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Cuomo: New York will ease restrictions around COVID-19 'red zones' showing improvement

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday that the state will continue placing restrictions in decreasing levels of severity in "a series of concentric circles" of red, orange and yellow zones for targeted areas. Credit: NY Governor's Office

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Bart Jones and Carol Polsky. It was written by Jones.

All schools in Queens and some in Brooklyn that were shuttered by the state two weeks ago because of high levels of COVID-19 infection in their neighborhoods can reopen, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday, though they will remain closed in parts of Brooklyn and all of Orange and Rockland counties.

Other restrictions for gatherings and reduced business activity are being eased in areas switched from the more severe red or orange zones for coronavirus clusters to yellow, placing them under lesser limits.

Cuomo celebrated the state's progress in reducing and limiting spread in "hot spots" of targeted neighborhoods. He credited the push to focus on "micro-clusters" of new cases.

"What this shows is that it is working," Cuomo said. "That’s good news. Celebrate. Don’t panic. Don’t fear. … We have it managed. We know how to do this. We just have to do it."

The restrictions shut schools and nonessential businesses and limited houses of worship to no more than 10 people in the areas with the highest level of virus spread. Cuomo's move on Wednesday means schools and businesses can reopen in some neighborhoods, and religious gatherings can allow up to 25 people or more in some zones.

Based on COVID-19 testing data, Cuomo said the state will convert red and orange zones into yellow zones in parts of Brooklyn and in Queens, where clusters were identified around the Borough Park and Far Rockaway, Kew Gardens and Forest Hills neighborhoods.

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"We have the most sophisticated COVID detection and elimination system of any state," Cuomo said, adding that officials will "jump on" any outbreaks.

Rob MacKay, a spokesman for the Queens Economic Development Corp., said: "Any kind of loosening is obviously good. There’s the whole question of getting the word out," so would-be customers don’t continue to be scared off, he added.

"We need to counter the perception that it’s dangerous," he said, urging government officials: "If something is safe, they have to let people know that it’s safe."

He said businesses owners, particularly restaurateurs, are craving consistent, clear-cut rules.

The new criteria set by the state will modify zones based on metrics, so that "micro-cluster" neighborhoods generally will exit their zones if they maintain low positivity rates for the virus: under 3% after 10 days in red zones; under 2% for 10 days in orange zones; under 1.5% for 10 days in yellow zones. Those percent-positive requirements will be more relaxed in less-populated areas, Cuomo said.

In deciding whether to loosen restrictions, the state will consider if new hospitalizations are trending down, if congregate facilities are generating infections, and if there has been increased compliance and enforcement actions in those neighborhoods.

While red and orange zones are required to close schools, yellow zones are permitted to reopen them with increased testing of students, teachers and staff.

In red zones, houses of worship are limited to a maximum of 10 people, and all other gatherings are prohibited, while only essential businesses remain open and food establishments are allowed for takeout. In orange zones, those limits increase, allowing limited outdoor dining. In yellow areas, all businesses can reopen.

Many of the neighborhoods found to have clusters are home to significant ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations, who the state said had continued religious gatherings despite the pandemic-related limits. Some protested, at times clashing with others over the restrictions.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he expects more compliance going forward, stressing cooperation from the public.

"I think that’s been a real wake-up call to people, and I think a lot of folks are gonna act differently from this point on," he said Wednesday at his daily news conference.

Excluding schools in the red and orange zones, de Blasio said the city has five schools, out of about 1,400 in the system, on 14-day shutdowns due to COVID-19.

The positivity rate was measured Tuesday at 6.6% in cluster zones — and statewide the level of new infections was tracked at 1.6%, including the oversampling of cases in those areas. Without those neighborhoods, New York's positivity rate stood at 1.4%.

On Long Island, the Lawrence school district will extend its two weeks of remote instruction for an additional week at least, district Superintendent Ann Pedersen informed the school community Wednesday.

The district had announced it was going to remote instruction from Oct. 9 through at least Oct. 23, after areas that encompassed three of its five schools had seen a spike in COVID-19 positives, raising alert levels to orange. Though Cuomo announced at his briefing Wednesday that the Far Rockaway and Five Towns areas are now at a lower yellow level, with infection rates below 2%, Pedersen said the district opted to continue remote instruction "given the fluidity and fragility of those numbers."

Also Wednesday, Hampton Bays Elementary School went fully remote after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, school officials said.

The state’s COVID-19 Report Card, tracking coronavirus cases in public and private schools, reported 682 positive test results among students, teachers and staff on Long Island as of Wednesday — an increase of 30 cases from the previous day. The numbers include 510 students and 172 teachers and staff members.

New York City has had 969 positives since school started, with 514 students and 455 teachers and staff members diagnosed with the coronavirus.

RED, ORANGE AND YELLOW ZONES

New York State has been designating clusters of high coronavirus cases into red, orange and yellow zones, with different sets of restrictions imposed to avoid further spread in those targeted neighborhoods. The state rules, limiting schools, houses of worship, gatherings and businesses by zones, include:

  • In Red Zones, where new virus cases are concentrated, schools are closed, houses of worship are limited to 25% capacity and a maximum of 10 people and all other mass gatherings are prohibited. Only essential businesses remain open in those hot spots, and food establishments are allowed to open for takeout only.

  • In Orange Zones, or those areas surrounding "red" hot spots, houses of worships are limited to 33% capacity or a maximum of 25 people, and other gatherings are limited to 10 people. Orange zones also see the closing of nonessential businesses considered high risk and outdoor dining is permitted with a maximum of four people per table. Schools in orange zones also close for remote-only instruction.

  • Outlying communities in Yellow Zones don't have to close schools and houses of worship are allowed to operate at 50% capacity, while other gatherings are limited to 25 people. All businesses in those areas remain open, and indoor and outdoor dining is allowed, but limited to four people per table. The state further imposes a minimum of mandatory weekly testing of students, teachers and staff working in schools in yellow zones.

SOURCE: New York Governor's Office.

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