Wednesday, 28 Oct 2020

Opinion | New York Needs the Faithful to Help Stop the Coronavirus

A growing coronavirus outbreak in several Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods is the most serious public health emergency New York City has faced since the spring, when the virus claimed more than 20,000 lives.

Serious outbreaks are now occurring in some of New York’s Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities. Within these insular communities, built by Holocaust survivors from Europe, trust in the city government is often minimal — which can make it a challenge to enforce mask mandates and social distancing rules.

Restrictions put into place by the state and the city this week to curb the outbreak have been met with anger and, in some cases, open rebellion in these communities.

New York has shuttered schools and will close nonessential businesses in “red zones.” But the most fiercely contested restrictions are those imposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo limiting gatherings to 10 people in houses of worship in those areas.

These restrictions, which have also rankled Catholic communities across the city, are being opposed most fervently by Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox New Yorkers, who are observing the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. In the heavily Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park on Tuesday night, anger over the restrictions boiled over. An event that began as a protest turned violent. A 34-year-old man was beaten and sent to the hospital. A large crowd blocked traffic in the street, including a city bus, and burned masks. Several journalists who were reporting from the scene said they were threatened by people in the crowd, in one case with a racial slur. Police officers who tried to disperse the gathering were ignored.

The resurgence of the coronavirus in these communities is the result of a confluence of factors. Hasidic New York was hit hard by the virus early on, leading to a false belief among some in the community that they had developed herd immunity.

In addition, the city and state have failed to effectively disseminate vital information about just how deadly the virus is within these communities. The city did expand testing in these areas. But officials said community nonprofits based in Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have rebuffed some of their outreach efforts, out of respect to some religious leaders who opposed government involvement in their communities.

On top of that was a failure by the city this summer to enforce across the five boroughs the state mandate requiring people to wear a mask when in public and unable to maintain a distance of at least six feet. After receiving backlash for disproportionately enforcing the mandate on Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, the New York Police Department has shied from enforcing the mandate at all. Until recently, many police officers didn’t wear masks themselves.

Mr. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have a responsibility to use their powers to protect public health within these communities — for the sake of the residents, and the rest of the city. During a pandemic, a city can be only as healthy as its hardest hit communities, since the coronavirus spreads easily.

Every New Yorker is entitled to equal protection, and the city ought to conduct steady and respectful enforcement of mask mandates and other pandemic-related public health measures across the city, including in “red zone” areas and houses of worship.

But it matters how the state and city approach public health. For such measures to succeed, officials must take into account the distinct needs and culture of any community — and to work in partnership with religious and community leaders whenever possible.

One thing the state and city can do is make it easier for Hasidic Jews and other religious communities to worship outside, including by providing tents and closing streets for as long as necessary. Such a display of respect and cooperation could go a long way toward showing the Hasidic community that government is there to help — not to, with little warning, prevent a community with a painful history from practicing its religion.

The leaders of the Hasidic community also need to do their part, working closely with state and city officials to stop the virus in its tracks. That is the only way to protect their own families and neighbors — and the eight million other people who call New York home.

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