Cuomo: NY will ease restrictions around COVID-19 zones showing improvement

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Bart Jones and Carol Polsky. It was written by Jones.

All schools in Queens and some in Brooklyn that were shuttered by the state two weeks ago because of high levels of COVID-19 infection in their neighborhoods can reopen, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday, though they will remain closed in parts of Brooklyn and all of Orange and Rockland counties.

Cuomo celebrated the state’s progress in reducing and limiting spread of the virus in “hot spots” of targeted neighborhoods. He credited the push to focus on “micro-clusters” of new virus infections by putting those areas under tighter restrictions for gatherings and economic activity.

“What this shows is that it is working,” Cuomo said of the restrictions. “That’s good news. Celebrate. Don’t panic. Don’t fear … We have it managed. We know how to do this. We just have to do it.”

The new restrictions shut schools and nonessential businesses and limited houses of worship to no more than 10 people in the areas with the highest level of virus spread. Cuomo’s move on Wednesday means schools and businesses can reopen in some neighborhoods, and religious gatherings can allow up 25 people or more in some zones.

Based on COVID-19 testing data, Cuomo said the state will convert red and orange zones into yellow zones, calling for lesser restrictions, in parts of Brooklyn and all of Queens, where clusters have affected areas around the Borough Park and Far Rockaway, Kew Gardens and Forest Hills neighborhoods.

“We have the most sophisticated COVID detection and elimination system of any state … because New Yorkers are invested in it,” Cuomo touted during a livestreamed briefing with reporters. The state will continue to watch for those clusters of new cases to ” … trace it back to where it starts, find a small outbreak, a small cluster, and jump on it.”

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He snapped his fingers: ” … you see an ember on dry grass, everybody run … stamp out the ember” of new coronavirus cases.

Rob MacKay, a spokesman for the Queens Economic Development Corporation, said: “Any kind of loosening is obviously good. There’s the whole question of getting the word out,” so would-be customers don’t continue to be scared off, he added.

“We need to counter the perception that it’s dangerous,” he said, urging government officials: “If something is safe, they have to let people know that it’s safe.”

He said businesses owners, particularly restaurateurs, are craving consistent, clear-cut rules.

Zone changes tied to test results

The new criteria set by the state will modify zones based on metrics, so that “micro-cluster” neighborhoods will generally exit their zones if they maintain low positivity rates for the virus: under a 3% after ten days in red zones; under 2% for ten days in orange zones; under 1.5% for ten days in yellow zones. Those percent positive requirements will be more lax in less populated areas, Cuomo said.

In reviewing whether or not to lessen restrictions, the state will also consider if new hospitalizations are trending down, if congregate facilities are generating new infections and if there has been increased compliance and enforcement actions in those neighborhoods within the zones.

While red and orange zones are required to close schools, yellow zones are permitted to reopen them with increased testing of students, teachers and staff.

In red zones, houses of worship are limited to a maximum of 10 people and all other gatherings are prohibited, while only essential businesses remain open and food establishments are allowed solely for takeout. In orange zones, those limits increase, allowing limited outdoor dining. In yellow areas, all businesses can reopen.

The governor said the state will continue focusing on small targeted areas and placing restrictions in decreasing levels of severity in “a series of concentric circles” of red, orange and yellow zones.

Many of the neighborhoods found to have clusters of cases are home to significant ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations, who the state said had continued religious gatherings despite the pandemic-related limits. Some of those residents protested, at times clashing with others, over the new restrictions.

Cuomo said the combination of willing compliance from residents and a push to enforce requirements to prevent spread of the virus will be key factors in determining those zones going forward.

” … A cluster does not happen unless two things happen, lack of compliance and lack of enforcement. That’s the only way it happens. That is the only way it happens,” he repeated.

NYC seeking compliance

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he expects more compliance going forward, stressing cooperation from the public.

“I wouldn’t start with the word ‘enforce.’ I would start with the fact that a lot of people have been educated in this crisis from the beginning, but especially in these red and orange zones, the fact that this disease could come back, that restrictions could be put in place again — I think that’s been a real wake-up call to people, and I think a lot of folks are gonna act differently from this point on,” he said Wednesday at his daily news conference.

