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Cuomo: NY State readies 'winter plan' for COVID; SCOTUS ruling 'irrelevant'

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo holds up a new

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo holds up a new Thanksgiving-themed face mask during his daily coronavirus briefing at the Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corp. Headquarters in Wyandanch. Credit: AP/Kevin P. Coughlin

New York State is readying a "winter plan" to combat possible coronavirus resurgence after Thanksgiving, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday, and he said there was no practical impact from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against certain pandemic restrictions on religious services.

Cuomo’s winter plan would prioritize keeping schools open, particularly for kindergartners through eighth graders, and continue the months-old "microcluster" and zoned approach, but add factors to the calculus, such as rates of hospitalization, how many hospital beds remain in a given area, and the extent to which elective surgery is available.

It could take weeks to determine the impact of Thanksgiving gatherings and travel, which most disease-control experts urged Americans to avoid this year.

"You want to see what Thanksgiving actually did, if it did it evenly across the state, if it caused a spike in some parts of the state. We can’t tell now if there’s more social interaction, proportionately, from Thanksgiving in certain parts of the state. Like, I can’t tell you if Buffalo is seeing proportionately more social activity because of Thanksgiving than New York City, than Long Island, and there is a lag on the infection rate," Cuomo said, speaking Thursday morning on a conference call with reporters.

Across New York State, based on 200,000 tests, the overall infection rate was 3.1%, and 3.3% on Long Island and 2.5% in New York City, Cuomo said. There were 3,056 people hospitalized, and 67 died — including four in Nassau and six in Suffolk — Wednesday from COVID-19, he said. The highest rate in the state is in Western New York, at 5.4%.

"We know what’s going on, and the numbers tell the same story, because we’ve seen the movie in New York, we’ve seen the movie across the country. The positivity goes up, more people get sick, more people go into the hospital, more people go into the ICU, more people get intubated, and the death number goes up," Cuomo said. "Relative to the rest of the country, New York State is still doing phenomenally well."

In the forthcoming winter plan, Cuomo said, the state would enumerate a "safe-positivity rate" to allow schools to stay open.

"All the data says the schools are safer than the surrounding community," he said. "We want to continue testing in the schools, but we need a sustainable testing rate in the schools. In other words, if we want to keep the schools open, it has to be a level of testing that the local school districts can provide for a prolonged period of time."

New York City's public schools closed indefinitely on Nov. 19 after the infection rate hit 3%, the threshold set in September in a deal Mayor Bill de Blasio reached with the teachers union. De Blasio said on Wednesday that he would announce a plan next week for how to begin reopening the schools in the weeks ahead.

Also Thursday, Cuomo downplayed the high court ruling — 5 to 4, issued late Wednesday night — in the case Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York, that sided with religious challengers on First Amendment grounds and barred the state from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches, synagogues and other houses of worship, in the hardest-hit areas.

He said the rules being challenged — imposed in parts of Brooklyn with particularly high infection rates — had already ended.

"It’s irrelevant from any practical impact, because the zone that they were talking about has already been moot — it expired last week. So I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics. It doesn’t have any practical effect," Cuomo said. "And in terms of religious gatherings, look, I’m a former altar boy. Catholic, Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school, Jesuits at college, so I fully respect religion, and if there’s a time in life when we need it, the time is now, but we want to make sure we keep people safe at the same time. And that’s the balance we’re trying to hit."

He noted that a similar challenge of rules elsewhere — decided during the tenure of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — had been rejected months ago but that the composition of the court has since changed, with President Donald Trump's replacement, Amy Coney Barrett.

The state’s restrictions follow data showing that gathering places — such as houses of worship, theaters, sports stadiums and concert venues — are vectors for so-called superspreader episodes. In most cases, the houses of worship are subject to less strict rules than those other venues, particularly in hard-hit parts of the state.

In an email, Diocese of Rockville Centre spokesman Sean Dolan said it "applauds and supports the efforts of Bishop DiMarzio and the Diocese of Brooklyn to defend the free exercise of religion, our first amendment right."

"The Catholic Church has been vigilant, maintaining strict protocols in order to protect everyone’s right to worship safely," the email said.

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