test rate: 1.26%
25,545 deaths (9 new)
748 hospitalizations
176 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

New York State is locking down again—at least in a few hotspots. The state will impose new restrictions and temporary closings on schools, houses of worship, gatherings, and businesses in parts of the Rockland County town of Ramapo and the Orange County town of Palm Tree, along with several Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, and less strictly in the greater Binghamton area. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the limited lockdowns in a surprise Tuesday briefing. Dubbed the “Cluster Action Initiative,” the governor’s new orders are set to take effect by Friday, mostly in communities with large Orthodox Jewish populations, and have already caused confusion and uproar in the neighborhoods most affected.

While Cuomo has been using zip codes to talk about infection rates in New York State’s hotspots for more than a week of rising case counts, the zones will not be zip code-based. Instead, the state has developed “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. Cuomo’s office has not given out details on the exact methodology used to create the maps, although Rockland and Orange county officials said in video briefings after the governor’s announcement on Tuesday that they had some input on the process

Protests against Cuomo’s orders erupted overnight in Brooklyn, where Hasidic protestors were especially angered by the governor’s decision to limit religious services to no more than 10 people in the red zones, regardless of building capacity, and ban all other gatherings entirely. A 34-year-old Hasidic man who has been advocating in the community for masks and safety measures was beaten unconscious by a crowd in Borough Park, The City reports. The protests are just one facet of a deeper community division: Some rabbis and doctors among the Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities of New York State have publicly called for better public health compliance in the community in recent weeks.

Official responses from the Orthodox community to Cuomo’s hotspot order have also been mixed. A statement put out late Tuesday by legislators representing New York City Orthodox neighborhoods condemned the governor’s action as a surprise attack on the community, striking a defiant tone: “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,” they wrote. On Wednesday, the New York Jewish Agenda released a letter signed by a group of 300 rabbis from both Orthodox and other Jewish traditions in support of public health efforts taken by the governor and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “The posturing of religious freedom in opposition to the wellbeing of individuals and communities is blasphemy,” the signatories wrote. “Requiring masking and social distancing for all gatherings, including religious gatherings, is not antisemitism.”

In a very short Wednesday briefing, Cuomo addressed the backlash in fairly vague terms. “To the extent there are communities that are upset, that’s because they haven’t been following the original rules,” Cuomo said. “That’s why the infection spread.”

There’s some logic to New York State not using zip codes to draw the hotspot maps. As mapping expert Matt Forrest explains, they’re not really land areas, they’re postal routes. For their part, state officials are defending the decision with science, saying that they were able to tailor the shape of the zones based on actual infection locations rather than arbitrary borders.  But the decision not to use zip codes to draw the hotspot zones has wreaked havoc in New York City, where zone borders in the maps released by the state on Tuesday cut through streets and parcels in a deeply confusing way. For instance: About a third of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, a popular gathering place for people who are already dead, was located in an orange zone, and the other two-thirds in a yellow zone. Maps posted Wednesday afternoon on the state Empire Development Corporation website, along with updated hotspot guidance, appear to have been touched up to address some of these issues: the borders of the zones now conform better to streets, and Green-Wood is no longer divided into different zones.

Don’t blink, you might miss it: The county executives of Rockland and Orange County praised Cuomo’s action on Tuesday. In public video briefings, both Rockland’s Ed Day and Orange’s Steve Neuhaus said that they had urged Cuomo’s team not to use zip codes, because it allows them to draw zones in a way that hurts fewer businesses around the outbreaks. Not explicitly stated, but heavily implied: The Hudson Valley execs want to draw tight borders around local Orthodox communities. “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.

Hospitalizations as well as cases are on the rise in New York State, driven by upticks in hotspots. In Wednesday’s briefing, Cuomo said that 20 percent of the new hospitalizations in the state over the past two weeks were coming from the top 20 hotspot zip codes, which represent about 6.7 percent of the state’s population. 

