N.Y.C. Steps Up Coronavirus Response in Jewish Orthodox Neighborhoods as Cases Rise

Officials say several areas with high Orthodox population account for 20 percent of all cases citywide ■ Mayor de Blasio vows 'dramatic increase' in education and enforcement

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
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A resident walk in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park on September 23, 2020.
A resident walk in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park on September 23, 2020.Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – City health officials are growing concerned about an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Brooklyn neighborhoods with a significant Orthodox population, which they say accounted for 20 percent of all cases citywide as of Friday.

The neighborhoods in question include Midwood, Borough Park, Bensonhurst, and Williamsburg. Two sections of Queens – Far Rockaway and Kew Gardens – have also seen an increase in cases.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio said there will be a “dramatic increase” in education and enforcement efforts in these neighborhoods in light of the rise in cases.

“The outreach to the community has been nonstop,” de Blasio said during a press briefing on Wednesday morning. “We will look at each and every gathering place. If there is a place that violates the state and city rules, of course that has to be addressed and if some place should be shut down, it will be.”

The mayor added that two yeshivas in Brooklyn have been shut down “just in the last few days” because of “COVID challenges”.

On Tuesday, City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said that his department is launching a “targeted approach that applies more pressure where there is growth in COVID-19 rates.

“We’re doing this to communicate the urgency we feel and that we need everyone to feel about following guidance to prevent the spread of COVID and to protect one another,” he added.

The initiative, already underway, includes robocalls in Yiddish and English, WhatsApp messages, communications with houses of worship, and ads in community newspapers, as well as the distribution of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. The city’s health department said it would also add testing sites in the affected areas.

The CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals, Dr. Mitchell Katz, who joined the mayor’s press conference on Wednesday, said he was “distressed” by the rise in cases in the heavily Orthodox neighborhoods.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio loads food packages at the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, September 15, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“My father in law died two nights ago in Israel from COVID,” he told reporters. “[Social distancing guidelines] are extremely hard, but they are what is necessary for us to get through COVID.

“In the absence of our doing the right thing, we will need to be in a lockdown-type situation as occurred in Israel because they haven’t been able to control the spread of the virus,” Katz added.

While de Blasio pointed to the specific neighborhoods, he did not describe them as having a large Orthodox Jewish population. When asked by a reporter why he was “dancing around” making the connection to the community, the mayor responded: “We’re saying exactly where the problem is, we’re working with community leaders, we have been for weeks now.”

Back in April, at the height of the city’s coronavirus outbreak, de Blasio came under intense fire for tweeting out a “message to the Jewish community,” which he slammed for violating coronavirus guidelines. The remarks earned him heavy criticism from Jewish community leaders, organizations and elected officials.

De Blasio later said, “if the way I said it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way.” However, he also justified his remarks, saying that his intent was “to be clear that what I saw I had not seen anywhere else and I was trying to be honest about the fact that this is a problem that people have to come to grips with and deal with.”

When the coronavirus pandemic first began spreading in New York and social distancing guidelines were put in place, many in the Jewish community expressed concern that the current crisis might bring back some of the anti-Semitic rhetoric that emerged during the measles outbreak that swept the community last year.

Conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic comments and threats spread rapidly on social media, accusing the Jewish community of not respecting the coronavirus guidelines.

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