October 24, 2020

N.Y. Shuts Down Hasidic Wedding That Could Have Had 10,000 Guests

New York State health officials have taken extraordinary steps to shut down an ultra-Orthodox wedding planned for Monday that could have had brought up to 10,000 guests to Brooklyn, near one of New York City’s coronavirus hot spots.

The state health commissioner personally intervened to have sheriff’s deputies deliver the order to the Hasidic synagogue on Friday, warning that it must follow health protocols, including limiting gatherings to fewer than 50 people.

On Sunday, the synagogue, the Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar, accused state officials of “unwarranted attacks” on the wedding, where a grandson of Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, the synagogue’s rabbi, was to be married. The congregation said that the ceremony and meal would have been restricted to “close family members,” while the public would have been invited to participate only “for a short period of time.”

The wedding will continue, the synagogue said, but will be limited to a smaller group of family members. “It’s sad that nobody verified our plans before attacking us,” Chaim Jacobowitz, the congregation’s secretary, said in a statement.

The state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, took the rare step of personally issuing what is known as a Section 16 order, which can carry a daily fine of $10,000 if violated. The state has issued dozens of Section 16 orders during the pandemic.

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Dr. Zucker moved quickly in issuing it because of concerns that the state’s normal first course of action, which involves a cease and desist letter and a hearing, would have been too late to prevent the large wedding, according to a person familiar with the state’s actions. State officials obtained an invitation to the wedding late last week and confirmed that some guests would be traveling there from hot spots within the state.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday said that a large wedding was too risky and could have resulted in a so-called superspreader event. State officials said that they determined the wedding, which was scheduled to take place in Williamsburg, could have had up to 10,000 people in attendance.

“My suggestion: Have a small wedding this year,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news conference on Sunday. “Next year, have a big wedding. Invite me, and I’ll come.”

The episode highlighted the brewing tensions between the governor and the Hasidic community as state health officials try to control surging coronavirus cases in some neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens and in counties north of New York City.

Some Orthodox voices, including a growing faction of raucous young men, have accused the government of targeting them because of their faith and religious life. Earlier this month, the governor ordered new shutdown restrictions in areas where cases were spiking.

Orthodox Jewish leaders announced a large community prayer scheduled for Tuesday in response to the shutdown of the wedding and the broader restrictions. The event, which will take place via phone, is not a protest, the leaders said.

Mr. Cuomo on Sunday said that the state’s efforts to control outbreaks had been successful in reducing the positivity rate in the targeted neighborhoods, which he had divided into zones. As of Saturday, the state’s overall infection rate was 1.08 percent, the governor said, considerably lower than other states. But the rate is 3.19 percent in the areas with the highest infection rates, or “red zones,” which include neighborhoods near Williamsburg. The synagogue itself is not located in a hot spot.

“We are so aggressive every time we see the virus pop up — we run and hit it down,” the governor said about the state’s strategy for controlling outbreaks. “It’s exhausting but it’s effective.”

A number of factors — including distrust of scientific messaging and secular authority, a dedication to communal life and dense living conditions — have fueled the rise in the ultra-Orthodox community within the city.

While New York State has one of the lowest rates of new cases, health officials are worried about another spike in the colder months, when people largely stay indoors and can more easily spread the virus in confined spaces. Mr. Cuomo noted on Sunday that even relatively small events, such as a Sweet 16 party held on Long Island last month, can spark an infectious outbreak.

The birthday party had more than 80 guests — above the 50-person maximum — and led to at least 37 cases and many more people forced into quarantine.

Officials on Sunday announced seven more coronavirus-related deaths across the state, bringing the total to more than 26,440 people.

“We had the worst problem on the globe at one point,” Mr. Cuomo said. “The numbers are all moving in the right direction.”

Liam Stack contributed reporting.