‘Extreme Concern' in New York as Clusters Threaten to Spiral; Cuomo Warns of Rollbacks

Meanwhile, the tri-state quarantine list got an update Tuesday; Colorado was added while Arizona and Virginia removed, bringing the total number of restricted U.S. states and territories to 34 as of Tuesday

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What to Know

  • COVID clusters in Brooklyn, Queens and Rockland and Orange counties continue to grow at a rate far outpacing the city and state average; Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned rollbacks are on the table without improvement
  • Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday the city is reserving its options as far as new restrictions in certain neighborhoods, focusing first on outreach and mask refusal fines. Harsher measures may come as early as Wednesday
  • The tri-state quarantine list got an update Tuesday; Arizona and Virginia were removed while Colorado was added, bringing the total number of restricted U.S. states and territories to 34

The overall number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in New York City is ticking up, as officials fight to combat soaring infection rates in certain neighborhoods in recent weeks that threaten to evolve into more widespread transmission. Outbreaks in Rockland and Orange counties are also fueling heightened concern -- to a degree Gov. Andrew Cuomo said makes it the "largest cluster" the state has addressed.

"We have at this point a cluster problem. A cluster problem is caused by lack of compliance," Cuomo said Tuesday. "Why was there lack of compliance? Because the local government failed to do its compliance job. If you do not now control and attack the cluster, you have community spread. We're not there yet."

Cuomo warned if local governments didn't improve compliance and attack the clusters from all sides, reopening rollbacks are on the table -- and soon.

The clusters in Brooklyn and Queens are starting to affect the city's daily positivity rate overall, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday, while the statewide rate remains just above 1 percent. For the first time, the daily indicator on that metric by city data was above 3 percent by the mayor's data, which he described as cause for "extreme concern."

While the mayor urged positivity rates be taken into context on a weekly average, which would put the city's at 1.38 percent Tuesday, he said more extensive actions had to be taken in certain ZIP codes to curb the spread. In ZIP codes of concern, a longer 14-day average is used because they're more highly influenced by a larger testing push or spikes within the neighborhood, the city health department said.

If that seven-day rolling average hits 3 percent, de Blasio said public schools, which will complete their phased reopening this week, will be re-closed.

"This is an inflection point. We have to take serious action and we will be escalating each day depending on what we see on the ground," de Blasio said, urging people in the affected ZIP codes to get tested to give a truer picture.

NBC New York's Tracie Strahan, Katherine Creag and Marc Santia report.

In addition to outreach efforts, the mayor said new enforcement actions effective Tuesday include fines for mask refusal. The maximum fine for not wearing a mask is $1,000.

He also warned measures like bans on social gatherings above 10 people and non-essential business closures may be next.

"We are watching the numbers constantly and we want to see more and more testing," the mayor said. "This is something where if you're going to make tough decisions about, for example, whether businesses can be open, yeshivas can be open, you want to make sure you have the very best numbers."

Cuomo described the new outbreaks as "probably the largest cluster" the state has had to address in its half-year war against the novel coronavirus.

"These are embers that are starting to catch fire in dry grass. Send all the firefighters and firefighting equipment to those embers and stamp out the embers right away," the governor said Tuesday.

Cuomo similarly is looking to crack down on mask offenses, and sounded more skeptical that the city would be aggressive enough in its enforcement — and called out the NYPD for its own lack of compliance.

"Why don't the NYPD wear masks? What signal does that send, when a police officer sent to enforce the law doesn't wear a mask?" Cuomo asked.

Given the heightened prevalence in the Orthodox communities, Cuomo said he would be meeting with leaders there to discuss compliance and next steps. He once again Tuesday demanded local governments step up enforcement to the extreme, and reiterated the state was immediately launching targeted outreach to help support the 10 most-affected ZIP codes. The state is also making hundreds of rapid testing machines available to these hardest-hit neighborhoods.

“This is a concern for their community,” Cuomo said. “It’s also a public health concern for surrounding communities. And I’ve said from Day One, these public health rules apply to every religion. Atheists. It just applies to every citizen in the state of New York, period.”

In the city, The mayor and the NYPD have had a fraught relationship over coronavirus enforcement with residents of some predominantly Hasidic sections of the city. In the spring, police officers were brought in to break up large weddings and public funerals that brought hundreds of largely unmasked people together in those neighborhoods, while applying a lighter touch when dealing with crowds in city parks or at protests.

Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of the city’s public hospital system, said Tuesday that he received reports that more people were wearing masks during Yom Kippur services Monday, a sign that the message is getting through. Avi Greenstein, the chief executive officer of the Boro Park Community Council, a social service organization in the heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, said that mask wearing is indeed higher in the area than it was two weeks ago.

But Greenstein also said city officials should work with community leaders on coronavirus outreach rather than threatening heavy-handed enforcement. “There’s a way to do it,” he said. “There’s no need to threaten fines.”

Families have the option of choosing all-remote learning, and a growing number are doing so — 48% as of Friday, up from 30% six weeks earlier

Clusters, Travel & the Ongoing COVID War

At the same time New York battles emerging clusters, COVID cases continue to rise at concerning rates nationally and globally, prompting Cuomo to issue a new quarantine order on international travel. The tri-state quarantine list got an update Tuesday, with Arizona and Virginia being removed and Colorado the latest addition. The total number of U.S. states and territories from which travelers arriving to the tri-state area must quarantine for 14 days now stands at 34.

