New York City's daily positivity rate tops 3% amid 'alarming increase' in COVID-19 cases

The city has highlighted nine neighborhoods of concern.

September 30, 2020, 5:05 AM

New York City reported its highest daily positivity rate since June on Tuesday, the same day elementary schools started welcoming students back in person and a day before restaurants began indoor dining.

The number -- 3.25% -- has been driven by rising cases in nine neighborhoods in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, officials said. As of Tuesday, they accounted for over 25.6% of new cases citywide over the past two weeks despite representing only 7.4% of the city’s overall population, according to the city's health department. The 14-day average positivity rate in the nine ZIP codes ranged from 3.31% to 6.92% as of Tuesday.

“We are deeply concerned about the alarming increase in COVID-19 in the ZIP codes in Brooklyn and Queens," NYC Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said during a press briefing Tuesday.

City officials started ringing alarm bells about the increases last week. On Sept. 19, six neighborhoods accounted for 20% of all COVID-19 cases citywide. The areas in question included neighborhoods with large Orthodox Jewish populations, and officials warned that gatherings during the Jewish high holidays and a general lack of mask compliance could spread the virus.

The city has looked to address the increase by making automated calls in both English and Yiddish, driving trucks through the neighborhoods blaring messages, deploying mobile testing units to several of the neighborhoods, and distributing masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to residents. It has handed out masks to 300 different synagogues, Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of the city's public hospital system, said Tuesday.

"Multiple leaders reported that in their synagogues everyone was wearing a mask and that people were keeping their distance. So, I know that work has been happening and has been successful," Katz said Tuesday.

But with positivity rates on the rise, the city says it will be bolstering testing. On Wednesday, it plans to increase rapid testing capacity at three city hospital-run testing sites, and add new rapid-testing capacity at community provider offices in Orthodox neighborhoods, Katz said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, greets students as they arrive for in-person classes outside Public School 188 The Island School, Sept. 29, 2020, in New York.
John Minchillo/AP

Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced new enforcement of mask-wearing. “Anyone who refuses to wear a face-covering will be told if they don’t put one on they will be fined,” he said during Tuesday's press briefing.

Additionally, any nonpublic school or childcare center that does not follow city health guidelines will also close, he said. More measures, including closing down nonessential businesses and limiting gatherings, could also go into effect depending on the data, the mayor said.

"Those are all on the table," de Blasio said. "None we want to do, but all on the table, if we don't see enough progress quickly enough."

During the pandemic, New York City was one of the earliest- and hardest-hit cities in the country. But as of Tuesday, the citywide positivity rate for the virus was 1.38% on a seven-day rolling average, as the city continues its phased reopening. For the first time since March, about 300,000 public elementary school students returned to classrooms Tuesday. Middle and high school students report by the end of the week.

On Wednesday, the city will also allow indoor dining -- which has been barred since March -- to return at 25% capacity.

"We fought so hard as New Yorkers," Katz said. "We can't give up the progress that's allowed us to reopen our city."

Elementary school students are welcomed back to P.S. 188 as the city's public schools open for in-person learning, Sept. 29, 2020, in New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Beyond New York City, other areas of New York state are also seeing increases in COVID-19 cases. Statewide, there are 20 ZIP codes with an average positive test rate of 5%, which is five times the statewide average, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday. The clusters in Brooklyn, as well as Rockland and Orange counties, show overlap with large Orthodox Jewish communities, he said.

“That is a fact, so I will be directly meeting with them to talk about it," Cuomo said during his daily coronavirus briefing. "This is a public health concern for their community. It’s also a public health concern for surrounding communities.”

As officials vowed to work with Orthodox Jewish leaders, some have highlighted a "lingering distrust" in the community stemming from how the city treated Hasidic mourners at a Brooklyn funeral in April versus Black Lives Matter protesters a month later.

"The Hasidim were singled out for harsh criticism by Mayor de Blasio, who called their attendance 'absolutely unacceptable.' Those protesting racial injustice were accommodated and encouraged," Avi Schick, a former New York State deputy attorney general and the president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, and David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Daily News on Tuesday. "The point is not to compare the two issues but to highlight why the Hasidic community remains skeptical about whether the city takes their devotion to religious worship, education and ritual as seriously as it takes the priorities of other communities."

Their op-ed "clearly & succinctly explains the double standard that Orthodox Jews often feel subjected to in NYC," Brooklyn Councilmember Chaim Deutsch said on social media. "Yes, we can & will do better. It’s also important to understand where the distrust comes from."

Avi Greenstein, the chief executive officer of the Boro Park Community Council, a social service organization in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, one of the areas seeing high rates of cases, told the Associated Press Tuesday that the city should be focused on outreach.

“There's a way to do it,” he told the AP. “There's no need to threaten fines.”

ABC News' Aaron Katersky and J. Gabriel Ware contributed to this report.

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