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Cuomo Orders Some School Closures, Possible Religious Gathering Ban

In this March 13, 2020, file photo, students at Stuyvesant High School leave after classes in New York at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bebeto Matthews
Associated Press
In this March 13, 2020, file photo, students at Stuyvesant High School leave after classes in New York at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools in coronavirus hot spots in New York City will shut down, beginning Tuesday, under an order from Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor also threatened to close down religious gatherings in the hot spots, including large Orthodox Jewish events, and says the state will take over enforcement of rules including mask wearing and social distancing.

Cuomo said he’s taking the steps because he does not want the hot spots to spread to the rest of the state, comparing them to embers in dry grass.

“The only course is to run to those embers and stamp them out immediately and dramatically,” Cuomo said.

The hot spots bring the average rate of the virus in New York to over 1.2%. When the virus clusters in 20 zip codes are not counted, the average rate of COVID-19 in the state is around 1%, where it’s remained for several weeks.

Cuomo’s order overrides a plan by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who proposed closing the schools in the hot spots beginning Wednesday.

While the schools in cluster zones spots in New York City will be shuttered, schools in portions of Orange and Rockland counties, where the rate of transmission is even higher will stay open for now. Cuomo also addressed incidents of recent large religious gatherings in Orthodox Jewish communities in the hot spots, where hundreds of people, mostly without masks, were gathered.

The governor said religious gatherings can continue, but under two conditions: community leaders have to agree to limit the number of people at the gatherings, and agree to strictly enforce the safety rules. If that doesn’t happen, Cuomo said the synagogues will be shut down.

The governor has already met with Orthodox Jewish leaders, but said he will meet with them again on Tuesday. Cuomo said he has had a 30-year, positive relationship with the community, going back to the days when his father, the late former governor Mario Cuomo, was in power.

“This is the last thing I want to do,” Cuomo said. “It’s a difficult conversation. And you are right on the line of government intrusion on religion. So it’s hard.”

Religious groups have already successfully sued Cuomo over the issue of limits on mass gatherings, but the governor said he believes he has the legal authority to do it.

Cuomo, who has frequently feuded with de Blasio, criticized the mayor’s administration and other local governments for not adequately enforcing the disease prevention rules. The governor said, as a result, the state will take over all enforcement.

The governor credits the State Liquor Authority’s takeover of bar and restaurant violation enforcement for an end to illegal mass gatherings at bars. Hundreds of establishments saw their liquor licenses suspended.

Mayor de Blasio has called for non-essential businesses in the virus clusters to also close, but Cuomo said they can remain open for the time being, saying they have not been shown to be spreaders of the disease. But the governor did not rule out curtailing indoor dining, as well as outdoor dining in those zones. New York City just resumed indoor dining at a 25% capacity on September 30.

The governor said he knows the actions will create resentments — but he said he’d rather have people alive, even if they are angry with him.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.