As of Tuesday, those areas are Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming and Wisconsin.

Some ZIP codes in Brooklyn, Queens, Rockland County and Orange County are seeing higher infection rates than the areas on the tri-state quarantine list. Ten ZIP codes account for 25 percent of the state's recent daily COVID cases.

In Rockland County, ZIP code 10977 (Spring Valley) had a 30 percent positivity rate, 10952 (Monsey) had a 25 percent positivity rate, Orange County's 10950 (22 percent), Brooklyn's 11219 (17 percent), 11210 (11 percent), 11204 (9 percent), 11230 (9 percent) and Queens' 11367 (6 percent). Statewide, New York's infection rate stood at 1.3 percent Tuesday, a comparatively low rate but one markedly higher than the below-1 percent stretch the state enjoyed for nearly 40 straight days.

State data shows New York City's infection rate was 1.3 percent Tuesday, again a low number compared with numbers from other major cities as late but high by its own recent standards. Brooklyn hit a borough-high 1.7 percent positivity rate Tuesday, while Queens hit 1.5 percent, both slightly lower than Monday.

By comparison, Orange County was up to 4 percent positivity overall on Tuesday, while Rockland County saw a 3.6 percent infection rate, state data showed.

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


New York City health officials had warned new shutdowns may be implemented in the affected areas as early as Tuesday without improvement by Monday evening, including potentially the re-closure of non-essential businesses and private schools. The situation only worsened -- but the city appears to be tempering the severity of its response in terms of shutdowns for now.

Asked why the city didn't close yeshivas and non-essential businesses in some ZIP codes Tuesday, de Blasio said, "We’re reserving our rights on the additional steps, which would be the closing of businesses on some scale and a broader closing of community institutions. We do not want to do that if there’s any way to avoid that. We’re going to take a look at today’s new numbers when they come in and determine if we think we have to start that effort, and if so we would announce that by morning, but it’s going to be step by step based on the data."

The New York City clusters have grown from six neighborhoods with more than 3 percent positivity to nine neighborhoods in recent weeks, outpacing the citywide average by 3.7 times over 14 days. As many as half a million students could be in school in person at some point this week for the first time since March, further tightening nerves as officials struggle to control the recent neighborhood spikes.

Travelers from all but 31 countries around the globe must quarantine for 14 days if they are coming to New York, an executive order from Gov. Cuomo says. NBC New York's Pei-Sze Cheng reports.

Indoor dining is also set to return Wednesday in New York City at 25 percent capacity; the mayor and governor both said Tuesday that would proceed as scheduled, though it will be monitored closely.

"We are not there yet on closing. This could be held to clusters, and that's up to local government response as to why there's a cluster," Cuomo said.

Officials have said public schools will be re-closed if the citywide percent of positivity tests hits 3 percent over a seven-day rolling average. Certain private schools and daycares in the affected ZIP codes have already been put on notice, and the city said it will be reaching out to all non-public schools about new guidelines. The city will be deploying 11 mobile testing units to the areas with the increased COVID rates, with a focus on the areas above while tripling the capacity of the express testing sites in Crown Heights and Fort Greene.

The newly termed "Ocean Parkway Cluster" is a group of four neighborhoods that has seen coronavirus rates triple during that seven-week period. NBC New York's Tracie Strahan reports.

Here's the list of the most worrisome areas in NYC and their positivity rates as of the Department of Health's latest update Monday:

  • Gravesend/Homecrest (6.72%)
  • Midwood (5.53%),
  • Kew Gardens (3.61%t)
  • Edgemere/Far Rockaway (3.98 percent),
  • Borough Park (5.26%),
  • Bensonhurst/Mapleton (5.15%),
  • Sheepshead Bay (4.05%),
  • Flatlands/Midwood (4.08%)
  • Kew Gardens Hills/Pomonok (3.04%)

Other areas that are being watched closely also include:

  • Rego Park (2.49%)
  • Kensington/Windsor Terrace (2.50%)
  • Brighton Beach/Manhattan Beach/Sheepshead Bay (2.63%)

The state reported an unusual number of positive tests in an area north of Binghamton in New York's Southern Tier, a region Cuomo has warned is seeing clusters stemming from a Steuben County nursing home, a church gathering in Chemung County and a pub in Broome County.

The latest concerns come as the U.S. coronavirus death toll has well topped 200,000 and the global toll surpassed a grim 1 million milestone on Monday. Nationally, the U.S. has more than 7 million confirmed COVID cases, more than any other country in the world.

Cuomo Unveils 'NYC Stabilization & Recovery Plan'

Acknowledging mounting anxiety, Cuomo also unveiled Tuesday a "New York City Stabilization and Recovery Program," one that he says will first prioritize schools. If the data warrants, Cuomo said he could close down any school in the state. Crime is the second tenet of the plan, given the extensive increase in gun violence in the city over the last few months.

"The crime problem in New York City is real. Denial is not an option," Cuomo said, adding that failure to redesign public safety and resolve police/community issues could result in the loss of state funding.

Economy, cleanliness and homelessness are the other focal points of his plan.

"I don't know what's going on in New York City. If they can't do it, I've offered to send the National Guard in to come pick up the garbage," Cuomo said. "This is a public health pandemic. Cleanliness matters."

The governor's plan for New York City came less than a week after de Blasio unveiled his own recovery agenda for the five boroughs, one that focuses on sustained COVID-19 progress, investment in public health research, new job creation to improve public health and better serving the historically underserved.

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