Businesses Reopen in NYC's Improved Cluster Zones as Situation Worsens in NJ

Parts of Queens see restrictions ease starting Thursday, while parts of Brooklyn are still struggling and may see virus control measures increase; the maps in Orange and Rockland counties haven't changed

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What to Know

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled new benchmarks Wednesday for reopening cluster zones; they focus on positivity rates, sources of new cases, hospitalization and new case trends and enforcement
  • Based on those new benchmarks, he eased restrictions in some Queens hotspots and intensified them in Brooklyn's red zone; there are no changes to the maps in Orange, Rockland or Broome counties
  • New Jersey reported more than 1,000 new cases for the fifth day in a row, as Gov. Phil Murphy urged all NJ residents to avoid unnecessary interstate travel

It's a tale of two cities in New York, two weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo implemented new restrictions in highly specific hotspot areas in Brooklyn and Queens. Nonessential businesses, including indoor dining, can reopen Thursday in parts of Queens, where Cuomo eased the rules a day earlier.

In Brooklyn's highest-risk area, its red zone in places like Borough Park, strict virus control measures will be extended, with Cuomo citing ongoing issues as far as COVID positivity rates and community compliance.

"The red zone areas remain stable. As I've said, I think it's going to take another week or two to get those areas out of that red zone status," Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference, touting that there has been progress but more is needed. "I don't blame anyone for being frustrated, but progress did come quickly."

The maps for Orange and Rockland counties were not changed either. While the governor noted improvement, he said it wasn't enough.

The realigned cluster maps will likely spark confusion, as their initial reveal did two weeks ago. One of the maps was quietly adjusted after that initial rollout, leaving a school -- and parents -- confused about whether it was closed or not.

A number of schools in Queens will be allowed to reopen in-person Monday; ones in both orange and red zones had to switch all-remote for two weeks. A city Department of Education spokesperson said Wednesday that it was still working to develop a tally of the number of schools that could resume in-person learning.

Ozone Park was the latest neighborhood to be added to the city's COVID cluster list, which means that schools there must do COVID tests every week. The governor said that area was "attached" to earlier cluster zones, and it was added due to spread. State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said that the "overall rate went up and this "was an expansion due to the proximity" to the prior cluster zone.

"Once you have a cluster, assume it will spread in concentric circles going out," Cuomo said, referencing his "pebble in the pond" analogy of COVID spread.

But even in red zones, in-person voting will continue -- Cuomo aides said Thursday that voting was considered an essential activity, and even if a school was otherwise closed the polls would be open.

The cluster zone saga may be the new way of life for parts of New York -- at least for now. Cuomo said he would reassess the metrics -- including positivity rates, hospitalization and new case trends, local enforcement and community compliance -- on a moving 10-day period. He said he'd make adjustments as progress warrants. And he has the flexibility to do the same if new issues emerge.

Cuomo said Thursday the positivity rate in the micro-clusters (red, orange and yellow zones combined) was 3.2 percent, and that the statewide positivity rate excluding those clusters was 0.96 percent (1.2 percent if the clusters are included.) Those numbers are improved from a day prior.

For his part, de Blasio has touted improved compliance on behalf of New Yorkers during this initial cluster zone time. He acknowledged that parts of Brooklyn still had more work to do but said he was pleased by the turnaround in Queens.

"There's still real work to do, but the two weeks of restrictions in place had a big impact, and we saw people really changing their approach in a lot of ways that were really helpful," de Blasio said Thursday as he preached patience. "To anyone out there who is frustrated by restrictions, stick to it and we will overcome with quickly."

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here


Where Do We Go From Here?

While the clusters have driven an increase in state- and citywide hospitalizations, they haven't dramatically affected either rolling positivity rate. New York state's remains exceptionally low compared with the rest of the country.

"Don't get unduly alarmed by a micro-cluster. The infection rate in our micro-clusters is lower than the infection rate of most states. We talk about four or five percent in a micro-cluster," Cuomo said earlier this week. "Many states would love to have the infection rate that we have in our micro-clusters as their statewide rate."

New Jersey and Connecticut are among the 15 lowest-transmission rate states -- 2.71 percent and 1.92 percent, respectively -- even as they battle new case spikes. New Jersey's daily case totals have doubled over the last month, with officials pointing to small household gatherings and parties as a primary source.

Gov. Phil Murphy says there's evidence of the problem virtually everywhere in the state and he can't regulate what happens within people's private homes. Instead, he urges people to be smart. The governor had to pull himself "off the field" abruptly Wednesday after learning two senior staff members with whom he had been in contact had tested positive for COVID-19. Murphy and his wife were retested Wednesday, the second time in 72 hours, and their tests came back negative. Both said they would isolate through the weekend as a precaution.

The governor came in contact with one of the infected staffers Saturday evening while at a German beer hall in Hoboken. Sources said the group, which included Murphy and about a half dozen staffers, was diligent about wearing masks, and the governor said he only removed his while dining.

"I think this is proof if nothing else that no one is immune from this virus," Murphy said Thursday in a Zoom news conference. It was the fifth consecutive day that the state reported more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19; New Jersey now has four counties reporting more than 100 new daily cases each, and the northeastern counties (Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Union) have positivity rates of 6.2 percent, nearly a full percentage point higher than the statewide rate of 5.28 percent.

"God willing the uptick that we have to live through as we are doing right now is a lot less painful and has a lot less of a toll than we had earlier this spring," Murphy told MSNBC.

He also advised against state residents traveling to other parts of the country while the numbers are still higher than he would like to see.

"New Jerseyans should avoid all unnecessary interstate travel," Murphy said. "The numbers we're getting day to day are sobering."

It was one of Governor Murphy's senior staff members who tested positive for COVID-19. So far, the Governor and his wife have tested negative but as a precaution he's now self-quarantining. Brian Thompson reports from the Governor's home in Middletown.

Cuomo has said he would work with Murphy and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont to help get their numbers down, though his micro-cluster strategy may be less effective in areas less dense than New York City, where he can literally attack flare-ups on a targeted block-by-block level. He has said he plans to use that same strategy to address expected viral flare-ups in New York through the fall.

The New York governor hopes winter will be the season of the vaccine, though delivering and administering that to 20 million (or as many as 40 million) people will be another challenge entirely. Cuomo indicated Wednesday he doubted one would even be deliverable on a large scale by December.

"Winter is going to be the season of the vaccine. That may very well be the most challenging operation government has had to perform all through COVID. You think testing was hard? It pales in comparison to administering vaccines," Cuomo said. "Just to put the numbers, we did 12 million COVID tests over seven months, moving heaven and earth. We have to do 40 million vaccinations."

Cuomo on Thursday called on FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to resist pressure to rush a vaccine to market, following reports that Trump cabinet officials were mulling Hahn's ouster amid a dispute over vaccine guidelines.

"Save your soul, Dr. Hahn. Save your soul," Cuomo implored the FDA head.

The national outlook, meanwhile, has turned increasingly concerning. The government's top public health officials warned that the number of COVID-19 cases is rising across a majority of the country in a rare briefing Wednesday.

Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency has noted a "distressing trend" in which coronavirus case numbers are "increasing in nearly 75 percent of the country."

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