What to Know
- New York City health officials say there's "significant concern" in an uptick of COVID-19 cases in six neighborhoods; the city is lumping the biggest surge together into one group called the "Ocean Parkway Cluster"
- "At this point in time, these increases could potentially evolve into more widespread community transmission and spread to other neighborhoods unless action is taken," the Health Department said
- In some parts of the cluster, positivity rates are approaching 5 percent; Mayor Bill de Blasio said "urgent action" is needed to contain it
Even as New York City officials combat a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases in multiple neighborhoods, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday it was already time to start looking to and planning for the future.
“I don’t want for a moment to forget what we experienced. It’s unforgettable, very sadly, March, April, one of the worst times in the history of this city,” de Blasio said in a major policy address outside Manhattan's Alexandria Center for Life Science. “I don’t want to minimize how bad it has been and how long it’ll linger with us.”
But he said that thanks to the work of first responders and residents alike, the city has turned the corner.
“And now we note with pride as New Yorkers that we went from being the epicenter of the crisis to becoming the envy of the nation,” he said.
De Blasio laid out the foundations of what he called the city's "recovery agenda," saying "public health is economic health."
There were four core principles to the agenda: continued progress against COVID-19, investment in innovation in public health research, creation of new jobs to improve public health, and focus on historically underserved communities.
"New York City must be a global hub for public health research, for development and for the practice of new ideas and approaches. We must do it because we can't depend on anyone else to do it," he said, adding that the city can become the "model" for other cities to follow.
De Blasio also talked about a post-pandemic future, with Governor's Island becoming a new hub to create jobs studying climate change. He didn't offer specifics on Thursday, instead saying that "you start with a big vision strategy in all great endeavors."
The city is expected to offer more details on De Blasio's agenda in the coming weeks -- though with only 15 months left before he leaves office, it remains to be seen how much change is possible before the next mayor takes over.
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. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
The Ocean Parkway Cluster
Yet even as de Blasio laid out his vision for the future, city employees just a few miles away were still battling the present crisis. On Wednesday, the mayor said "urgent action" like outreach, education and social distancing/mask enforcement were being taken to stop the increased spread of the coronavirus in six Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods. De Blasio didn't indicate any potential rollbacks of reopenings, but he didn't rule anything out either, vowing to do, "Whatever it takes."
The so-called Ocean Parkway Cluster had 122 coronavirus cases as of Aug. 1, but that doubled to 241 by Sept. 5. The numbers have only gotten worse since then, with 381 cases as of this past weekend.
The increase in positive COVID cases was largest in the Gravesend/Homecrest area, where the positivity rate hit 6 percent Thursday. Other problems areas include Midwood (4.95 percent), Edgemere/Far Rockaway (4.08 percent), Kew Gardens (3.99 percent), Borough Park (3.53 percent), Bensonhurst/Mapleton (3.16 percent), Sheepshead Bay (3.07 percent), Flatlands/Midwood (3.06 percent) and Williamsburg (1.67 percent).
The spike occurred between Aug. 1 and Sept. 19, the department said. The newly termed "Ocean Parkway Cluster" is a group of four neighborhoods that has seen coronavirus rates triple during that seven-week period. Those four areas have produced 20 percent of all COVID cases citywide since Saturday.
In response, the Health Department said that there will be regular inspections of all non-public schools within the cluster area and adjacent zip codes, and enforcement staff will be increased in order to ensure that mask and social distancing compliance remains in place.
The department also warned that if numbers continue to rise, then for the first time in the city's recovery effort, some activities in that area would have to be scaled back. Progress would need to be seen by Monday evening in order to avoid measures like prohibiting any gatherings of more than 10 people, issuing mask fines, ordering private schools and child care centers to close if not up to DOE standards, and even closing all non-essential businesses immediately, the health department warned.
The Health Department reminded New Yorkers of core means to slow and stop the spread: Avoid large gatherings, wear face coverings, socially distance, get tested and don't rely on antibody test results to determine whether you should go back to work or school. In particular, health officials and contact tracers said that large indoor gatherings like weddings and bar mitzvahs in the area have contributed to the recent dramatic increases.
Overall, New York City's infection rate is low, with just 1.1 percent of more than 37,600 tests conducted Wednesday coming back positive, according to the latest data released Thursday. Brooklyn has the highest overall positivity rate of the five boroughs (1.9 percent) and has seen that steadily tick up over the last few days, from 1.4 percent on Tuesday to 1.6 percent Wednesday and 1.9 percent Thursday.
Mayor de Blasio has warned looming reopenings like indoor dining may be reevaluated if the citywide infection rate hits 2 percent -- and if it hits 3 percent, that could immediately justify school closures.
