What to Know
- Heavy fines will be handed out starting Friday for violations of the new COVID restrictions that took effect in NYC a day earlier; mass gathering infractions can cost up to $15,000 a day
- The new restrictions are based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's color-coded cluster areas; the red zones see the tightest rules, which are in effect for a minimum of two weeks but could be in place for longer
- They come as New York state sees its highest total COVID hospitalizations since July and NYC's daily case average tops 500; New Jersey is seeing upticks in cases and hospitalizations as well
New York City will start handing out hefty fines Friday as the city and state step up enforcement of new COVID restrictions amid months-long highs in total hospitalizations that have followed soaring infection rates in some areas.
Penalties of up to $15,000 a day apply for violations on mass gathering rules; in red cluster areas, those are banned entirely. Twenty-five percent capacity or a max of 10 people caps apply to houses of worship, while schools switch all-remote and nonessential businesses have been shut down. Fines of up to $1,000 a day accompany social distancing and mask-wearing infractions -- and Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned people who don't adhere to the rules will face consequences.
Orange and yellow cluster zone areas see varying restrictions, though schools are only allowed to stay in-person, with mandatory weekly testing, within the latter. The new restrictions are in place for at least two weeks; they won't be lifted until the infection rate trend reverts to the numbers New York has seen this summer.
The state will take the lead on enforcement in the hotspot areas, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. A source familiar with the state’s enforcement plans told News 4 Friday those plans involve sending two-to-three person teams to targeted ZIP codes, where they'll assess compliance in malls, supermarkets, parks and other areas. They'll issue citations to those repeatedly violating the rules.
The announcement of the cluster zones earlier this week prompted severe protests, mainly from heavily affected religious communities who criticized the renewed restrictions on houses of worship. Cuomo has said the rules aren't targeted against any particular community but were devised based on science and data. They apply to areas that have, in his view, violated COVID protocol that allowed the clusters to form -- and grow -- in the first place.
Cuomo's office said Friday evening a federal judge denied an injunction to halt the state's restrictions on houses of worship in the state's red zones. Religious gatherings are limited to 25 percent capacity - 10 people maximum - in red zones. A prominent Orthodox Jewish organization based out of Queens and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn announced separate lawsuits Thursday to halt restrictions on religious gatherings put in place by the state of New York, just as a third day of protests over the new lockdown orders got underway in Brooklyn.
Agudath Israel of America on Thursday asked for a temporary restraining order to stop the state from restricting houses of worship from strictly limiting attendance at synagogues ahead of Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah; Audath also alleges that Gov. Cuomo and his administration are unfairly targeting members of the state's Orthodox community. The Brooklyn diocese is suing on the basis that the restrictions are unconstitutional under the First Amendment right to freely exercise religion.
The New York restrictions, which apply to clusters in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as in Orange, Rockland and Broome counties, cover only about 6 percent of the entire state's population, the governor said. The harshest restrictions, which apply to red cluster zone areas, cover just 2.8 percent of the state's population. That same 2.8 percent is accounting for 20 percent of the state's daily cases, Cuomo said -- and the infection rate in those red zones alone is higher than 6 percent.
The governor has launched an aggressive, targeted testing strategy focused on those red zone areas, along with 20 hotspot ZIP codes that have seen positivity rates soar in recent weeks. While the overall infection rate remains low, total COVID hospitalizations are hitting recent highs both statewide and in the city.
Cuomo reported 779 total hospitalizations in New York Friday, up from 754 the prior day and the highest number since July 15. New York City's daily COVID case average has almost doubled over the last month, to a point where it's averaging 500-plus a day.
Neighboring New Jersey has been struggling to contain upticks in now two counties as well -- Ocean and Monmouth counties. Gov. Phil Murphy reported 1,301 new cases in his briefing Thursday, the highest daily number since late May. On Friday, hospitalizations were up to 666, the highest total since early August.
Asked whether indoor gatherings could see renewed restrictions in New Jersey, Murphy said Thursday that "every option remains on the table. Could we see some move on indoor gatherings? Perhaps." He noted there was no evidence that indoor dining, which the state resumed after a delay last month, was contributing.
New Jersey's health commissioner said Thursday that about 15 percent of that state's new cases may be tied to September religious services, which is when the holiest days of the Jewish calendar were celebrated. She pointed to 206 new cases in Lakewood, which has seen positivity rates soar beyond the statewide average, comprised of predominantly white, non-Latino men ages 19 to 49.
The heightened concerns in both states come with heightened concerns about the fall season in general. Cuomo has warned New York's overall low infection rate may not be sustainable through the fall even without the cluster areas.
Fall means chillier weather, which means more indoor activities. It means flu season. It means schools -- if they can manage to safely stay open. New Jersey has confirmed 16 outbreaks tied to public school, with 58 total cases reported. Across New York state, nearly 100 new positive tests were reported among teachers and students Thursday, Cuomo said Friday. Schools are required to submit their data to the state, which is being tracked in a COVID Report Card, but the governor said a few dozen schools have been cited for failure to report.
Since Sept. 8, weeks before in-person school started in New York City, a total of 282 public school students and staff have tested positive via on-site transmission, based on the state's latest data, which includes lab tests as well as school reports. Statewide, that number is 1,325, though the total statewide numbers do not delineate between on-site and off-site transmission. Parents can search for COVID data on their children's schools by address or school name here.
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 two states together have lost at least 41,700 people to the virus to date, nearly a fifth of the death toll of the entire country, by NBC News estimates.
New York City alone has lost at least 21,000 people, including deaths that probably were caused by COVID but not definitively linked to it by diagnosis. The CDC has said another 5,000 more fatalities could be attributed to it in some way.
Nationally, the death toll has soared in the last two months, topping 213,000 by NBC News' latest estimates with more than 7.5 million confirmed cases. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said Thursday he's not comfortable with the level of COVID cases as the U.S. enters fall and winter.
The U.S. is reporting roughly 40,000 new coronavirus cases a day, which may get even worse as temperatures get cooler and people head indoors, Fauci said during an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. "I’m not comfortable with that. I would like to see that level, way, way down, well below 10,000."
Worldwide, confirmed COVID deaths have surpassed 1 million, though officials acknowledge the actual toll is likely significantly higher than the reported one. On Friday, the World Health Organization said it had received a record 350,000-plus daily new cases report, surpassing the previous record by nearly 12,000.
In a briefing, WHO's emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan acknowledged that even as COVID-19 continues to surge across the world, "there are no new answers."