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Long Island areas made yellow COVID-19 zones: Hampton Bays, Riverhead, Great Neck, Massapequa Park

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo talked Monday about the current COVID-19 rates and what they mean for Thanksgiving. Credit: NY Governor's Office

This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, Matt Clark, Lisa L. Colangelo, Corin Hirsch, Bart Jones, David Reich-Hale and John Valenti. It was written by Jones.

Four Long Island communities were designated Monday as yellow zones because of a sustained increase in positive cases of the coronavirus, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo warned that a "toxic cocktail" of holiday social activities and public fatigue with restrictions is putting the state in danger.

The new yellow zones in Suffolk County are Hampton Bays, with a 5.13% positivity rate, and Riverhead, with a 4.60% rate. In Nassau County, Great Neck, with a 4.77% positivity rate, and Massapequa Park, with a 3.9% rate, were declared yellow zones.

The changes take effect Wednesday for businesses and Thursday for schools, Cuomo said in a tweet.

The yellow designation is part of the state's "microcluster" or "hot spot" strategy to curb spread of the virus and places restrictions on restaurants, group gatherings and schools.

"These are dangerous times that we're in," Cuomo told reporters at a livestreamed news briefing in Manhattan.

Cuomo listed other communities on Long Island that are in danger of being named hot spots, including Freeport, Uniondale, Bethpage, Lawrence and East Hampton. He noted that levels of the virus vary widely on Long Island, with communities such as Stony Brook and Woodbury having infection levels around 1%.

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Schools officials in Great Neck, Massapequa Park and Hampton Bays said Monday they are working with government and health officials to develop plans to meet the yellow zone testing requirements, and that the safety of their students and staff is their highest priority.

Hampton Bays Superintendent Lars Clemensen said, "We know that school continues to be a safe place for students, faculty and staff. Last week, out of an abundance of caution and in response to what we understood to be concerning rates in the greater community, we conducted more than 400 tests of staff, students and faculty. This initiative yielded a positivity rate of 0.96%, less than 1/5 of what the recent trend in Hampton Bays is showing."

He said the district and community will work to "maintain the high standards of social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing and mask-wearing so that we can keep our schools open and positivity rates down."

Cuomo said the number of people hospitalized with the virus has more than doubled statewide in the past three weeks — from 1,227 to 2,724.

The situation has become dire enough on Staten Island, which is already under strained hospital capacity, that the state is opening an emergency facility for overflow patients at South Beach, he said.

"It’s the high social season … Social activity goes up in this season. It is a bad combination" that can lead to more cases, Cuomo said. "This is a toxic cocktail of dynamics and facts."

A geographic area can be designated a yellow zone if it has a seven-day rolling average positivity rate above 2.5% for 10 days and has 10 or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day average.

Houses of worship in a yellow zone can operate at 50% capacity, as they can under statewide restrictions for areas outside the microclusters. Mass gatherings, both indoor and outdoor, are limited to a maximum of 25. Outdoor and indoor dining is limited to four people per table.

However, under current statewide rules, gatherings in private residences remain capped at 10 people, beyond the limit imposed by the yellow designation. Orange and red designations for areas with higher levels of positivity for COVID-19 increase restrictions for schools, businesses and gatherings.

One medical expert said he thought the restaurant restrictions could help limit the spread.

"The way you transmit this disease is by taking your mask off," said Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at Northwell Health. "When do you take your mask off? It's when you eat. So, limiting the number of people at a table makes sense."

Adapting to the zone rules

Several events organizers and restaurant owners said the restrictions will be tough for industries already hard hit.

The limits on mass gatherings in yellow zones will surely hurt "everyone in the wedding and events industry here," said Michael Variale, a Westhampton Beach DJ and founder of online wedding directory East End Weddings & Events.

"I mean I get it, health and safety are paramount … but business-wise? It’s been a junky year for all of us," he said. "I’m a positive person, but in terms of events, I honestly doubt we’ll regain any sense of ‘normalcy’ until well into next year."

Variale, who owns East End Entertainment NY, an events entertainment company that often provides services for clients in all four of Long Island’s yellow zones, said he’s already seen a decline in business of about 95%.

