As New York state continues battling clusters of COVID-19 cases in Rockland County, Brooklyn and Queens, Governor Andrew Cuomo sent a blunt message Wednesday to local governments and police departments: Either enforce mask requirements, or the state will do it for you.
Cuomo made this statement during a conference call with reports moments after meeting with leaders from the Orthodox Jewish community in areas of Rockland, Orange and Kings (Brooklyn) counties that are currently seeing clusters of coronavirus cases.
The governor described the first meeting as productive, and that he would follow up with them later Wednesday on an action plan to help stop the spread in their communities.
“I explained the situation frankly and candidly, and we had a good exchange,” he said. “The leaders of the community understand, and they’re going to take action. And we’re going to come up with an action plan.”
Cuomo also talked about some of the feedback Orthodox leaders provided as to the surge of cases in these areas — specifically misinformation about herd immunity and the ability of masks to protect someone from COVID-19 infection.
But another complication the leaders cited, Cuomo said, is a lack of enforcement by local governments when it comes to ensuring compliance with the mask-wearing executive order and capacity restrictions enacted at the start of the crisis.
Local governments have been a focus of Cuomo’s wrath in recent days as COVID-19 cases have grown in the cluster areas. He expressed dissatisfaction with feedback he received from local government leaders who bristled at the idea of crackdown down on those who defy the mask order and other COVID-19 regulations — and instead touted expanding continued public education on the crisis.
Cuomo said he had enough with the excuse on this, the 204th day of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York state.
“We’re past public education. It’s not about public education,” the governor said. “Enforce the law. the local governments’ failure to enforce the law has exacerbated this problem. They’ve made it worse, not better. It’s not that people don’t know there’s a mask ordinance. They know there’s a mask law. They’re defying the law.”
Cuomo went a step further and told localities across New York state to either enforce the mask order and other COVID-19 regulations, or give him the police officers to form a New York State Police task force that would. This task force would be similar to the one created to enforce COVID-19 regulations at bars and restaurants, and the governor said it helped significantly boost compliance.
“If they don’t want to enforce the law, I will,” Cuomo said. “Assign a number of your police to a task force. I will do it in my name, and you can blame me. I have no problem with that.”
Asked whether he would consider closing businesses or schools in the hot spots, Cuomo dismissed the notion for the time being. He believes conditions will improve with greater enforcement of the mask order and COVID-19 regulations.
“Issue a ticket, close a mass gathering. And if they can’t do the compliance, then we’ll have to take more serious, more difficult actions,” he said.
As for the COVID-19 hot spots in New York, there remain 20 ZIP codes that have seen spikes in the positivity rate. The top two locations are both in Rockland County — ZIP codes 10952 and 10977 — which have COVID-19 positivity rates of 17% and 14%, respectively.
Seven other ZIP codes in Brooklyn had positivity rates of between 4-8%: 11230 (Midwood), 11204 (Bensonhurst), 11219 (Borough Park), 11223 (Gravesend), 11229 (Gerritsen Beach/Sheepshead Bay), 11210 (Midwood/Flatlands) and 11234 (Mill Basin).
Previously, the state dispatched rapid testing machines to these locations and the city Health Department also doubled down on efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced earlier this week that he would direct the NYPD to begin enforcing the mask ban in earnest, with violators subject to fines of up to $1,000.
Meanwhile, the 20 hot spots — which represent 1.1% of the ZIP codes and 6% of the population in New York state — represent 23% of all the positive COVID-19 cases reported on Sept. 29. Outside of those areas, Cuomo reported, the infection rate is 0.82%.
Brooklyn’s COVID-19 hot spots also drove the city’s overall infection rate up to 1.2%.
According to the Sept. 29 numbers, 605 people statewide were hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms, with 144 of them in intensive care and 67 under intubation. Nine patients died.