Politico

A tale of 2 states’ battles against Covid spikes in Orthodox communities


NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio are confronting political fallout from their haphazard crackdown to restrict gatherings in the city’s Orthodox Jewish communities to stem a resurgence of Covid-19.

Across the Hudson River, amid severe outbreaks in the Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, N.J., Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision to focus the state’s response to community outreach, testing and contact tracing — rather than forcefully stopping gatherings — allowed his administration to emerge from a politically thorny health crisis relatively unscathed.

Only weeks after viral spread gripped Lakewood and New York’s outer boroughs, posing a major threat to the region’s recovery, case totals and spot positivity rates in both hot spots have begun to tail off. But the steps state and local officials in New York and New Jersey took to deliver those results could not have been any more different, or elicited such jarringly disparate responses.

The dueling approaches paint a complicated picture of how elected officials will counter the return of Covid-19 in communities already weary of social isolation and lockdown orders. While the virus remains relatively contained in most of New York state, Murphy said Thursday that New Jersey is now seeing the start of its second wave. New York City may not be far behind.

Case totals in parts of the Northeast are climbing to levels not seen since the spring, raising the specter of even more restrictions that could come at the cost of political capital that — within large swaths of the Orthodox community, at least — Cuomo and de Blasio have already spent. Murphy so far has kept his powder dry.

The Cuomo and Murphy administrations are touting their strategies for containing outbreaks in Orthodox communities as a model for how they’ll address a resurgent virus. For New Jersey, that means what Murphy has labeled “the Lakewood model” — deploying hot spot testing and tracing resources tailored to individual communities.

New York is doing the same, but with social and economic “red zone” restrictions.

“I don’t think any of us look at this as ‘easy’ or as something where we’re going to be in complete agreement,” Gareth Rhodes, a member of Cuomo’s Covid-19 task force, said in an interview Thursday, describing conversations with local leaders who are unhappy with the imposition of Covid-19 rules. “It’s difficult. But without these targeted approaches, you run the risk of going the way of some of these other states.”

Murphy’s approach on the Lakewood clusters was never “make sure this stops” so much as it was “what can we do to help,” Ray Coles, the township‘s mayor, said in an interview.

“They never had to take out the hammer or the threat,” he said.

Beginning in mid-September, roughly two weeks after indoor dining and gyms reopened and certain schools and universities began in-person instruction, New Jersey health officials started seeing spikes in new cases around Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Many of the clusters were pinned on younger people and house gatherings, but by Sept. 23 — five days after the start of Rosh Hashanah — Lakewood was accounting for almost three-quarters of Ocean County’s new cases.

Two days later, Murphy administration officials identified the fast-growing township, where an estimated 70 percent of the 104,000 residents are Orthodox, as a Covid-19 hot spot.

By the end of September, with spot positivity on new tests taken in Lakewood approaching 30 percent, Murphy said “all considerations” were on the table for addressing the surge.

Several administration officials said that included targeted closures of businesses or other localized restrictions, But, “as we discussed it more with the community and we looked at options including test, trace, isolate and communications both in English and other languages, those were the tools we wanted to deploy first,” George Helmy, Murphy’s chief of staff, said in an interview.

Around the same time, New York City officials were wrestling with rising caseloads in neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn and Queens with large Orthodox populations, many of which have close ties to Lakewood.

De Blasio and city officials attempted to head off the surge, using a host of messaging tactics ranging from robo-calls and WhatsApp messages to sound trucks and ads in community newspapers, POLITICO reported at the time. The messaging was generally consistent with what health officials had urged for months: Wear masks, stay at least six feet away from others, wash your hands and avoid contact if you’re feeling ill.

The efforts did not yield the immediate results local officials had hoped for.

On Oct. 4, de Blasio issued a plan to reverse the city’s reopening in nine hot spots. The mayor doesn’t have the ultimate authority in these matters, however, and it wasn’t until two days later that Cuomo announced a similar plan after exchanging the typical pro forma jabs with de Blasio.

Confusion over the new restrictions, coupled with an impression that Orthodox communities were being singled out, triggered immediate blowback. Local elected officials hammered the governor’s office as “a duplicitous bait-and-switch.”

Agudath Israel, an Orthodox group that operates in both New York and New Jersey, filed a lawsuit contesting the new restrictions, which limited religious gatherings to 10 people in the middle of the seven-day harvest festival Sukkot.

Anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests, some of which turned violent, rocked the Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, where some members of the community believed the area had already achieved herd immunity, POLITICO reported at the time.

Lakewood leaders say similarly dubious scientific claims had floated around their community, which likely accelerated spread.

“We’re a very conservative town,” Coles said. While Lakewood voters had backed Murphy, an avowed progressive on social issues, in the 2017 gubernatorial election, the township the year before had voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump, who’s proudly downplayed the pandemic.

