A Sudden Surge in COVID-19 Cases in New York City

An uptick in ten NYC neighborhoods uncovers the already drastic divide between religion and public health.


Caleb Yam

This is a synagogue in Kew Gardens Hills, located in one of the ‘red zones’ with high COVID-19 positivity rates. “The NYC government along with the state government should make a larger effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19 by implementing mask mandates. This would ensure that nobody leaves their homes without wearing a face covering of any sort, which would help to stop the spread of the Coronavirus,” said Jeff Guan ’21.

Since the beginning of October 2020, there has been an alarming increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in at least ten zip codes throughout New York City, just as the city started making strong progress in containing the outbreak. Because of this recent spike in these neighborhoods, on Sunday, October 4th, 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a two week lockdown in these neighborhoods, affecting schools and businesses. On Tuesday October 6th, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed the lockdown.  And on Thursday, November 19th, 2020, all New York City public schools shut down temporarily and moved to all virtual classes, after New York City hit a weekly 3% COVID-19 positivity rate.

The neighborhoods, or ‘red zones’ as Governor Cuomo categorized them, are facing a rise in COVID-19 cases. These neighborhoods include Borough Park, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Rego Park, Kew Gardens Hills, Sheepshead Bay, East Midwood, and Far Rockaway. The majority of these neighborhoods have sizable Orthodox Jewish populations, some of which are very insular in nature. Although New York has been on the road to recovery in the last few months, some Orthodox Jews in these locations are still seen frequently without masks and congregating in large groups inside yeshivas and synagogues

The trend of not wearing masks ties into the lack of affinity for modern media and for science in these communities. Many Orthodox Jewish families do not have televisions in their homes, and there is a lack of strong science education, if at all, in many yeshivas, or Jewish day schools, in these communities. Over 80 percent of Hasidic Jews, an ultra-conservative sect of Orthodox Judaism, in some New York City neighborhoods voted for President Trump back in 2016. Especially with Trump’s anti-mask rhetoric, the vulnerability of the Orthodox Jewish community allowed for misinformation to spread, resulting in the dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases.

“It is a little disheartening that the pandemic has been ongoing for almost eight months now, yet pretty much the only hope at ending it is for vaccines to come out. It seems like we’re the only country in the world that doesn’t have the Coronavirus pandemic under control, with over 250,000 Americans dead and cases still rising,” said Bryan Li ’21.

Once Governor Cuomo imposed the lockdown, all schools and non-essential businesses had to be closed in the ‘red zone’ neighborhoods. This announcement ignited a rather unpleasant uproar in the Orthodox Jewish community. For two nights straight, a large crowd of hundreds of Orthodox Jews congregated in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. Protestors set masks on fire and waved Make America Great Again flags around, disregarding social distancing guidelines and Governor Cuomo’s lockdown rules. 

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn also expressed frustration with Governor Cuomo’s guidelines for the lockdown, showing how people of multiple religions expressed opposition to necessary guidelines meant to protect public health, out of frustration for not being able to congregate together for religious services. This is a concerning sign of how the fight for community safety and efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, are never ending. 

These lockdowns are not an attack on religion, but rather necessary in order to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.  They are a reminder of how lack of scientific knowledge towards pandemics can have harmful effects on communities, especially during the twenty-first century. 

These circumstances are reflective of how the actions of very few people can have major consequences on the majority of the population. Some of these red zones, such as those in South Brooklyn, have COVID-19 positivity rates approaching 8 percent. The city’s positivity rate as of November 19th, 2020 reached 3 percent, triggering the temporary closure of all New York City public schools, and the city as a whole is now at risk for having to go into another lockdown in order to reduce the surge of cases of COVID-19, which could overwhelm hospitals if left unchecked.

The restrictions on essential businesses and the shutdown of non-essential businesses has an impact upon working class families, who have already been struggling. “This rapid spike in cases indicates that it will be a long, long time until things return to normal. In addition, a lot of neighbors and local residents will sadly be at risk of losing loved ones, and certain small local businesses may never see the light of day again,” said Jeff Guan ’21.

For now, all that can be done is for the city, state, and federal governments to mandate masks and to strictly enforce social distancing guidelines. “There needs to be a national mask mandate. One of my favorite podcasters always cites Japan as an example. Their population is very densely packed in the cities, but all they did was to enforce a national mask mandate, along with imposing very limited and targeted economic shutdowns, and they currently have half as many total cases as we have total deaths. Masks work,” said Li.

For now, all that can be done is for the city, state, and federal governments to mandate masks and to strictly enforce social distancing guidelines.