Testing numbers are also on the rise statewide: New York State conducted almost 134,000 tests on Friday, a pandemic record. The Democrat & Chronicle had a story on Tuesday about the growth of the state’s testing infrastructure, which continues to add new test sites and options for New Yorkers looking to get tested. The New York State Department of Health maintains a searchable database of test sites on the state website where you can find a test provider near you.

For several briefings in a row, Cuomo has blasted local governments for not enforcing state pandemic guidelines. In Rockland and Orange County hotspots, where plans for stepping up enforcement are still being hammered out, the New York State Police will take the lead, Day and Neuhaus said on Tuesday. 

The New York Post reported on Wednesday that New York City hasn’t yet fined anyone for not wearing a mask. The state-run MTA, which is in charge of New York City’s subway system, has issued just seven tickets. Frankly, we aren’t aware of any municipality in New York State that has fined an individual for not wearing a mask; River readers, if you know of any instances, please send them to us.

Worth noting amid Cuomo’s push for more police action on pandemic violations: New York State jails have an ongoing COVID-19 problem. Advocates say we don’t really know the scope of it, because inmates aren’t being tested enough.

In Tuesday’s testing, Broome County had a much higher positivity rate than any other hotspot county: a worrying 6.1 percent, with Rockland next at 4.5 percent, and Orange at 3.9 percent. But the outbreak in the Binghamton area is more spread out: No single Broome County zip code has made the state’s top 20 list for positivity rates in recent state announcements. The hotspot map drawn around parts of Binghamton, Johnson City, Endicott, and Endwell contains no red or orange zones, only a yellow “precautionary” zone where some restrictions on houses of worship and dining apply, and schools will have to carry out regular testing of students and staff. “It’s unclear if the map includes addresses in Vestal,” the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin reports. Broome County reporters, we feel your pain.

This week’s must-read: A five-page letter to CDC director Robert Redfield from the agency’s former director Bill Foege, who urged Redfield in late September to spill the beans on the White House’s mismanagement of the pandemic and resign. “Don’t shy away from the fact that this has been an unacceptable toll on our country. It is a slaughter and not just a political dispute,” Foege wrote. 

The vice-presidential debate is tonight, and infection experts think the minimal precautions being taken are pretty hilarious, especially given that Vice President Mike Pence has been recently exposed to COVID-19 and should be in quarantine under the federal government’s own guidelines. One aerosol expert, Donald Milton of the University of Maryland, recommended that debate organizers run some box fans with air filters taped to them—a setup that, by the way, you can make at home for about $50, or less if you already have a box fan lying around.

On Wednesday, Buzzfeed pulled its reporter from the White House press pool, which has become a very dangerous place for reporters and their families

The White House outbreak is looking increasingly dangerous for regular old citizens, too. Dozens of housekeepers and other nonpolitical staff are still at work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as Secret Service agents. Beyond the grounds of the first residence, a USA Today report found that the White House COVID-19 outbreak may have exposed at least 6,000 people from Atlanta to Minnesota. The White House is refusing to allow the CDC to do contact tracing on the outbreak, and some epidemiologists are concerned that may be because Patient Zero might be the president himself.

The FDA adopted tougher new vaccine guidelines aimed at beefing up data on safety and effectiveness before any vaccine is given emergency authorization, shortly after The New York Times reported that the White House was blocking the adoption of the stricter standards. 

The historically, even stodgily apolitical science publications Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine waded into the election fray this week, publishing editorial letters warning that the Trump administration is a danger to science, research, and public health. NEJM’s editorial didn’t mention the president by name; Nature went there. “The conventions that have guided the relationship between science and politics are under threat, and Nature cannot stand by in silence,” the journal’s editors wrote.

