Houses of worship can open with 25% occupancy for regions in Phase 2 of the state's reopening plan, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Saturday. Credit: Governor's Facebook

This story was reported by John Asbury, Catherine Carrera, Joan Gralla, Craig Schneider and Dandan Zou. It was written by Schneider.

Houses of worship can open with 25% occupancy for regions in Phase 2 of the state's reopening plan, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Saturday.

The news comes as Cuomo said the state saw its lowest daily death toll from the coronavirus to date — 35 people.

“This is an acceleration for us because we’re doing so well on the metrics," Cuomo said. "Today is a day of good news."

Cuomo said worshippers must social distance.

"Be smart, don't sit right next to people," he said. He also cautioned about moving through entrances and exits where people tend to congregate.

Long Island is set to advance to Phase 2 on Wednesday.

Cuomo also passed along what he said was some new information regarding the virus, some of which contradicts early information. He said the virus could live in the air for three hours.

"It's actually frightening," he said.

However, the governor also said that the virus lived a shorter amount of time on surfaces than first thought, though he did not provide examples.

And, Cuomo said, the thinking that peopl,e once infected, would be immune from reinfection is wrong.

"Infected people may be able to be reinfected," he said.

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Cuomo also said he would sign an executive order to prosecute price-gouging on personal protective equipment. He noted that before the coronavirus crisis, the state had paid 70 cents per mask, but now paid $7.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said the new price gouging measure expanded protections against price gouging beyond consumer goods to include any products or services that were vital or necessary to the health, safety, and welfare of the general public.  

Cuomo said hospitalizations in New York due to COVID-19 have come down from 12,000 to 1,500.

As New York City prepares to enter Phase 1 on Monday, Cuomo said the state was sending the Metropolitan Transportation Authority 1 million face coverings and 25,000 gallons of hand sanitizer.

Also, the state is allowing commercial building owners to take the temperature of people coming in, he said.

With COVID-19 death tolls at an all-time low, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Saturday the reopening of houses of worship next week with limited capacity. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran called on Cuomo to open shopping malls earlier than expected as well. Credit: Newsday staff; James Carbone; Debbie Egan-Chin

"It's not just your health; it's the people you could infect," he said.

Meanwhile, New York State Parks’ beaches and day-use areas are open for visitation across the state. State park beaches, day-use areas and historic sites will return to charging the normal entrance fee of between $6-$10 as regions reach Phase 2 of reopening, officials said.

On Saturday, some beaches and parks on Long Island closed early after they filled to capacity, according to the state parks department website.

Jones Beach Field 6 closed by 10:30 a.m., and Connetquot State Park by 11:45 a.m. Later in the day, Orient Beach, Jones Beach Field 2, and Hempstead Lake and Wildwood state parks also were closed.

Faith leaders excited, cautious

Long Island faith leaders welcomed the governor’s decision Saturday to allow houses of worship to reopen with excitement but also caution.

“We are overjoyed to get back,” said Lynnwood E. Deans, senior pastor at the Bethlehem of Judea Church in Hempstead. “But we want to make sure we get back safely.”

The pastor said his congregation felt “somewhat displaced” while their church was shuttered. The building opened only two weeks ago but to no more than 10 people at once, Deans said.

“Online [service] is a wonderful thing,” Deans said. “But being able to conduct our service in the facility itself has great historical meaning because many of us grew up in [churches]. It’s such a tradition of ours.”

Dr. Isma Chaudhry, chairwoman of the Islamic Center of Long Island, said she was glad to hear the governor’s announcement.

“We are happy we did our due diligence. We did what we were supposed to do by our community,” Chaudhry said. “We are happy we are ready to move forward.”

Before the pandemic hit, Chaudhry’s mosque in Westbury typically saw 1,000 people during a Friday prayer. That number went down to zero when the building closed in March and rose to 10 only last week, Chaudhry said. At 25% capacity, the crowd size could go up to 50 or more, depending on the space that could be used to allow social distancing.

But her priority is “safety, safety and safety,” said Chaudhry, who is also a physician. “Religious practices are extremely important. But human life takes precedence over everything else.”

Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island is taking a more conservative approach to reopening.

The diocese’s plan set July 1 as the date to resume in-person service with a limited number of churchgoers, Provenzano said. The reopening plan also is looking into worshipping outdoors and solving practical difficulties like lavatory use, he said.

“The greatest fear is another spike in cases,” the bishop said. “Without a vaccine or cure, bringing people together puts people at risk. There’s no getting around that.”

Curran: Daily coronavirus death toll drops to zero

Nassau recorded zero COVID-19 deaths for the first time in 81 days, County Executive Laura Curran said Saturday.

Curran said it marked the first time the county did not have any COVID-19-related deaths since the first death on March 17.

The county tested 5,533 people Friday and only 1% of those tested positive for the virus, Curran said.

Nassau County has 182 people hospitalized for COVID-19, a number that decreased by 19 patients Friday at the county’s 11 hospitals, Curran said.

Nassau County is set to advance to Phase 2 in its reopening on Wednesday for retail, barbershops and hair salons, real estate, office jobs and administrative work.

Curran asked Cuomo to move malls into Phase 2, since mass transit is reopening.

"Malls are iconic here in Nassau County. It’s a place where people get together and they go shopping and get what they need,” Curran said. “It’s also excellent for the economy.”

Bellone: Suffolk down to 200 in hospitals

In Suffolk, the total number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped to 200, a decrease of 13 since Friday’s update, County Executive Steve Bellone said.

“We’re looking forward to getting below 200, which I expect we’ll be able to report tomorrow,” he said.

The number of people who tested positive for the virus rose to 40,239, an increase of 39, he said. People who tested positive for the antibodies reached 15,201, he said.

The number of deaths from the virus increased by five, reaching 1,923, Bellone said. 

“All the numbers continue to move in a positive direction,” Bellone said.

Bellone said he had worked with the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association on a plan for in-person graduations for high school seniors.

“We’re very hopeful that we will have word soon that these live graduations will be able to be held for our seniors,” Bellone said.

Bellone said faith leaders in the county were looking forward to reopening.

“There really was a feeling that this is a good time for our faith-based communities to be opening back up and having people be able to go back and practice their faith,” Bellone said.

Union: Sixth NYPD detective dies of COVID-19

An NYPD detective who died May 6 was another victim of the coronavirus, his union said.

Det. Christopher McDonnell, 54, of Westchester, had been assigned to the Intelligence Bureau and was a 29-year veteran of the NYPD.

"We now know that he too was a victim of the invisible bullet of this virus," Detectives’ Endowment Association President Paul DiGiacomo said in a statement Friday.

The detectives' union said McDonnell was the sixth NYPD detective killed by the virus, which has felled more than 110,000 Americans.

"Chris was a great cop and loved by all," DiGiacomo said. "The DEA will always be here for Chris’ family — to support them in all that they do.”

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