Anger and resentment flared Wednesday in New York City neighborhoods facing new coronavirus shutdowns, with some residents saying the state is unfairly targeting Orthodox Jewish communities as it tries to stamp out hot spots before they spread.
Protests erupted in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood Tuesday night after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new restrictions on schools, businesses and houses of worship in some parts of the city and state. And frustration and grievances kept simmering the next day and into Wednesday night.
Video of the protests posted on Twitter, shows a large group of Haredi men taking to the streets at 13th Avenue in the Borough Park, without wearing face masks or social distancing. There were reports that some even burned face masks as an act of rebellion.
“I understand you need to wear a mask. I understand you social distance. What bothers me is: You pick on the good people,” said Brooklyn resident Meir Nimni.
He argued that Orthodox Jewish gatherings were being singled out for a clampdown, noting that huge crowds convened this spring for racial injustice protests where destruction and violence sometimes broke out.
“Everybody here wants to live, and everybody cares” about stopping the virus, Nimni said. But he saw a double standard that’s “just not fair.”
Nearby, Renee Jeremias said authorities “have absolutely no right to shut us down.”
Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization called Agudath Israel of America, said the group was contemplating a court fight if the state wasn’t open to changing a new 10-person limit for houses of worship in areas where new coronavirus cases are most concentrated.
The restriction comes amid Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Many large events this season have already been canceled or rearranged, Zwiebel said, but the 10-person cap “would basically wipe out the entirety of the spirit of the holiday.”
“We are now, you know, on the precipice of an enormous sense of despair,” Zwiebel said.
Cuomo insists the new restrictions are based solely on science and coronavirus case clusters in areas that, in his view, have flouted the state’s existing virus-safety rules.
After becoming the nation’s deadliest coronavirus hot spot this spring, New York wrestled its outbreak down to a steady and relatively low level over the summer.
But infections have been rising in recent weeks, and hospitalizations are starting to follow. There has been an average of 659 COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide over the past week, up from 426 for the week ending Sept 6, Cuomo said. During an early April peak, nearly 19,000 coronavirus patients were hospitalized statewide.
He said a few areas are disproportionately driving the worrisome trends, with over 5% of coronavirus tests coming back positive in 20 hot spot ZIP codes, compared with about 1.3% statewide.
In one Brooklyn ZIP code, 18% of everyone who has gotten a coronavirus test since Oct. 1 has tested positive, compared with a rate of about 3.9 percent citywide, according to city data.
The Democratic governor said wider “spread is inevitable” if the clusters don’t get under control.
“There’s always opposition. And we move forward anyways. And we’ll continue to do that,” he said on a conference call with reporters.
The new rules, set to take effect Friday, involve parts of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, sections of Orange and Rockland counties in the Hudson Valley and an area within Binghamton, near the Pennsylvania border. Many of the areas are home to large enclaves of Orthodox Jews.
The plan sets up color-coded, concentric zones where the severity of the measures varies. In the hearts of the hot spots, schools can’t teach in person, and all nonessential businesses will be closed, among other measures. Surrounding areas face less stringent restrictions, such as limits on gatherings and restaurant diners.
Orthodox Jewish residents aren’t the only ones complaining. The leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, said churches “fervently object” to being told to reduce capacity after not having any outbreaks since reopening in July.
Business interests are dismayed, too.
“To shut down almost all of south Brooklyn and punish small businesses that have reopened safely will be an overwhelming setback to the borough’s economic recovery,” Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Randy Peers said in a statement.
Criticism sharpened into street protests Tuesday night, when videos posted on social media showed hundreds of Orthodox Jewish men gathered in the streets of Borough Park, in some cases setting bonfires by burning masks.
Video posted on social media showed a crowd swarming and knocking down a man holding a camera. Another video showed protesters rushing another man who had been filming the unrest, and pummeling him. A relative told The Associated Press he was taken to the hospital unconscious but was doing “much better” Wednesday and was expected to be released. The relative spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Police said there were no arrests.
Crowds of Orthodox Jewish men returned to Brooklyn streets on Wednesday night, as police officers watched, according to social media video. Some giant flags proclaiming support for President Donald Trump could also be seen in the crowd.
Mayor Bill de Blasio told opponents of the new rules to respect them and follow police instructions.
“There’ll be consequences” if people don’t, the Democratic mayor added at a virtual news briefing Wednesday.
The state already faced a lawsuit this year from religious observers who questioned why peaceful mass protests were able to occur while religious groups once faced stricter gathering limits than businesses.
Under a federal court ruling that the state is fighting, unlimited outdoor religious gatherings with social distancing are currently allowed. That ruling also means both religious groups and businesses currently face a 50% indoor capacity limit, though New York City restaurants are limited to 25% capacity indoors.