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Cuomo defends strict measures in hot spots, calls for prosecution in alleged beating

Legis. Carrié Solages partnered with Five Towns Community Center and Gammy’s Pantry to distribute personal protective equipment to Inwood and Lawrence residents after the areas saw an increase in COVID-19 cases. Credit: Newsday / John Conrad Williams Jr.

This story was reported by John Asbury, Catherine Carrera, Matthew Chayes, Bart Jones, Yancey Roy and Joie Tyrrell. It was written by Jones.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo warned Friday that he might shut down some schools that are not reporting their new confirmed cases of COVID-19, while he defended strict new measures in "hot spots" with high levels of infection.

Late Friday afternoon, a federal judge let stand Cuomo’s restrictions on gatherings at houses of worship, rejecting a request for an emergency restraining order by plaintiffs claiming that the rules violate freedom of religion rights.

Cuomo’s office and Agudath Israel of America, a group affiliated with synagogues, confirmed that Judge Kiyo Matsumato, of the U.S. Eastern District of New York court in Brooklyn, rejected Agudath’s request for the order. In a statement, Agudath called the decision a "crushing blow to religious freedom." The restrictions were set to go into effect Friday.

The new restrictions also close schools and limit business activity in the cluster areas with the highest rates of recent coronavirus infections.

Earlier Friday, Cuomo said the people protesting the measures, who reportedly attacked a journalist on Wednesday in Brooklyn, should be arrested and prosecuted. He called the incident "criminal behavior."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, too, said an arrest was imminent, but by late Friday afternoon none had been made.

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Cuomo had called on the New York City Police Department and the district attorney in Brooklyn to act.

"Peaceful protest by the Hasidic community? Fine. You’re beating a journalist? Criminal behavior," Cuomo said during a conference call with reporters. "The person should be arrested."

Cuomo was referring to the alleged attack Wednesday night on Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider and an Orthodox Jew himself, during demonstrations in Borough Park. Kornbluh said he was punched in the head and kicked during the second night of unrest, the NYPD said.

Kornbluh has reported on the lack of compliance with mask wearing and social distancing in the community.

"An arrest is expected in that case shortly," de Blasio said Friday morning.

An NYPD spokesman said Friday afternoon the investigation was ongoing.

On Twitter Friday morning, the account of Brooklyn’s District Attorney Eric Gonzalez posted: "There have been a number of very concerning acts of violence in Borough Park directed at reporters," including Kornbluh and others. "This conduct and all harassment must stop. My office is reviewing these incidents to ensure the police investigation is thorough and complete."

Gonzalez spokesman Oren Yaniv said Friday afternoon he was "not aware of PD making any arrests" in the case.

Despite the unrest, Cuomo defended the new restrictions, saying the hot spot neighborhoods driving the rise in coronavirus cases represent 2.8% of the state population. Those areas in the red zone with the highest positivity rates for COVID-19 have accounted for 20% of state cases over the past three weeks, he told reporters.

The hot spots are mainly in Brooklyn and Queens, along with Orange and Rockland counties, but one cluster affects western Nassau County.

Cuomo told CNN on Friday that Catholic schools in the red zone — where most of the new cases are concentrated — in Brooklyn must shut down even though the main problem of disobeying face mask and social distancing laws is within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

The Diocese of Brooklyn is suing the state to overturn the measures, arguing that the church is obeying the mandates and has not had large outbreaks of infection in its facilities.

"The cluster is a predominantly ultra-Orthodox cluster," Cuomo said. "The Catholic schools are closed because they happen to be in that cluster, but the issue is with that ultra-Orthodox community. This is not a matter of religious freedom, right? I don't care if you're Roman Catholic, you're Jewish, you're Muslim, you're an atheist. You have to follow the rules of the state, the laws of the state."

Cuomo: Schools must report cases

Cuomo also said Friday the state is notifying 42 schools that are not reporting testing results that they are in noncompliance with requirements to send data to the state for publication in its COVID-19 Report Card's online dashboard. If they don't start sending that information, Cuomo said he will shut down those schools.

"If we don’t have the data, then you are having children walk into school blind, if you will," Cuomo said.

Of 4,500 tests reported from schools on Thursday, there were 97 new cases of students, teachers and staff testing positive, whether they were in the schools or off-site.

The level of positivity for COVID-19 was 5.4% in the hot spots for testing completed Thursday, while the level was 0.9% in the rest of the state, excluding the clusters, Cuomo said.

The positivity level was 1% on Long Island and 1.2% in New York City. Six people died Thursday of coronavirus-related causes in the state. The number of new confirmed cases was 80 in Nassau County, 89 in Suffolk County, and 624 in New York City.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said Friday the county is "closely monitoring all disease activity with a focus on a few ‘spikelets.' "

State Liquor Authority agents and State Police inspected 635 establishments on Thursday, and issued seven summonses for violating face covering and social distancing mandates. Five were in Nassau and one in Suffolk.

Temporary school closures continue

In Nassau County, Lawrence High School teachers can work remotely, after the state's COVID-19 cluster zone map, including that part of the county, was redrawn overnight, Superintendent Ann Pedersen said Friday morning.

Officials announced Thursday that the Lawrence School District was shutting down in-person instruction until at least Oct. 23 because parts of it were within special COVID-19 cluster zones that the state is targeting to try to stop rising levels of the coronavirus.

On Thursday, Pedersen said in a note to Lawrence district families that the high school was outside of the current cluster. Although students would not be in the building, teachers were expected to report to the school.

Pedersen said Friday the map had been redrawn to add Peninsula Boulevard to the state's yellow zone that designates outlying cluster areas. The high school, in Cedarhurst, is near Peninsula Boulevard.

Lawrence Teachers’ Association president Lori Skonberg said the association backs the decision.

Port Washington’s Paul D. Schreiber High School closed Friday for in-person instruction after the district was notified Thursday afternoon that someone had tested positive, Superintendent Michael Hynes said in a notice. The letter did not specify whether it was a student or staff member.

Fairfield Elementary School in Massapequa also temporarily closed for in-person instruction Friday after a staff member tested positive for the virus, Massapequa Superintendent Lucille Iconis said in a letter.

A student at Fairfield Elementary tested positive for the virus and the district suspended in-person instruction at the school Wednesday.

A student at Massapequa High School tested positive earlier this week, as did a student at Berner Middle School in Massapequa, but the district did not close those schools.

A student at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview tested positive for the virus and the school was closed for in-person instruction Friday, Superintendent Mary O’Meara said.

New testing sites open

The Town of Hempstead will open three testing sites this month, starting next week in Baldwin Park, East Meadow and West Hempstead.

The town will have medical professionals perform cotton swab diagnostic testing for COVID-19 from Oct. 12-16 at Baldwin Park, testing at Veterans Memorial Park in East Meadow from Oct 19-23 and at Echo Park in West Hempstead from Oct. 26-30.

The testing sites will allow social distancing in town parks and additional testing of more people, town officials said.

The town is accepting walk-up testing, but appointments are encouraged though the town’s Northwell Health testing hotline at 516-821-2500. The testing is open to town residents ages 8 and over, but minors require parental consent.

Cuomo said Friday that COVID-19 rapid result testing will be given to every county in New York State for free. The State Department of Health initially will send 400,000 rapid result test kits to local health departments, hospitals, pharmacies and other health care providers.

The tests can be done within 15 minutes and without sending a specimen to a lab. The health department will prioritize areas with an uptick in cases, he said.

"From day one, testing has been one of the most vital tools we have to accurately assess COVID-19's spread in New York," Cuomo said.

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