Elementary school students are welcomed back to P.S. 188 as the city’s public schools open for in-person learning on September 29, 2020 in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
NEW YORK — New York City’s positive coronavirus test rate has topped 3 percent for the first time in months, as the city battles clusters of the virus in nine neighborhoods in Brooklyn and in Queens.
If the rise continues, it could force the shutdown of the city’s public school system, which just reopened Tuesday for in-person education at the elementary school level. It also comes a day before indoor dining is scheduled to reopen in the city.
The city’s daily rate hit 3.25 percent on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. On a seven-day average, the rate stands at 1.38 percent. The city will close schools if the rate hits 3 percent on a seven-day average.
“We have not seen a day like that in quite a while. We don’t want to see days like this,” de Blasio said.
In the nine zip codes in Brooklyn and Queens where outbreaks are happening, the city will be fining people who refuse to wear a mask in public, de Blasio said.
The city has threatened to shut down non-essential businesses and ban gatherings over ten people in those neighborhoods, but officials said Tuesday they are not yet acting on that threat. They said they will go through with it if the spread of Covid-19 does not slow.
“We have to take more action at this point, and more serious action. And we will be escalating with each day depending on what we see happening on the ground,” de Blasio said.
People caught without a mask will be offered one, and if they refuse to put it on they will be told they’ll be ticketed unless they wear it. If they still refuse, the sheriff’s office, NYPD and other enforcement officers will issue fines up to $1,000 starting Tuesday.
“We don’t want to fine people. If we have to, we will,” de Blasio said. “If necessary, we will have to prohibit gatherings except for very small gatherings. If necessary, we will have to close non-essential businesses. No one wants that to happen if it can be avoided.”
The Health Department has issued an order saying that yeshivas and other private schools in the neighborhoods will be closed if they don’t follow safety protocols, which the city will check on through inspections.
There has been an “alarming increase” in virus cases in the neighborhoods, which include some areas with large Orthodox Jewish communities, said Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi.
The affected neighborhoods are Gravesend and Homecrest, which has the highest positive test rate at 6.72 percent over the last two weeks, Midwood, where it is 5.53 percent, Kew Gardens, Far Rockaway/Edgemere, Borough Park, Bensonhurst, Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay, and Flatlands.
Collectively, those neighborhoods add up to 25 percent of all the city’s new cases over the last two weeks. Surrounding areas such as Kew Gardens Hills has also topped a 3 percent average positivity rate, and officials are keeping an eye on increases in Rego Park, Kensington and Windsor Terrace, and Brighton Beach.
The coronavirus cut a deadly path through the Orthodox community in the spring, but receded dramatically as summer arrived, leading some to theorize they were protected by some degree of herd immunity and did not need to follow social distancing and other precautions.
“There is still no evidence of herd immunity in any community,” Chokshi said Tuesday.
Some improvement in mask wearing was seen in the affected neighborhoods over the weekend, said Mitch Katz, head of the city’s public hospital system.
The city will not close public schools in particular neighborhoods due to local outbreaks, de Blasio said. “We’re continuing with one standard only — the citywide standard,” he said.
Indoor dining will reopen as scheduled on Wednesday, at 25 percent of normal capacity and with temperature checks required for patrons.
“We’re going to keep an eye on that situation,” de Blasio said. “If anything looks more problematic, we’ll talk to the state and we’ll decide together if any adjustments have to be made.”
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