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NYC to begin issuing mask fines as infections spike in ultra-Orthodox areas

Mayor Bill de Blasio says city workers to first warn residents in Brooklyn and Queens hot zones, but those who refuse order could see penalties of up to $1,000

A family rides the train, Monday, September 14, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
A family rides the train, Monday, September 14, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK (AP) — Alarmed by a spike in coronavirus infections in a few Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, New York City officials will start issuing fines in those areas to people who refuse to wear masks, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday.

De Blasio said he was sending teams of hundreds of outreach workers and contact tracers to nine Brooklyn and Queens ZIP codes that have seen an upswing in positive COVID-19 tests in hopes of avoiding harsher enforcement measures.

Those workers will be handing out masks, but also insisting that people put them on if they are in a place where they could be within 6 feet of other people.

“Anyone who refuses to wear a face covering will be told that if they don’t put one on they will be fined, and anyone who still refuses will be fined. That will happen aggressively,” de Blasio said.

The maximum fine for refusing to wear a mask is $1,000. “We don’t want to fine people. If we have to, we will,” de Blasio said.

The streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on September 23, 2020. (Daniel Moritz-Rabson/JTA)

The Democratic mayor warned he could order further crackdowns including the closing of nonessential businesses and bans on gatherings if things don’t improve. Private schools and child care centers could be closed if people refuse to comply with coronavirus guidelines, de Blasio said.

“It is a situation at this point that is very serious and we need to have all options on the table,” de Blasio said.

The nine ZIP codes accounted for 25% of the city’s positive tests in the last two weeks though they are collectively home to just 7% of the city’s population, city Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said.

De Blasio spoke as public schools in the city welcomed some elementary school students back to their classrooms for the first time since March. He said there is so far no evidence of the virus spike affecting public schools in the areas where positive test rates have risen because the communities that are experiencing higher rates of infection don’t send their children to public schools.

The mayor and the city’s police department have had a fraught relationship over coronavirus enforcement with residents of some predominantly Hasidic sections of the city.

Illustrative: Children play on a sidewalk in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Thursday, June 4, 2020 in New York during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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.

This time there is little question about where the city is seeing infections spike.

One zip code in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn has recorded more than 400 new coronavirus cases since September 1. By comparison, the Corona section of Queens, which was ground zero for the New York City outbreak in the spring, has seen just 62 new cases despite having a third more residents.

City officials began sounding the alarm about the recent increase in coronavirus cases in certain Orthodox neighborhoods last week, warning that gatherings during the Jewish high holidays could spark more infections. 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 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.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking in Albany as de Blasio held his daily coronavirus briefing in New York City, also addressed the increase in virus cases in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods inside and outside of the city.

“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.”

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