Before Yom Kippur, widespread media coverage depicted predominately Orthodox Jewish areas of New York City as hotbeds for a renewed spread of COVID-19. In turn, City officials opted to announce the enforcement of face coverings and an institution of fines across nine of the city’s 146 ZIP Codes seeing the troubling clustered uptick.

Mayor Bill de Blasio made the stunning declaration at his Tuesday morning press junket, where areas in Brooklyn and Queens were singled out. The affected ZIP Codes in 11204, 11210, 11219, 11223, 11229, 11230, 11367, 11415, and 11691 are confirmed to have seen a positive COVID test rate well above the city’s 3% target threshold; some are drastically higher, with 11367 well above six percent.

The disconcerting news comes after New York City’s daily positivity rate had not surpassed 2.2% since the beginning of August. The Mayor noted that the daily rate had crossed the 3% margin for the first time since early June, with a seven-day city average hovering around 1.4%.

To combat the rise, those caught without a mask in these areas will be “aggressively” advised that they must comply with the mask-mandatory rule or be subjected to a financial penalty. The city officials will go so far as to offer a free mask to offenders; upon refusal, the wrongdoer will be levied a fine, tapping out at a maximum of $1,000. The minimum charge or first violation fine was not disclosed at the Tuesday briefing. The regions noted include the neighborhoods of Gravesend/Homecrest, Midwood, Kew Gardens, Edgemere/Far Rockaway, Borough Park, Bensonhurst/Mapleton, Gerritsen Beach/Homecrest/Sheepshead Bay, and Flatlands/Midwood.

A similar fining policy was put in place by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, under the auspices of NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo, where commuters refusing to don a face covering are fined $50. A spring program of a comparable measure was disbanded after it was revealed that the New York Police Department chose to target people of color. It remains unclear how the city will act differently this time around.

Many private schools and yeshivos, including childcare centers, opted to cancel indoor learning until after the Sukkos holiday, fearing the contagion spreading in their midst. Some schools are even deliberating a 14-day quarantine following the holiday vacation period. The mayor explained that educational institutions found in fault of Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi’s order for these preventive health safeguards will be immediately shuttered.

The instructions given “require nonpublic schools to: maintain at least six feet of distance between individuals, unless it creates a safety hazard, and, based on community feedback, if barriers have been erected between people, to wear face coverings in school buildings at all times, except in cases of medical exemption; to coordinate with the Health Department and the Test & Trace Corps on investigations, namely to identify, isolate, and prevent the spread of COVID-19; and follow the protocols established by the Department for opening and closing of classrooms and schools, if a student or staff member is confirmed with COVID-19, following all the guidance for exclusions, and close contacts.” The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement is tasked with monitoring private schools, but the Mayor did note that if a rolling average remains high in particular areas, the schools there would be closed, while the public school system will remain open in other areas. This conflicts with in-person learning being canceled at New York City schools if the seven-day average is at 3% or above.

The City again mentioned that if improvements are not seen, based on the infection numbers in the above-mentioned ZIP Codes, it had a plan in place to begin imposing drastic restrictions, including forbidding gatherings over ten people and a closure of all nonessential businesses. Dr. Mitchell Katz, President & CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals, did however impart that sweeping progress regarding “mask-wearing in the affected communities over the weekend” had been seen in these areas and no further restrictions were pending.

Residents can expect to see additional testing capacity in these areas, and hundreds of Test and Trace Corps members, alongside community-engagement specialists to encourage added testing. According to the mayor, there will be a pushback against misinformation, robocalls, and seven sound trucks driving through the area, blasting safety messages. Inhabitants of Kew Gardens Hills were frustrated with Yiddish announcements blaring from a NYC Parks Dept. pickup truck. “We speak English here; why would the city send around messages in Yiddish here on Main Street?” questioned Katherine M. at the corner of Main Street and Jewel Avenue as she waited to board a bus. “I have worked here as babysitter for many years, and not once have I heard anybody speak Yiddish. I felt like I was back at my old job in Williamsburg,” continued Katherine as she straightened her mask, noticing her bus pulling up.

De Blasio called the sudden rise over the Jewish holiday season an “inflection point.” He then added, “And we will be escalating with each day, depending on what we see happening on the ground and the test results we are getting.”

Plans to allow indoor dining at 25% capacity remain in place and are being observed.

 By Shabsie Saphirstein