New York City is anxiously awaiting the go-ahead from Governor Andrew Cuomo on whether officials can proceed with a plan to close non-essential businesses in nine ZIP codes with surging coronavirus infections, reflecting an all-too familiar policy limbo between the state and local officials.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants the closures in portions of South Brooklyn and Queens to take effect on Wednesday morning. Average test positivity rates in the neighborhoods over the last two weeks have ranged from 3.6% in Kew Gardens to 8.2% in Borough Park. During a press conference on Tuesday, one day after he misleadingly suggested the city would go through with the plan no matter what, the mayor continued to apply pressure on the governor, saying, "We need obviously a clear decision."
As of Tuesday morning, the city Department of Health's website was already stating that businesses in the nine targeted areas would close on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Cuomo did not immediately reply to questions about the governor's decision.
Cuomo on Monday approved de Blasio's plan to temporarily close roughly 300 public and private schools in the neighborhoods, but held off on business closures so that state officials could analyze the city's data and see if it was possible to delineate geographic areas around the clusters that were smaller than ZIP codes.
But de Blasio on Tuesday said that city health officials had talked through different models, in particular whether it was possible to use census tracts. He argued the use of ZIP codes allows the city to enforce restrictions in a larger area surrounding the clusters so as to prevent further spread. In another critical advantage, ZIP codes are more easily recognized by New Yorkers. "It’s easy to find out. People certainly know their own household zip code," the mayor said.
Given the commuting habits of New Yorkers, some experts say it is not even clear whether a limited shutdown by ZIP code would be sufficient to tamp down rising infections. Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at CUNY, told Gothamist that addresses of coronavirus positive patients do not indicate where or how someone became infected. He said that comes from contact tracing and relies on interviews with people "to glean patterns within and across communities."
If approved, de Blasio's plan would mark the first major rollback of the city's reopening, dealing a significant blow to business and restaurant owners and their employees, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat amid the pandemic. Depending on what Cuomo approves, the closures could last two weeks or as long as 28 days, as long as virus cases show sustained decline.
The mayor has estimated that over 500,000 residents live in the nine ZIP codes, but has refrained from singling out the large Orthodox community, even though health officials have targeted their outreach to that population.
Cuomo, who has criticized New York City and other local governments for a lack of enforcement, has specifically called out Orthodox religious gatherings. He said he planned to have a meeting with local Orthodox leaders on Tuesday.
De Blasio denied that the city had been lax on enforcement.
"We’ve been doing enforcement for weeks and weeks...we’ve closed down businesses and yeshivas," he said..
He then added: "There's a role for enforcement. We're past that point now."
At least five yeshivas in the nine neighborhoods have been closed since the city announced it would regularly inspect private schools for social distancing and mask compliance. A City Hall spokesperson did not respond to a request for the latest figures on summonses and closures.
In addition to the nine ZIP codes where the mayor is calling for shutdowns, health officials are closely monitoring more than a dozen additional neighborhoods where the positivity rates have been rapidly rising. The mayor has proposed halting indoor dining, gyms and indoor pools in those ZIP codes.
Given the extent of the transmission, public health experts have stressed the importance of acting quickly.
Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, said the mayor's plan sounded "like a good first step," but she expressed concern that the city was waiting until Wednesday to begin closures.
"While it may not be feasible to close these businesses and schools any sooner, each day of enhanced spread in the affected communities could potentially cost lives later," she said.