Negotiations in Congress over a broad coronavirus stimulus bill have apparently collapsed in the wake of a single Tuesday afternoon tweet from President Donald Trump, which also sent the stock market into a brief nosedive. The market pulled out of freefall again when the president began tweeting to a different tune, urging lawmakers to pass piecemeal chunks of aid.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said he’s waiting on either a Biden win or a Senate flip to the Democrats to deal with the state’s ballooning budget problems. “You’re going to know in less than a month,” the governor told reporters in a telephone briefing. “Any action you take will cause damage. So I’d rather wait to find out what the facts are before we make such an impactful decision.” Facing a $50 billion budget hole, Cuomo has resisted calls to either make massive cuts to state spending or increase taxes on New York’s wealthy, insisting that the state’s budget problems are the federal government’s to solve.

Announced by New York State on Tuesday and Wednesday: 

Below is a Flourish animation we have compiled that shows the rate of active cases per 10,000 residents for each county in our coverage region from May 12 through the present date.

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam
University coronavirus pages: Sarah Lawrence, Iona, SUNY Purchase, Manhattanville, Westchester Community College, Rockland Community College, Dominican, Mercy

The cluster restrictions in Rockland County will go into effect at 12:01am this Friday, County Executive Ed Day announced in a press release today. Details on enforcement are still forthcoming from the Governor’s Office; Day said that the county would share that information as soon as it’s available. The current Cluster Zone Map is available for download here: addresses the lingering question of enforcement in the cluster zones, which has caused some confusion among local officials. The partial lockdown will go into effect at 12:01am on Friday, but as of Wednesday, Ramapo Supervisor Michael Specht said that “the town has yet to receive any specific directives” from the governor’s office, including what role the local police will play in enforcing the new protocols. Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann, meanwhile, said that he was “informed by county officials that enforcement would primarily come from New York State Police, State Liquor Authority, and state Health Department staff.” Given Cuomo’s repeated lambasting of local officials for the outbreaks in the first place, the lack of clear instruction is not a little ironic. also has a beautifully designed package of stories profiling how six families in the Hudson Valley are navigating online education

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
University coronavirus page: Bard, Vassar, Marist, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Ulster, Columbia-Greene Community College, SUNY Orange

In a video briefing on Wednesday, Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus told county residents to prepare for possible rollbacks of visitation at hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities that might be forthcoming as New York State works to tamp down outbreaks in the county and elsewhere. “If you have a loved one in an institution, a group home or a nursing home, I would be setting up some type of communication system if that facility doesn’t have one already,” he said.

Orange County will hold two drive-through job fairs on Wednesday, October 14 and Thursday, October 15, from noon to 3pm. The October 14 event will be held at the Orange County Career Center (18 Seward Avenue in Middletown), and the October 15 event will be at the Armory Unity Center (321 South Williams Street in Newburgh).

The annual Sinterklaas festival, which draws thousands of people to Rhinebeck and Kingston, was canceled on Wednesday and will be presented in a virtual form, according to festival organizer Jeanne Fleming.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
University coronavirus pages: SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Delhi, SUNY Sullivan

Greene County Public Health, which has been providing public COVID-19 testing at its office in Catskill, is currently at capacity for testing local residents, and is reserving testing for people who have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who is known to be COVID-19-positive. A county health worker confirmed the restrictions on testing over the phone on Wednesday to a River reporter; we have reached out to Greene County Public Health leadership for more information.

Greene County’s testing bottleneck is apparently being caused by recent outbreaks. In a Facebook post late Wednesday afternoon, county public health officials said that the county currently has 43 known active positive cases, 31 of which have been traced to the Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, a state prison. Another case has been found at the Greenville Middle School, resulting in new quarantines and contact tracing: 102 county residents are currently in precautionary quarantine after having been exposed.

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The River has a guide on where, how, and when to get tested for the coronavirus in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.

The River is collaborating with WGXC to announce these updates over the air. To listen, tune in to 90.7 FM at midnight, 5am, 7am, or 9am, or visit the audio archive online.

La Voz, una revista de cultura y noticias del Valle de Hudson en español, está traduciendo estos resúmenes y co-publicandolos en su página web. Leyendo aqui. También puede escuchar actualizaciones diarias por audio en el show “La Voz con Mariel Fiori” en Radio Kingston.