As the Trump administration bemoaned the slow unwinding of lockdown orders in the Northeast, some Lakewood residents were “looking to the highest authority outside of heaven for information. And, unfortunately, the messaging they’ve gotten is to not take it as seriously as the rest of us would like to see,” Coles said.

Murphy administration officials acknowledge that the angry response to de Blasio and Cuomo‘s rollout of new restrictions factored into New Jersey’s ongoing approach for managing Lakewood’s outbreaks, though local considerations were a primary concern. Coles and other local leaders say restrictions were not discussed.

The governor kicked off that approach in earnest on Oct. 2, several days before New York’s restrictions went into effect, with an outdoor roundtable in Ocean County with Coles, Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath’s New Jersey arm, state and local health officials, representatives from the county, religious leaders and business groups to exchange praise in ongoing efforts to bolster testing, tracing and isolation strategies. He also took pains to decry any implication of “finger-pointing” related to the current surge, drawing a sharp contrast from previous press conferences where he went after “knucklehead” behavior at bars and party houses.

“You have a conversation so that, collectively, communities know their leaders have been part of that conversation,” Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, said in an interview. “We’re seeing less of an overreaction in New Jersey than in New York. Anyone who does group dynamics work realizes that if you bring a group together and create a set of rules together, it works better.”

Still, Halkitis said, “it’s not going to be perfect.”

That was true from the outset.

De Blasio and New York City health officials were clanging alarms over clusters in Kew Gardens, Queens, and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when the percentage of new cases coming back positive barely cracked 2 percent. Lakewood, which is smaller and less densely populated than those communities, was regularly seeing spot positivity tests in the ballpark of 30 percent prior to Murphy’s Oct. 2 meeting with Ocean County officials.

Over the next three weeks, caseloads and spot positivity rates in Lakewood began to fall.

“The rabbis were engaged. The testing response was excellent. I think in general there was tremendous cooperation,” said Republican state Sen. Robert Singer, a township resident and member of the Ocean County Board of Health. “Sometimes, Lakewood is condemned for everything being done as a group. In this case, it worked out for the betterment.”

Local leaders and health officials attributed the declines to testing and state support — the health department helped set up 33 pop-up testing sites in Lakewood over the last month, Commissioner Judith Persichili said — as well as an emphasis on isolating those who have tested positive, have been exposed or are otherwise symptomatic, particularly in large multi-generational homes.

Lakewood’s public school system remained open for in-person instruction despite recording more than two dozen cases as the township’s cases spiked. But private schools that were on hiatus for the high holidays extended their breaks, Singer and local leaders told POLITICO. Local Yeshivas were encouraged to contract with Vault, a company that uses saliva testing kits developed by a Rutgers University lab.

The number of new cases reported in the township dropped from almost 200 on Sept. 29, shortly after the state announced it had deployed 6,000 test kits to the county to bolster capacity, to just 5 on Oct. 27. That bodes well, according to Ocean County’s Public Health Coordinator and Health Officer Daniel Regenye, who said he’s “hoping that we’ve kind of gone over our peak at this point.”

“We did this without any casualties. There were no wars. There were no fights,” Schnall said. “Lakewood is definitely a community that’s unique, and [Murphy] knew the people to contact. He trusted us to do this and let us run with it a little bit and look at the results.”

While daily caseloads in Lakewood have fallen dramatically in recent weeks — Murphy on Monday said that while he wouldn’t “declare victory, we largely got through that flareup” — health officials note the data has more room for improvement.

As of Oct. 24, Ocean County’s overall spot positivity had fallen to 2.5 percent and Lakewood’s was down to around 6.85 percent.

The restrictions in New York yielded declines as well. At his briefing on Wednesday, Cuomo pegged the spot positivity from the “micro-cluster” zones within Brooklyn and Queens, together with Rockland, Orange, Broome, Steuben and Chemung counties, at 3.24 percent.

Those micro-clusters remain outliers within New York; the state’s spot positivity rate stood at just 1.25 percent as of Wednesday.

In New Jersey, regional hot spots have metastasized, with daily case totals, spot positivity and hospitalization rates climbing fast. While Murphy administration officials say a second wave was inevitable — cases are up nationwide — and that they’ve seen no evidence that outbreaks in Ocean County led to recent outcomes, there’s no arguing the state’s overall public health picture has worsened in October.

“We’re only as safe as our least compliant community,” said New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Vitale, who chairs the upper chamber’s health committee. “This started with one person halfway around the world and it consumed the entire planet in a matter of months. So if you have hundreds of people not being compliant, congregating in great numbers, we can’t expect to resolve the pandemic. It’ll continue to infect people.”

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