Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday adjusted ongoing restrictions in virus hotspots in South Brooklyn and Queens, allowing some areas to reopen schools and businesses as well as expand attendance at houses of worship.
All businesses in the affected zones will be allowed to reopen on Thursday. Schools can reopen as early as Monday, secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa confirmed in a tweet. The announcement comes almost two weeks after New York City began imposing a three-tiered system of targeted rules to battle outbreaks in communities. Since that time, businesses, families of school-aged children and other residents have been anxiously awaiting word of when the restrictions might be lifted or eased.
As expected, central Queens, where the neighborhoods of Kew Garden Hills and Forest Hills had seen the biggest decrease in infection rates, will see the biggest relaxation in rules as it moves entirely into the so-called yellow zone. This zone has the least restrictions, with both schools and businesses able to operate as long as they abide by the state's coronavirus safety rules. Schools in yellow zones can stay open as long as they submit to weekly coronavirus testing; houses of worship in yellow zones are capped at 50% of capacity.
Over the last seven days, central Queens recorded a COVID testing positivity rate of 2.5%, down from 4.1% during the last week of September.
But in a sign of new virus spread, the Queens neighborhood of Ozone Park was added to the yellow zone.
Previously, parts of central Queens had been placed under the red and orange zones. Under red zones, which represent the area with the highest infection rates, all non-essential businesses and schools were closed. Houses of worship were limited to a maximum of ten people.
Far Rockaway, which had been designated under three zones, will also shift completely to a yellow zone.
In South Brooklyn, where the test positivity has improved but is still above 5%, red zone areas will remain unchanged. These include parts of Borough Park, Midwood, Gravesend and Bensonhurst, where city health officials have focused their outreach on Orthodox communities.
But those in the intermediary orange zone, where schools and personal service businesses like hair salons had been closed (but other non-essential businesses were allowed to operate), will now move to the yellow zone.
For the first time, Cuomo on Wednesday outlined the rules under which zones can move to a less restrictive zone.
In more densely populated areas like New York City, red zone areas must sustain a 3% COVID testing positivity rate for 10 days.
The threshold for orange zones to shift is 2%, while yellow zones that record testing positivity of 1.5% will have all of the hotspot restrictions lifted.
The governor stressed that the overall state testing positivity has been among the lowest in the country, with the latest daily figure at 1.6%. But in red zones statewide, which include parts of Rockland and Orange counties, the daily testing positivity on Tuesday was nearly 7%. The two suburban counties have shown dramatic improvement after soaring double-digit test positivities. Last week, less than 5% of tests in the red zone areas in Rockland and Orange came back positive.
"We have it managed," the governor said. "We know how to do this."
Outside of the New York City area, Broome County will remain a yellow zone. Steuben County, which has recorded a 4% positivity for the last three weeks, will have portions placed in a yellow zone. And Chemung County, which has seen a 5% positivity, will see parts designated as red and yellow zones.
Cuomo has said that micro clusters, or small outbreaks of the virus, could continue for as long as a year, as the vaccine undergoes a gradual distribution in early 2021 and amid the prospect that some refuse to get vaccinated.
Looking at a comparison of the state's positivity rate versus that of most of the country, he predicted that the fall surge would bring more cases everywhere, including New York.
"I think all these numbers are going up," he said.