A day after Governor Andrew Cuomo definitively said schools cannot suddenly operate as childcare centers in order to remain open during COVID-19 zoned restrictions, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the matter is still an open question.
"There is a gray area that we're waiting for more guidance from the state on in the area of childcare and what the rules are related to childcare," de Blasio said during a news conference on Thursday. "This is something we're talking to the state about right now to resolve it. I think everyone needs clearer standards. We don't have enough clarity on childcare, and as soon as we get that, we're going to make sure everyone understands it and follows it."
He added the city specifically needs written guidance to determine "how we handle a situation."
Last week, Cuomo closed both public and private schools in "red" and "orange" zones across Brooklyn and Queens in an effort to stave off a second wave of coronavirus in NYC. But several yeshivas were seen ignoring the latest order in Orthodox Jewish communities in Borough Park—a neighborhood in Brooklyn's "red zone," where state health figures showed a 4.75% positivity rate as of Wednesday.
In response, Cuomo said he'd slash funding for the private schools, as some yeshivas simply announced they'd shift to operating as "child care" centers instead.
On Wednesday, however, Cuomo plainly said such switches aren't permitted.
"You cannot operate a school and then say, 'Well, tomorrow I’ve turned it into a childcare center,'" Cuomo said during a press call on Wednesday.
There are separate licenses, regulations, and operating guidelines for childcare centers, so though those facilities are permitted to remain open, schools are not.
"You fool no one by saying, 'Oh no, they're not walking into a school, they're walking into a childcare facility,'" Cuomo said.
The mayor said NYC issued 25 summonses for violations of COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday, after conducting 1,700 inspections at sites like schools or houses of worship. Over the past two weeks, more than 18,000 inspections resulted in 288 summonses. Eleven of the summonses were for $15,000 a piece. Among those, three yeshivas in Borough Park have received summonses due to the city's enforcement efforts, which have been dismissed by the governor as insufficient.
City Hall would not say whether any of the summonses were related to operating as a childcare center.
David Greenfield, the executive director of the Met Council and a former councilmember in Borough Park, noted some yeshivas already operate both as schools and daycares, making for further confusion.
Some yeshivas receive funding through childcare vouchers—a program for low-income parents largely distributed to Orthodox families in Borough Park and Williamsburg that was expanded under de Blasio, noted Naftuli Moster, the founder of a group fighting for improved secular education in Hasidic communities, Young Advocates For Fair Education.
"It's problematic when yeshiva leaders ignore the spirit of the rules, and they're like, 'Oh, let's find a clever way around it. If yeshivas are shut, let's just pretend to be daycares,'" Moster said. He added the current confusion stems from years of the government failing to hold the yeshivas' leaders accountable.
A spokesperson for Cuomo, Caitlin Girouard, reiterated Cuomo's remarks from Wednesday.
"The law is clear—licensed day care centers can operate as essential, but school-based unlicensed child care in the red or orange zones must remain closed," Girouard said. "In case that wasn't clear enough, we will be doing additional outreach to impacted facilities to notify them they should not be open."
The dizzying back-and-forth between de Blasio and Cuomo is the latest in a series of communication mishaps between the two leaders, who have long-feuded on key issues impacting NYC.
From the beginning of the pandemic, de Blasio and Cuomo disagreed over closing businesses during a then-looming shutdown, as the virus spread throughout the city. Most recently, de Blasio announced a plan to roll back re-openings in parts of the city, admitting he'd need state approval to implement it, but wanted to announced the unapproved proposal in a "very public manner."
A day later, Cuomo spoke with de Blasio and the head of the teacher's union in a phone call that was the only conversation between the two leaders all month, a City Hall official told the NY Times.
On Thursday, de Blasio called the apparent feuding a "moot point."
"In a crisis, you try and obviously minimize differences, get on the same page, but you're still going to have some inherent differences of views," he said.
This article has been updated with additional comments.