New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned city synagogues Friday that if they continue to hold services and violate lockdown rules, they may be shut down permanently.
“I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend: If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services,” de Blasio told a virtual press conference livestreamed on Friday.
"I don’t say that with any joy. It’s the last thing I want to do, because I understand how important people’s faiths are to them, and we need our faith in this time of crisis, but we do not need gatherings that will endanger people," he said. "No faith tradition endorses anything that endangers a member of that faith."
New York is thus far the hardest-hit U.S. state by the coronavirus crisis; it has over 40,000 confirmed cases and has seen over 500 deaths from the disease. On Monday, the severe restrictions instituted to curb the virus’s spread went into effect across the state.
These measures include the closure of nonessential businesses, banning nonessential gatherings and urging all to stay at home unless leaving to buy necessities, where people should keep a six–foot distance between each other. Faith leaders were instructed by the state not to hold in-person services indoors or outside, and to opt for virtual services instead.
“We’ve had extraordinary, across the board, rabbinical support from all the different elements of the Jewish community,” de Blasio added. “A small number of religious communities, specific churches, specific synagogues are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance, even though it’s been so widespread.”
The mayor added that the law enforcement has been instructed to disperse services, and if met with resistance, “they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
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“You have been warned, you need to stop services,” De Blasio said.
Over the past weeks, New York’s Orthodox Jewish community has been facing accusations after reports that its members are breaking the social distancing rules handed down by the authorities in light of the coronovirus pandemic. For their part, however, leaders and organizations affiliated with the community insist that they have mobilized heavily around government instructions and are pushing scrupulous hygienic measures.
In a joint statement released Friday, six major Orthodox groups – the Rabbinical Alliance of America, the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Vaad of Lakewood (New Jersey) and Agudath Israel of America – urged “not only full compliance with all health guidelines issued by federal, state, and local governments, but have gone beyond those pronouncements in urging our communities to remain at home and avoid, to the maximum extent feasible, any outside interactions.”
The signatories of the statement – which warned “Stay Home, Save Lives” in red capital letters – noted that they have made the “unprecedented and deeply distressing step of shuttering the central fixtures” of the Orthodox community, including “our shuls, yeshivos, and schools.” They added: “We have done so because as observant Jews we have an obligation to place supreme value on protecting human life (pikuah nefesh).”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.