It won’t just be schools that close in areas of New York City with many COVID-19 cases. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced new restrictions on houses of worship, with services in some parts of the state capped at just 10 people.
The new restrictions will go into effect by Friday, as Jewish communities begin celebrations of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the last of the fall holidays, which are generally celebrated with large gatherings and dancing.
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The decision marks the first time in-person religious services, central to Orthodox Jewish communities, will be restricted since the spring. It constitutes a major blow to the communities at the end of the High Holiday season.
The rules will be applied to targeted geographic areas depending on the severity of COVID upticks, with less strict restrictions applied to the areas immediately surrounding them.
Cuomo had said Monday that he would speak to leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community about ensuring safety precautions are followed at synagogues, where, in some New York City neighborhoods, attendees say mask-wearing has remained lax even as more masks are worn on the streets. But by Tuesday, he moved forward with stricter guidelines that rolled back some of New York’s reopening phases.
The governor’s new rules designate different parts of the state as red, orange and yellow zones with red zones representing the areas with the most severe outbreaks.
In the red zones, houses of worship will be limited to 25% capacity, with services of no more than 10 people. In orange zones, 33% capacity and no more than 25 people will be the limit. Only in yellow zones will houses of worship be permitted to fill up to 50% capacity. The previous rules had allowed for services of up to 33% capacity for indoor services and no more than 50 people outdoors.
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“This is about mass gatherings and one of the prime places of mass gatherings are houses of worship,” Cuomo said, showing a picture of an Orthodox Jewish prayer service. “That is the truth.”
The new restrictions also require all schools that are open for in-person learning in the yellow zones to mandate weekly testing of students and teachers. Schools in red and orange zones will have to close.
The new rules come amid a week of confusing messaging from Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over how to address the rising cases in New York City. After de Blasio announced Sunday that he would move to close public and private schools in nine New York City Zip codes with COVID upticks beginning Wednesday, pending the governor’s approval, Cuomo announced Monday that he would close those schools on Tuesday, pre-empting the governor’s plan.
While de Blasio wanted to close nonessential businesses in those Zip codes as well, Cuomo did not give his approval to that plan on Monday. But by Tuesday afternoon, he said he would close nonessential businesses in certain areas experiencing upticks.
He also said he would close schools in Rockland and Orange Counties, two counties in upstate New York that are also home to large Orthodox Jewish communities and which have seen major increases in COVID test positivity rates in recent weeks.
Though Cuomo acknowledged the similarities between the situations in Rockland and Orange Counties to that in New York City on Monday, he did not close the schools in those areas when he closed the schools in New York City, nor did he explain the decision. Orange County’s health commissioner ordered schools in Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave with the highest positivity rate in the county, to close Monday.
Most Orthodox Jewish schools are closed this week anyway for the holiday of Sukkot.
Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, criticized Cuomo's decision as "appalling to all people of religion and good faith.
"We have been down this path before, when religious practices were targeted for special treatment by the Governor’s Executive Order in May," read a statement from the group. "A suit was filed challenging the Governor’s Order then (in which Agudath Israel filed an amicus brief), and the court found it unconstitutional. Repeating unconstitutional behavior does not make it lawful. Moreover, it should be made clear that the Governor’s reference to a 'good conversation' he had earlier today with a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders was largely a one-way monologue, and contained no mention of this new plan. Agudath Israel intends to explore all appropriate measures to undo this deeply offensive action."
The statement also emphasized that "[w]e cannot allow our – perhaps justifiable – anger at government to imperil our neighbors’ health."
Danielle Ziri contributed to this report.