How Coronavirus Hit New York’s Orthodox Jews

March 24, 2020
A sign warns residents to take steps to contol the outbreak at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn as the Coronavirus, COVID19, outbreak continued unabated on March 19, 2020 in New York City. The economic situation in the city continued to decline as more businesses closed their doors and New York weighed a shelter in place order for the entire city. (Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images)

The rampant spread of COVID-19 continues to skyrocket, and nowhere in the U.S. has been more affected than New York, the state with the most cases. As of press time, the state had recorded 15,800 positive cases —  nearly 50% of the national total. To put this in perspective, New York’s total is now more than seven times that of Washington, the state with the second-highest number of confirmed cases.

On March 3, New York had confirmed only its second case in the entire state. A lot can change in just one day during the pandemic as was seen this past week.

Celebrity talk show host Andy Cohen announced on Instagram that he had tested positive.

Even Harvey Weinstein — who recently was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault — has reportedly tested positive for the virus, along with another inmate at New York’s Wende Correctional Facility.

One of the most significant developments was the impact on Brooklyn’s Chasidic community, which experienced a dramatic surge in positive cases. On March 17, more than 100 people tested positive in Borough Park and Williamsburg, two Brooklyn neighborhoods with prominent Chasidic Jewish populations. According to the New York City Health Department, the average age of coronavirus patients in Borough Park is from 40 to 50.

That same day, more than 200 people attended a Chasidic wedding in South Williamsburg, violating state orders restricting gatherings of 50 or more people. The fire department had to break up the celebration.

In a press conference on March 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke about the need for people to take the call to shelter in place seriously. “You would think there was nothing going on in parts of New York City. You would think it was just a bright, sunny Saturday. I don’t know what I’m saying that people don’t get,” he said, noting that parks were particularly crowded. “It’s insensitive, it’s arrogant, it’s self-destructive, it’s disrespectful to other people and it has to stop, and it has to stop now.”

To get the community word out to follow orders, members of the Shmira, a private Charedi neighborhood watch group, drove through Borough Park and warned residents over a loud speaker to stay indoors.

“April is going to be a lot worse than March and I fear May could be worse than April.” — New York Mayor Bill de Blasio

City health department officials issued a warning to Chasidic medical professionals in Crown Heights that up to 80% of their neighborhood already may have been exposed to the virus.

Leaders of the Chabad movement made the unprecedented decision to close down their famous 770 world headquarters in Crown Heights for the first time in history.

The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut took significant action in addressing ways to curb the spread of the virus. At 8 p.m. on March 21, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut shut down all gyms, bars, casinos and movie theaters. Restaurants have been granted permission to remain open but are restricted to just takeout and delivery.

“April is going to be a lot worse than March and I fear May could be worse than April,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “If we don’t get more ventilators in the next 10 days, people will die who don’t have to die.”

Peter Fox is a contributing writer for the Forward and Tablet magazine. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox.

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