Excluding schools in the red and orange zones that have been shut down, de Blasio said that the city has five schools on 14-day shutdowns due to coronavirus cases, out of about 1,400 schools in the system.

These figures are in addition to schools that were shut down only for 24 hours when a suspected case was first reported as well as isolated quarantines of classrooms in which infections were limited to that class.

Cuomo repeated the complications faced by the state as COVID-19 infection rates increase across the country, including in states that are part of the highly interconnected tristate area. On Tuesday, he announced the list of states whose travelers are under quarantine restrictions in New York grew to 40, but said that the state opted not to include New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania in that list because of the difficulty and impact of enforcing such restrictions for the interdependent region.

The positivity rate as of Tuesday was measured at a 6.6% level in the cluster zones for the state — and statewide the level of new infections was tracked at 1.6%, including the oversampling of cases in those areas. Without those neighborhoods, New York’s positivity rate stood at 1.4% from those recent tests.

Lawrence schools closing extended

On Long Island, the Lawrence school district will extend its two weeks of remote instruction for an additional week at least, district Superintendent Ann Pedersen informed the school community Wednesday.

Earlier this month, the district announced it was going to remote instruction on Oct. 9 through at least Oct. 23, after areas that encompassed three of its five schools had seen a spike in positive COVID tests, raising alert levels to orange. Though Cuomo announced at his briefing Wednesday that the Far Rockaway and Five Towns areas were all now at a lower yellow level, with infection rates below 2%, Pedersen said the district opted to continue remote instruction “given the fluidity and fragility of those numbers.”

An assessment will be made next week on whether trend lines were stable or improving before returning to hybrid in-person instruction on Nov. 2, Pedersen said. She said 43% of the district’s approximately 2,500 students have opted for full-time remote instruction.

Surveillance testing each week of 20% of students and staff will begin soon, she said, with free testing available at a new state-operated rapid testing site at, on alternating weeks, the Five Towns Community Center, in Lawrence, and the JCC of Greater Five Towns, in Cedarhurst.

Also Wednesday, Hampton Bays Elementary School went fully remote for Wednesday after receiving notice of a staff member’s positive COVID-19 result, according to a note on the Hampton Bays school district website. Students in grades K-4 were told to use their “Work from Home Kits” or remote sessions if enrolled in the remote program. Breakfast and lunch were available for pickup at the high school parking lot, according to the notice.

The state’s COVID-19 Report Card, tracking coronavirus cases in public and private schools, reported 682 positive test results among students, teachers and staff on Long Island as of Wednesday — an increase of 30 cases from the previous day. The numbers include 510 students and 172 teachers and staff members.

New York City has had 969 positives since school started, with 514 students and 455 teachers and staff members diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Statewide, the number of positive test results reported by schools was 3,138 by Wednesday, with 2,025 students and 1,113 teachers and other staff members affected.

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RED, ORANGE AND YELLOW ZONES

New York State has been designating clusters of high coronavirus cases into red, orange and yellow zone, with different sets of restrictions imposed to avoid further spread in those targeted neighborhoods. The state rules, limiting schools, houses of worship, gatherings and businesses by zones, include:

  • In red zones, where new virus cases are concentrated, schools are closed, houses of worship are limited to 25% capacity and a maximum of 10 people and all other mass gatherings are prohibited. Only essential businesses remain open in those hot spots, and food establishments are allowed to open for takeout only.

  • In orange zones, or those areas surrounding “red” hot spots, houses of worships are limited to 33% capacity or a maximum of 25 people, and other gatherings are limited to 10 people. Orange zones also see the closing of nonessential businesses considered high risk and outdoor dining is permitted with a maximum of four people per table. Schools in orange zones also close for remote-only instruction.

  • Outlying communities in yellow zones don’t have to close schools and houses of worship are allowed to operate at 50% capacity, while other gatherings are limited to 25 people. All businesses in those areas remain open, and indoor and outdoor dining is allowed, but limited to four people per table. The state further imposes a minimum of mandatory weekly testing of students, teachers and staff working in schools in yellow zones.

SOURCE: New York Governor’s Office.

Bart Jones covers religion at Newsday, where he has worked since 2000, and is a former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Venezuela.