Facing a worrying spike in coronavirus cases in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, New York City health officials began carrying out emergency inspections at private religious schools on Friday and threatened to impose an extraordinary lockdown in those communities that would be the first major retreat by the city on reopening since the pandemic began.
Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the Police Department and the Sheriff's Office to enforce public health guidelines in several Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, where residents often do not wear masks or engage in social distancing. But community leaders said residents have been resisting the guidelines because of hostility toward Mr. de Blasio and the growing influence of President Trump, whose views on masks and the pandemic have been widely embraced.
The crackdown is occurring shortly before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, which begins on Sunday night, and it was not immediately clear the impact that the measures might have on the ability of people to gather in synagogues. The Health Department said that if significant progress toward following guidelines did not occur by Monday, officials could issue fines, limit gatherings or force closings of businesses or schools.
"This may be the most precarious moment we are facing since we emerged from lockdown," Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the city's health commissioner, said at a news conference in South Brooklyn.
Officials this week released statistics showing that the positivity rate in some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods had grown to anywhere from 3 percent to 6 percent, significantly more than the city's overall rate of between 1 percent and 2 percent. Officials are especially worried about the positivity rates in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park, Midwood and Gravesend, which they have referred to as the "Ocean Parkway Cluster."
Mr. de Blasio said on Friday on The Brian Lehrer Show that the city had closed four yeshivas over violations of social distancing rules.
"There's a very rigorous outreach effort in the community in English and Yiddish," the mayor said, adding, "There's a substantial number of Yiddish speakers who have been brought into the effort. Test and Trace has been hiring directly from the community. We are going to keep doing that, though. I think this is an indicator we will be fighting for a little while here."
The uptick in these neighborhoods amounts to the first major coronavirus challenge for the city after months of declining or flat infection rates. The concern now is that if the outbreak spreads further in the Orthodox community, it could begin to take hold elsewhere, with even more serious consequences. If the city's overall positivity rate hits 3 percent, that would trigger a new lockdown, including the closing of public schools.
"In the absence of our doing the right thing, we will need to be in a lockdown-type situation as occurred in Israel," Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of New York City Health and Hospitals, which is overseeing the city's contact tracing program said earlier this week. He was referring to the decision by the Israeli government to reinstitute restrictions because the country is facing the highest rate of new cases per capita in the world.
The distrust of the authorities was on display during Friday's news conference in South Brooklyn, at Gravesend Park, which was attended by several city health officials, when one man interrupted Dr. Katz by loudly saying the city had been exaggerating the severity of the outbreak.
The scene grew tense when a second man, who was not wearing a mask, approached Dr. Katz, who told him to back off or put on a mask. The man shouted that he wouldn't wear a mask and anyone who didn't like it could leave.
"You don't live here," he shouted. "Get out of here."
The man, who wouldn't give his name, soon shouted a racial slur. He also began yelling, "Go to East New York," a predominately Black neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Visits to Borough Park showed how the rules are often ignored. The coronavirus outbreak devastated New York's Orthodox Jewish community in March and April, and community leaders say hundreds have died, including influential religious leaders. But this week, there was hardly a face mask in sight, as if the pandemic had never happened.
At a flower stand in Borough Park on Friday, a vendor, Boris Mushayev, tended to his merchandise as customers around him, all without masks, perused the white, red and orange blooms.
"You have some people here who wear masks but it is true that most people do not," said Mr. Mushayev. "I think some people are just not so worried about the virus anymore. If customers want me to wear a mask I wear it, but for now I have to focus on work."
Borough Park and Midwood were islands of support for President Trump during the 2016 election, when the president won 89 percent of the vote in one local precinct. Many there view him as an ally on issues like school choice, religious freedom and support for Israel, said Avi Greenstein, chief executive of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council.
Those political cross currents had made many here susceptible to "conflicting information from Washington, where we see a constant downplaying of the crisis and indoor rallies where people may or not be wearing masks," Mr. Greenstein said.
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He added that the political rift had been deepened by what he said were the de Blasio administration's failures.
"For the city to make this deadline on the evening of Yom Kippur is shocking, and what is worse is community leaders found out about this on Thursday night from a press release," said Mr. Greenstein. "That tells you everything you need to know about the story of Borough Park during the pandemic."
Mr. Greenstein contrasted the mayor's approach with a visit to his community center's offices in January by Attorney General William P. Barr, who used the appearance at the venue to announce federal hate-crime charges against a Brooklyn woman accused of assaulting three Orthodox women last December.
"That sent a message to the community, to the entire neighborhood, very loud and clear: We're here, we're working with you," he said. But when it comes to the coronavirus, he added, the neighborhood was facing a crisis of "tremendous uncertainty, a tremendous amount of misinformation and a lack of information."
Yosef Rapaport, 66, a Yiddish podcaster whose brother and brother-in-law both died of Covid-19, said Mr. de Blasio needed to rebuild trust with a religious minority that has largely spurned his administration and aligned with President Trump.
"This community is being hit by a double whammy: the incompetence of City Hall and the ugliness that is coming from Washington," Mr. Rapaport said. " There is a deep, deep mistrust among the community for the intentions of the mayor, especially when the president takes a different approach."
Dr. Katz defended the city's efforts, saying that it had made over 200,000 public health robocalls to neighborhoods with significant Orthodox Jewish populations and distributed tens of thousands of masks in Borough Park, Williamsburg, Brighton Beach and Flushing.
The city has also placed "nearly 60 newspaper ads in community papers to get the word out" among Hasidic Jews, he said, and talked to 20 synagogue leaders in Borough Park, a neighborhood with about 300 synagogues, according to Mr. Greenstein.
One lingering issue in the city's relationship with Hasidic New Yorkers has been a late-night Twitter outburst by the mayor after he personally oversaw the dispersal of a rabbi's funeral in Williamsburg in April. For many, it validated their fears about the city's leadership.
Jacob Kornbluh, a Hasidic Jew who lives in Borough Park and writes for Jewish Insider, a national publication, summed up a perspective he often hears in the neighborhood: "De Blasio became the guy singling out the Jews so we don't have to listen to him anymore."
He added that when Mr. de Blasio failed to respond similarly to Black Lives Matter protests in June, it deepened people's sense that the government was singling them out.
"Trump speaks their language: distrust in his own government that he leads, distrust in the media," Mr. Kornbluh said.
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