ALBANY — New York will re-shutter schools, some non-essential businesses and large gatherings in a swath of New York City neighborhoods that have seen coronavirus spikes — after days of disjointed messages from city and state leaders about how they would address the autumn surge.
The plan released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Tuesday afternoon largely mirrors that laid out by Mayor Bill de Blasio two days prior. Instead of using the nine ZIP codes where Covid-19 cases are surging as boundaries, Cuomo’s plan involves color-coded maps — an attempt at more precision to spare certain businesses but which initially drew a flurry of questions and confusion.
“What the hell is this? Brooklyn would like to know,” wrote City Council Member Antonio Reynoso on Twitter, posting a map of Brooklyn from Cuomo’s presentation.
Cuomo dubbed his plan the “Cluster Action Initiative” after weeks of blaming de Blasio for what he said was the city’s failure to enforce social distancing directives before tweaking de Blasio’s proposed course of action to his own standards.
The goal of a newly color-coded plan, Cuomo said, is to “crush the clusters” in identified portions of Brooklyn, Queens, Orange and Rockland counties. It will have the most impact on capacity in houses of worship in the Orthodox communities concentrated in the areas.
“This is about mass gatherings and one of the prime places of mass gatherings are houses of worship,” Cuomo said during a briefing in Albany. “I understand it’s a sensitive topic, but that is the truth, period.”
Cuomo said he spoke with the Orthodox leaders — whose indoor congregations will be limited to 10 people in the worst-affected areas — earlier in the day and “felt very good” about the conversation.
“I have such respect and love for the Orthodox community,” he said. “People will die in those clusters. This is about protecting people and saving lives.”
Some in the Orthodox community did not seem to feel as good as the governor.
“Jewish community leaders were hoodwinked and taken advantage of,” Council Member Chaim Deutsch tweeted. “A disgusting display of autocracy from the king of New York — sorry, I mean ‘duly elected Governor.'”
Agudath Israel, a major Orthodox group, said Cuomo’s move was “appalling to all people of religion and good faith.”
After a torrent of criticism and off-color jokes on Twitter, the governor released precise maps of the clusters that will be hit with the new mandatory restrictions. The maps included street names and clear borders.
They include central “red” zone as a cluster, an “orange” ring as a buffer area and an outer “yellow” ring as a precautionary area.
Cuomo said the color coded plan was formulated after consultation with local officials and multiple outside experts including former CDC director Tom Frieden, EcoHealth Alliance’s Noam Ross and University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm.
Top Cuomo aide Melissa de Rosa pushed back on questions about why state action had taken so long despite the numbers exceeding 3 percent for at least a week straight. De Rosa said the administration had been in contact with local leaders for weeks and that city leaders kept “insisting” they could get it under control.
That didn’t happen, she said. On Tuesday the infection rate in the top 20 affected zip codes was 5.5 percent, far above the state’s overall 1.2 percent. The new restrictions are “a last resort” she said.
De Blasio first released his response plan Sunday. Cuomo addressed reporters Monday agreeing to close schools, as de Blasio wanted, but not non-essential businesses. By Tuesday, Cuomo had clarified the areas where those businesses should shut down.
“Everyone wants the same thing — to tame these clusters and prevent further spread, but the approaches couldn’t be more different,” said Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to Cuomo. “Our science-based plan was made in [consultation] with the international experts, focuses on the precise areas where the clusters were most severe, discourages spread to less affected areas and actually addressed houses of worship, which were completely left out the plan the city threw out there on Sunday.”
As they have throughout the pandemic, De Blasio and Cuomo bickered publicly for days about the best way to approach the problem, before eventually agreeing on the course laid out by the mayor. During remarks to the press earlier in the day, de Blasio pressed Cuomo to hurry.
“I’m urging the state to move quickly and be decisive. We are at a moment where we need action,” the mayor said.
Cuomo said if the city had done a better job enforcing public health guidelines, the outbreak may not have gotten to a crisis level in the first place.
To that end, he said he is upping the fine for any sponsors of illicit mass gatherings to $15,000. That can be imposed on individuals or entities. He is also requiring local governments to provide city personnel for the state enforcement task force and New York City must offer up 400 employees.
“It’s all about the enforcement,” Cuomo said. “For this plan, the local governments have to give me resources to do the enforcement that they didn’t do.”
De Blasio has questioned the legality of such an arrangement.
According to Cuomo’s new plan, red zones will restrict houses of worship to 25 percent capacity with a 10-person maximum. There will be no gatherings in or out of doors, all non-essential businesses will be closed and restaurants will be limited to take out.
Orange zones will allow worship at 33 percent capacity with a 25-person maximum. People will be allowed to gather in groups of no more than 10 people — both inside and out — and high-risk non-essential businesses like gyms and personal care will be closed. Outdoor dining will be allowed in small groups.
Yellow zones will permit houses of worship at 50 percent capacity. In and outdoor gatherings will be limited to 25 people, all businesses can open and indoor dining will be permitted but in groups no larger than four.
Schools will be forced into remote learning only in both red and orange zones. In-person learning will be allowed in yellow zones, but there will be mandatory weekly testing for students and staff.
The new rules will go into effect as soon as Wednesday and no later than Friday. That timeline is up to the local governments, Cuomo said.
De Blasio press secretary Bill Neidhardt tweeted immediately following Cuomo’s announcement that the city will likely start new rules on Thursday. They must be in effect for a minimum of 14 days until officials can assess any new data.