October 26, 2020

N.Y.C. Warns About Rising Virus Cases in Hasidic Neighborhoods

New York City’s Health Department warned Tuesday evening that Covid-19 was spreading at increasing levels in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, a worrisome indicator after a couple of months of declining or flat transmission.

City health officials said that they were especially concerned about a clear uptick in transmission among some of the city’s Hasidic communities, which were devastated by Covid-19 in the spring but had seen few cases in the summer.

Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman for the city’s Health Department, said, “We are concerned about how Covid may be affecting Orthodox communities — in these neighborhoods and beyond — and we will continue working with partners, providers and residents throughout the city to ensure that guidance is followed to maintain our progress suppressing the pandemic.”

One city health official estimated that about a quarter of new Covid-19 cases in New York City appeared to be emanating from Orthodox Jewish communities, though the official acknowledged that at present the data was imperfect.

The data that alarmed public heath officials included the percentage of Covid-19 tests that were coming back positive. It had increased in recent weeks in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn — Williamsburg, Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst — as well as Kew Gardens and Edgemere-Far Rockaway in Queens.

In the three South Brooklyn neighborhoods — Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst — about 4.7 percent of Covid-19 tests were positive, which was far higher than in the rest of the city, according to the alert the Health Department sent to reporters.

Across the entirety of the city, between 1 percent and 2 percent of tests have been positive most days in the past two months. The alert said the Health Department was regarding the Covid-19 cases in those three neighborhoods as a single cluster that it was calling the Ocean Parkway Cluster.

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Updated 2020-09-23T03:49:56.045Z

The actual increase in new cases has been noticeable, but modest, in recent weeks. For much of the past two months, the seven-day rolling average of new cases has hovered in the mid- 200s. Recently, it began to climb toward an average of 300 new cases a day, reaching that on Sept. 14.

The rising case load is a particular cause for concern as it began weeks ahead of the reopening of in- person learning a the city’s public schools and the pending reopening of indoor dining, both of which are expected to lead to an uptick in new cases.

The rising levels of transmission left public health officials in a quandary they have struggled with in recent years: how to gain trust within the city’s Hasidic neighborhoods and encourage cooperation with public health mandates.

In recent years, the Health Department has faced skepticism and sometimes defiance from the Hasidic community as public health officials responded to a measles outbreak and to sporadic herpes cases linked to a circumcision ritual.

And at the height of the pandemic, many Hasidic Jews in New York felt that the mayor had unfairly singled them out when he drew attention to social-distancing violations among mourners at the funeral of a prominent Hasidic rabbi.

It was clear this week that the public health authorities were again struggling with how to encourage — or enforce — mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements in Hasidic neighborhoods, where many people are returning to communal life with few Covid-era precautions.

“This situation will require further action if noncompliance with safety precautions is observed,” the Health Department alert sent on Tuesday stated. The alert did not single out any particular group, only naming several neighborhoods with an elevated rate of transmission. “We are writing to provide an update on several COVID-19 signals in Brooklyn and Queens that are cause for significant concern,” the alert stated.

In recent weeks, the city’s health commissioner has publicly said he was worried about rising transmission within the large Orthodox Jewish communities in many of the same neighborhoods mentioned in Tuesday’s alert. “We have observed heightened rates of COVID-19 in many neighborhoods with large Orthodox Jewish populations,” the commissioner, David Chokshi, wrote in an email, according to Hamodia, an Orthodox Jewish news organization. That email was sent to other Orthodox Jewish news outlets as well in early September.

Yosef Rapaport, a media consultant, editor and podcaster in Borough Park, said he had also been hearing of a recent increase in the numbers of people sickened with Covid-19. “There was an uptick in special prayer requests” for those who had fallen ill, he said.

Mr. Rapaport, who is Hasidic and lost relatives to Covid-19 earlier this year, said he feared “a significant portion of our community is minimizing the danger.”

Few if any groups have been hit harder by Covid-19 than New York City’s Hasidic communities, where large families and crowded living conditions are the norm, and communal life revolves around the synagogue.

By late April, roughly 700 members of New York City’s Hasidic community were believed to have been killed by the disease, and few families had been spared. But the illness subsequently seemed to have passed, and synagogues and yeshivas began to reopen. Many people did not bother with masks.

In some areas with significant Hasidic populations, more than 40 percent of people being tested were found to have antibodies, fueling speculation that herd immunity might not be far off.

But after the summer passed with few new cases, there has been a gradual increase in recent weeks.

Motti Seligson, a Chabad rabbi, said he had recently heard of a few cases in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, “but nothing that can be called a second wave.” He added, “The uptick is something that’s of concern to people in these communities.”

In interviews, several Hasidic men in different neighborhoods across Brooklyn said that few people wore masks at large gatherings, including those at synagogues. They noted that many families were taking careful precautions and still not fully rejoining communal life. Rabbi Seligson said that some synagogues were holding more services to limit the number of people present at once and that some religious gatherings were being held outdoors.