Cuomo says state to enforce COVID rules in hotspots

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a recent pandemic briefing in Manhattan. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office

ALBANY — New York’s COVID-19 infections dipped to their lowest positivity rate in more than two weeks Sunday, including new cases in active coronavirus clusters and across the state as a whole.

New York continues to battle multiple coronavirus clusters mainly centralized in Hasidic Jewish communities in Orange and Rockland counties, Brooklyn and some areas in Queens with tens of thousands of targeted, rapid diagnostic COVID-19 testing to identify and stop the spread of the disease.

“We’re dealing with a very specific situation which is clusters,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday during a conference call with reporters. “Overall, the state itself is doing very well.”

New York conducted more than 118,000 coronavirus tests Saturday, revealing an 0.96% infection rate. The state’s Sunday infection rate was 0.84%, excluding COVID-19 hotspots.

Both positivity rates are the state’s lowest since Sept. 24.

“We have such a sophisticated testing mechanism where we take more tests per day than most states take per week,” Cuomo said. “That allows us to do a very granular analysis.”

Geographic areas surrounding state virus clusters tested 5.7% positive Sunday.

Health experts continue to tackle virus hotspots with unspecified community spread in Western New York. Other clusters persist at upstate colleges and universities.

“The context here is very important,” the governor said. “The positivity rate of 5.7% in our clusters is lower than many states’ overall positivity number. So, the number in our clusters is much less than most states’ positivity.”

COVID-19 hotspots encompass between 2% and 3% of the state’s population of roughly 19.5 million New Yorkers.

State departments distributed 400,000 rapid COVID-19 testing kits to localities Friday to help identify clusters and prevent additional community spread, or a threatening second wave with the approaching cold weather and flu season.

“Attacking a cluster is much easier than trying to attack a statewide increasing rate,” Cuomo said.

COVID-19 infection numbers remained relatively flat throughout the rest of the state Sunday. The north country and Mohawk Valley regions reported a 0.2% infection rate, with 0.5% positive in the Capital Region, 0.9% each in Central New York and the Finger Lakes, with a higher 1.1% rate in New York City and the Mid-Hudson region, which includes spiking Orange and Rockland counties. Western New York had the highest infection rate Sunday at 1.4%.

“We’re really tracking an uptick in the Southern and Western tier,” said Gareth Rhodes, deputy superintendent and special counsel with the state Finances Department, and member of New York’s coronavirus task force.

COVID clusters appeared this week in Allegany and Cattaraugus counties.

“We’ll be directing (rapid testing kits) to counties in the areas seeing the uptick to do broad-based community testing ... to help control these outbreak situations,” Rhodes said.

Clusters must be addressed with aggressive enforcement of social distancing, mask wearing and other coronavirus regulations, Cuomo said.

The state enforcement task force, comprised of dozens of investigators from the State Liquor Authority, state police, environmental conservation and health departments, among others, have inspected nearly 100,000 bars and restaurants since June, and issued roughly 1,500 violations to establishments.

“That’s enforcement,” Cuomo said. “One hundred thousand visits is hard to do. I know. It’s called the job of government. It’s the job of a regulator.

“You pass a law, you don’t enforce a law; the law is useless. It accomplishes nothing.”

Cuomo has pleaded with local governments during his coronavirus briefings for months to comply with his executive COVID-19 mandates to prevent community spread and save lives.

“Many local governments have done a very good job ... some have done an extraordinarily good job,” Cuomo said. “It doesn’t have to be police ... If a local government does not do enforcement, the state is legally responsible for the enforcement and the state can legally take over local enforcement.”

Hundreds of Hasidic Jewish New Yorkers led protests in Brooklyn this week, setting fires to piles of face masks and allegedly assaulting a Jewish reporter after Cuomo announced stricter social distancing, maximum capacity and mass rules. The stricter rules include limiting houses of worship to 10 people in the 2.5-mile geographic radius surrounding COVID clusters. The rules went into effect Friday, and will remain in effect for a minimum of two weeks.

Cuomo spoke with Hasidic leaders several times this week, he said.

“I understand the desire to hold large religious ceremonies,” the governor said. “I understand how important it is to their culture and to their religion. I also understand it jeopardizes human life.”

State virus hospitalizations, which have steadily increased about 300 patients over the last two weeks, are concentrated in the cluster zones and from the Hasidic communities.

Jews have come together in large numbers to celebrate several holidays and high holy days over the last month, including Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and most recently, Sukkot.

“We know what happens — people get the virus, people get sick, people go into the hospital, people die,” said Cuomo, who referenced the Hebrew principle “pikuach nefesh,” which dictates all Sabbath laws may be suspended to save or preserve another person’s life.

“My point here is to save a live and not to endanger others,” he added. “Not to endanger others in the same congregation ... or community. That is what is happening in these large congregations. It’s an unfortunate situation. I wish it didn’t happen, but it is the reality.

“I wish COVID didn’t happen. But that is the reality and you deal with the reality.”

Five New Yorkers died from the coronavirus Saturday, down from eight fatalities Friday.

The state reported 820 hospitalized virus patients Sunday — down six people from Saturday, but reflects a steady increase from about 500 patients over the past two weeks.

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