The neighborhoods include Kew Gardens and Far Rockaway in Queens, Williamsburg in Brooklyn and a separate section of Brooklyn including Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst that health officials are calling the “Ocean Parkway Cluster.”
The six neighborhoods make up 20% of all COVID-19 cases citywide as of Sept. 19 and the health department fears the increases could potentially evolve into more widespread transmission.
“I’m so distressed by the large increase in COVID in these four neighborhoods, including the Ocean Parkway area, which is where I grew up, went to synagogue, where my brother currently lives,” said Dr. Mitchell Katz, the CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals.
Katz said the city was moving to immediately address the increase with leaders of Orthodox Jewish communities in each neighborhood, including automated calls in Yiddish and English, trucks driving through the neighborhoods blaring messages and distribution of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.
"This virus doesn’t follow religious or political lines,” said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News medical contributor. “Whenever you bring people together for events that don’t involve masks and social distancing you will have cases. We have seen these situations occur in many different sub-populations that are not following the science.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who earlier in the pandemic faced accusations by Hasidic Jews that he was unfairly singling them out, said the aim is not to point fingers but to teach an important lesson for the public as the nation moves toward a season when outdoor activities and social distancing become more difficult.
“What we know works is a lot of communications, making it easy for people to wear masks by distributing for free, leaders of the community setting a good example, and many leaders are doing that,” de Blasio said. “If some people don’t want to be helpful to their neighbors then we will take stronger action.”
Dr. Katz, who said his father-in-law died of coronavirus in Israel earlier this week, made a personal appeal to Orthodox Jews.
“In the absence of doing the right thing, we will have to be in a lockdown situation like they have in Israel,” Katz said. “We don’t want that. We want people to wear masks. We want them to stay apart, to not have large gatherings."
He added, “There are easier ways for us to go on with our lives.”