NEW YORK – New York City will close schools in some neighborhoods Tuesday, the first rollback in its reopening after the city had eased coronavirus restrictions and saw low levels of transmission over the summer months.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the announcement Monday after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced a proposal that included closing all nonessential businesses and schools Wednesday in nine ZIP codes that have seen a spike in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
De Blasio's plan required state approval, and Cuomo was critical of some elements of the plan, including dividing the closures by ZIP code and not including houses of worship.
Cuomo said houses of worship can remain open for now, but threatened to close them if cases do not come down.
"I didn't put out this plan, he did," Cuomo said of de Blasio, who released his plan before getting the OK from the state.
Later in the day, de Blasio countered the governor and said the city was prepared to move ahead with its plan to close all nonessential businesses in the nine ZIP codes by Wednesday morning. Cuomo, however, had said nonessential businesses in the neighborhoods, including indoor and outdoor dining, would stay open for now.
"The time is now for the kind of restrictions that got us out of a worse situation in the spring," de Blasio said.
Cuomo was less critical of the role nonessential businesses play in transmission of the virus, saying, "The businesses are not mass spreaders. You're talking about small stores."
While de Blasio admitted the state has the ultimate authority, he said the city would be prepared for closures on Wednesday. "Until there is a different plan, we are preparing to implement this plan."
Announcing his plan Sunday, de Blasio called for a "rewind" of restrictions in parts of Brooklyn and Queens that had test positivity rates rise above 3% in the past seven days. The city has used that measure to determine whether it needs to take "more extensive action," de Blasio said.
While the neighborhoods represent just a sliver of the city's population, they have accounted for a disproportionate number of its new cases in recent weeks, according to the city's health department's data.
Cuomo, however, said Monday closures by ZIP code are "not the best template" because there is data that is more specific. Citing one ZIP code in Brooklyn, Cuomo said there were areas within the ZIP code that weren't part of the hot spot but areas outside the ZIP code that were part of the hotspot.
School districts are also different than ZIP codes, he added. "Just because a school is located in a ZIP code doesn't mean the students are in that ZIP code," he said.
During his press conference, de Blasio defended using ZIP code data for determining closures. In many of the ZIP codes, cases are increasing throughout the area, de Blasio said. Although in other ZIP codes the problem may only be occurring in one section, that "doesn't mean the other areas are just plain fine," he said.
The school closures are planned for a minimum of two weeks but could continue for four weeks if test positivity continues to remain high, de Blasio said.
Cuomo was also sharply critical of local enforcement of coronavirus restrictions. "Warnings are not enforcement. Put a mask on or I will ticket you is not enforcement," Cuomo said.
"You will see people die if we do not do more enforcement," he added.
De Blasio has taken a less harsh stance on the issue of mask enforcement. City health officials in hotspot neighborhoods have offered masks to those not wearing them in recent weeks. Only if someone refuses are they issued, de Blasio said.
"If I can get someone to wear a mask rather than just give a fine for its own sake, I want someone to wear the mask," de Blasio said.
The city's uptick in cases represents its first major challenge in staving off the spread of the coronavirus since the outbreak devastated New York in March and April. At the peak of the city's crisis, some 5,000 new cases were added each day with more than 500 deaths a day.
The city has seen a steady decline in cases and deaths since mid-April and by the end of the summer, fewer than 250 new cases a day were being added on average.
The recent uptick, though, has sparked fears of a second wave in New York City.
Lorna Thorpe, director of the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, said that outbreaks are concerning but clusters like them are to be expected given how COVID-19 spreads.
"This is a critical moment for the city to use all of its contact tracing, testing and community engagement resources to try and control the spread from these neighborhoods to other areas of the city," she wrote in an email to USA TODAY. "This is challenging given the historical precedent of distrust and even alienation in some of these neighborhoods, but strategic and coordinated efforts can still bring these outbreaks under control."
Many of the neighborhoods facing the shutdown in New York City now have large populations of Orthodox Jews, and some have raised concerns about compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing in the community, especially in yeshivas, Orthodox Jewish elementary schools.
Speaking on CNN on Monday morning, de Blasio said the new increase in cases is a "bigger issue across these nine ZIP codes that really have a wide range, diverse range of New Yorkers in them."
Cuomo said he planned to meet with leaders of the Orthodox community Tuesday and said the communities must be part of enforcing restrictions like mask-wearing. "This cannot happen again. If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we will close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that," Cuomo said.
In addition to the nine ZIP codes, the city is watching 12 other ZIP codes. De Blasio has said he wanted to close indoor dining, gyms and pools in these ZIP codes.
According to Thorpe, neighborhood-specific enforcement strategies are part of the solution and help prevent larger citywide shutdown. But other measures are needed, too, to slow transmission.
"Other important city strategies are increasing COVID-19 testing rates, improving timeliness and completeness of contact tracing efforts, enforcing current social distancing policies, and sustaining a campaign to encourage NYC residents to wear masks, wash hands and limit unnecessary contacts," Thorpe said.
The announcement comes as New York had reached a few milestones in its reopening plans citywide, with public schools welcoming students back into classrooms for a hybrid model of learning over the last two weeks and indoor dining resuming in limited capacities.
De Blasio said Sunday the recent spikes in neighborhoods had not made their way into public schools and said closures would be a precautionary measure. Teachers and their unions had been pushing for the schools not to reopen amid the uptick and after the city twice delayed its partial return to in-person classes.
Cuomo, however, said the city needs better testing data from inside the schools.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said Sunday of de Blasio's plan to close schools: “This is the right decision, one that helps protect our schools, our neighborhoods, and ultimately our city.”
Contributing: Joseph Spector, New York State Team; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New York City schools to close in hot spot; restaurants, gyms open