Ryan DiPaola, who co-owns Shrimpy’s Burrito Bar in Massapequa Park, said the yellow-zone designation wouldn’t have a dramatic impact on his business, which does a brisk trade in fast-casual burritos, tacos and bowls, though it has a small dining area.

"We’ve transitioned a little more into takeout, and people hang out more on the short term because of the situation," he said. "But it’s still a lot of change we have to make to adapt to what’s being asked of us. We’ll take away two chairs from our six-top tables."

The positivity level in test results completed Sunday was 3.5% on Long Island and 2.5% in New York City. The number of new confirmed cases was 421 in Nassau, 526 in Suffolk and 1,782 in New York City.

County Executive Steve Bellone said Monday that Suffolk "is taking a proactive approach to target clusters with high infection rates to slow the spread of the virus."

The Suffolk County Department of Health has increased its full-time contact tracing staff by more than 200 people in the last 10 days, he said.

The county also launched Long Island’s first free school-based testing programs, located in the Hamptons Bays and Riverhead school districts. The Department of Health is also partnering with health care providers to open testing locations in Riverhead and Hampton Bays for local residents.

County Executive Laura Curran said the 171 residents hospitalized in Nassau on Monday is "a level not seen since the beginning of June."

She said "Nassau will continue to expand testing throughout our communities, while focusing on containing emerging spikelets."

In New York City, the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan also was made a yellow zone on Monday. Parts of Staten Island were placed in a yellow zone, while others in orange.

Meanwhile, Oceanside-based Mount Sinai South Nassau said it is suspending patient visitation in the emergency department because of rising COVID-19 cases in the region.

Northwell said Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead would stop allowing visitors starting Tuesday.

Long Island's positives rose

Long Island’s percentage of positive test results climbed from less than 2% to more than 3% in one week at the start of November, but the rate has remained consistent since, according to a Newsday analysis.

Long Island’s seven-day average percentage of positive tests was 3.5% for the week ending Nov. 21. The highest rate, which was reached March 31, was 55%.

The Island’s per capita infection rate, which compares the number of positive tests to the Island’s population, has continued a climb that started in late September, driven both by the spread of the virus and a surge in testing. The number of tests taken each day has increased 37% since the start of November, with nearly 26,000 taken each day on average for the week ending Nov. 21.

The per capita infection rate for the Island was less than 0.04 cases per 1,000 residents for the seven days ending Sept. 26. For the seven days ending Nov. 21, it was more than seven times greater at 0.29 cases per 1,000.

More than a third of the 294 Long Island communities tracked by Newsday exceeded the Islandwide per capita infection rate for the seven days ending Nov. 21. Several Great Neck Peninsula communities continued to greatly exceed the Islandwide rate, including Kings Point with a rate of 0.82 cases per 1,000.

Cuomo said the statewide positivity rate stood at 3.08% in test results from Sunday, including the micro-clusters where higher levels of infection are found. About 545 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units. Thirty-three New Yorkers died of coronavirus-related causes on Sunday.

Cuomo warned of the state returning to the dire days of March and April when the pandemic was at its height. He recalled images of hospitals overrun with dead bodies, some of which had to be stored in refrigerated trucks.

Emergency rooms and hospitals "were like battle zones," he said. "It frightens me. I remember it like it was yesterday. Walking into the Javits Center, which looked like an emergency hospital after an apocalypse. It looked like it could be in a science fiction movie. Hundreds of cots lined up, one after the other after the other."

Cuomo warned that the danger to New York is also coming from neighboring states with high infection levels, including Pennsylvania with 11.10%, New Jersey with 7.66% and Connecticut with 5.77%. Other states around the country and from which people often travel to New York have even higher rates, some close to 50%, he said.

Northwell said it had 414 COVID-19 hospitalized patients, up from 259 the same period a week ago. Northwell had more than 3,400 COVID-19 hospitalized patients in April.

Elsewhere on Long Island, Freeport High School announced it was on remote learning Monday and Tuesday due to a positive COVID-19 case at the school, officials said.

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