Statewide, the infection rate also remains low. It has been at 1 percent or below for more than a month. But there are clear signs for concern. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday he is watching New York City closely, acknowledging the Brooklyn cluster without sounding any major alarm -- yet. He said New York is OK for now.
The city isn't the only area being eyed, however. Rockland County is also seeing an uptick, with new figures showing positive cases in the county jumped by 165 in one week.
Parts of Spring Valley and Monsey now account for two-thirds of new COVID cases in the county that now has a positivity rate of 4.7 percent — compared to the statewide rate of under 1 percent. The state health commissioner saying he's working closely with the Jewish Orthodox community prevalent in those areas.
While some leaders said they feel they are unfairly singled out, others are critical of what they believe is lax enforcement in orthodox communities in Rockland and over in Orange County, where a social media post showed thousands of unmasked men packed together at a recent service. The state health commissioner noted Thursday that many orthodox families travel between counties upstate and Brooklyn, where the numbers have been spiking for more than a month.
Asked Thursday whether the state would get involved in any containment efforts, Cuomo said the state only steps in if the local health department "is impotent or incompetent." He said reiterated clusters are expected but said this one -- or others -- wouldn't affect the statewide reopening of schools unless they affect the statewide infection rate. And if that happens, it's no longer just a cluster.
Cuomo also points to a new case increase of more than 15 percent in 10 days nationally as a reason for continued vigilance. Five more states were added to the tri-state quarantine list this week amid the latest national increases, bringing the total number of restricted U.S. states and territories to 35.
"New York won't be completely safe until the other states are completely safe," Cuomo said Thursday.
Nationally, nearly 7 million U.S. COVID-19 cases have been confirmed and at least 200,000 people have died from the virus, according to NBC News. New York state alone has confirmed nearly a half-million cases and more than 25,000 confirmed deaths, though officials agree thousands more are probably virus-linked.
The fall poses a new set of challenges, with flu season approaching and schools reopening to in-person learning, Cuomo said. He plans to monitor school districts "very carefully" and urges them to react quickly if they notice potential problems.
His administration unveiled an online COVID Report Card that breaks out daily data for every single school in New York on positive student and teacher cases. Look up the latest available data for your school here. The dashboard also includes lab-reported data on positive cases. Citywide, 1.5 percent of more than 38,000 tests of people age 5 to 17 in 1,586 schools conducted since Sept. 1 have come back positive. In the last seven days, which includes the Sept. 21 start of in-person learning for pre-K and special education students, 1.9 percent of 12,160 tests conducted within that age group have been positive. The overall positivity rate for Sept. 23, the most recent data available, is 2.2 percent.
On Staten Island, more than 50 teachers and staff at I.S. 51 were made to quarantine after coming into contact with an individual who tested positive for coronavirus during a staff meeting in the cafeteria, according to the Staten Island Advance. Social distancing measures had not been followed by the school staff, an education official told the outlet, though they were wearing masks. The school's website said the building was closed for two days before reopening Thursday.
Cuomo and other elected officials and public health experts have said life won't return to some semblance of normal until there is a widely available vaccine. On Thursday, he said he appointed a Vaccine Distribution & Implementation Task Force that will develop a plan to maximize efficiency around the process, including how to prioritize patients, once there is a safe, approved vaccine. The governor said the goal is to come up with a way to ensure as many as 40 million shots would be ready to go — enough for two per state resident — and he wants the state to "have the best vaccination program in the U.S."
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Over in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that the state will be moving to Phase III of its reopening on Oct. 8. Indoor dining at restaurants, personal services (such as hair salons and barbershops), and libraries will be able to increase from 50 percent to 75 percent capacity indoors.
Additionally, outdoor venues like ampitheaters and race tracks and indoor performing arts venues can increase capacity to 50 percent. Private outdoor gatherings will be capped at 150 people, while religious gatherings indoors can increase capacity to 50 percent or 200 people. Bars and nightclubs will remain closed, however.
The announcement to move into Phase III comes amid a small uptick in cases in the town of Fairfield, where there were 10 new cases just this week after gatherings over the weekend.
Fairfield-Ludlowe High School closed its building on Thursday for a deep cleaning. Officials said some of the gatherings in question were held inside homes with parental consent. First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick urged parents to talk with the children to take the virus and safety measures seriously.
"This is obviously going to mushroom, I'm assuming by the end of the day we'll have even more," said Kupchick, while offering a warning to the community. "I understand we all have pandemic fatigue and this is stressful for everyone in our community. And everyone wants to get back to normal. I want to get back to normal too, but you have to be careful. We can’t be gathering in large groups.”
Nearby Sacred Heart University is also dealing with a sudden spike in COVID cases, as school leadership threatened to close down campus and send students home if it is not under control soon.