I have little doubt that those who write in the Jewish papers who are critics of Governor Cuomo will be out in force in their denunciations of the new regulations, claiming anti-Semitism. My question to them is: What would you have done if you were in the governor’s shoes?
The state was hard hit by COVID-19 in the spring. Some questioned Cuomo’s response, claiming that he should have acted forcefully sooner.
In the summer, New York had done an excellent job in reducing the infection rate, cases, and deaths caused by the coronavirus.
It was mid-September, and the High Holidays were approaching. Synagogue attendance is the highest for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Also, both services are lengthy. With Yom Kippur, services are so long that there are synagogues that have little or no break during the day. Although the Rosh HaShanah davening is shorter than that of Yom Kippur, on Rosh HaShanah there are festive holiday meals.
Cuomo had a choice: He could rely on the current data, which showed low infection rates even in the Orthodox community, keep the status quo of limited regulations, and rely on compliance. In the alternative, the governor could issue stricter guidelines to come into effect on Rosh HaShanah as a pre-emptive strike against the spread of COVID-19 through superspreader events such as praying in a synagogue.
The governor decided to leave things as they were and relied upon the Jewish community to abide by the mask and distance requirements. Unfortunately, many places in the community did not comply. In particular, the laxity was more common in the Orthodox communities.
The next set of holidays was Sukkos, which is for seven days, and Sh’mini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, which is for two days. These holidays have their own unique set of challenges in dealing with the spread of COVID-19. On Sukkos, people eat in sukkahs (huts) many of which are small, so people are on top of each other. Also, in some communities, during the middle days of the holiday of Sukkos (Chol HaMoed) there are large gatherings to celebrate the holiday. One of these gatherings occurred in Brooklyn, where there was no social distancing, and many individuals did not wear masks. On Simchas Torah, there are hakafos, where people dance for hours celebrating the completion of the Torah-reading cycle.
It was the middle of Sukkos, and the number of infections and the infection rates were climbing in the Orthodox communities. The numbers were only based on a week before because, not surprisingly, due to what happened on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the number of infections and the rates started to increase.
Cuomo had a decision to make. There were a few more days of Jewish holidays; and if nothing was done, it could lead to an uptick of COVID cases. The data was not looking good. There was spotty compliance in some communities. In other places, there was outward hostility to the rules. Cuomo decided that he could not wait any longer and had to do something to make sure that cases would not rise. If the people were unable to take care of themselves, then he had no choice but to have the government step in and force them to do what was necessary.
Originally, Mayor de Blasio had proposed the new regulations based on ZIP Code. The governor rejected the proposal and created a more targeted approach. It is hard to draw lines. I have firsthand knowledge of how a line may appear to be unfair. My office is on the north side of Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills and in the red zone. The dividing line is Queens Boulevard, so places across the street on the south side are in the orange zone with fewer restrictions.
In Kew Gardens Hills, 150th Street is the dividing line. The Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, which is on the east side of 150th Street, is not in the red zone and thus is not bound by the ten-person limitation. It is appropriate that the Young Israel was not included. Rabbi Schonfeld has been outspoken about the importance of social distancing and mask wearing. The shul has had outdoor minyanim as well as indoor. They have tried to follow the law and were properly rewarded with having fewer burdensome regulations. There have also been shuls in the red zone who also have abided by the regulations but have to suffer the consequences due to others who have not done so.
There are those who disagreed with the governor’s approach and thought it was too restrictive. The Agudah and the Catholic Church both went to United States District Court to stop the new rules but were unsuccessful. I can understand why some people may argue that it is unfair to have a ten-person limit no matter what size of the synagogue. The response may be that we want a standard rule. Or as the rabbis call it, “lo plug.”
It is unfortunate that there are individuals who want to claim that this was done because of anti-Semitism. This is false and just an excuse not to address the underlying problem of the failure of many in the Orthodox community to abide by the distancing and mask requirements and a failure of some of the leadership in these communities to convince their membership of the importance of abiding by these requirements. One would have expected that with the president and many in the White House getting COVID-19 from a superspreader event, as well as the great rabbinic leader in Israel, Rabbi Kanievsky, also getting the virus, that attitudes would have changed. Unfortunately, based on what I saw over Sukkos and reports that I heard, little has changed.
What is most troubling were the scenes of some chasidim setting fires, and a frum journalist being assaulted because he showed pictures and video of them in large groups outside without masks and social distancing. It was a big chilul Hashem and should be denounced by all.
We are fortunate that we have a governor who is willing to take the heat and try to protect us from being our own worst enemies. He should be praised instead of vilified. Lives will be saved, and many people will be not be sickened because of his approach, as opposed to the Trump laissez-faire approach.