Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cautioned Monday that New York can expect to see COVID-19 infection levels go up as the state enters this fall season, while on the same day he was shutting down schools in New York City "hot spots" and warning religious institutions to adhere to coronavirus restrictions or face closure, too.
"This cannot happen again," Cuomo said, referring to large gatherings at religious institutions where people fail to wear masks and socially distance. "If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we’ll close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that."
The main problem areas seem to be in New York City and Orange and Rockland counties, Cuomo said, though he also mentioned "a hot spot in one section of Nassau" County. A Cuomo spokesman later said a ZIP code including parts of Lawrence and Inwood in Nassau has recorded a 7% positivity rate over the past seven days, while the statewide figure has hovered around 1% most days.
At SUNY Cortland, officials said Monday night that due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, the university would temporarily shift to remote-learning only. Starting Wednesday, President Erik J. Bitterbaum wrote in a message to the university community, "all students who are currently living on-campus or off-campus in the Cortland area shall remain in their current housing locations and do classwork remotely for a temporary, two-week period."
Bitterbaum said the campus will remain open.
On Sunday, SUNY Cortland had 87 positive tests, he said.
Cuomo said the issue of synagogues and churches is particularly important, he said, as the region leaves behind the warmer weather of summer — and greater ease in being outdoors.
"We are coming into the fall. We have been told since early March: 'Beware of the fall, beware of the fall.' The weather gets colder, more people move indoors, flu season, schools open," Cuomo said at a Manhattan news briefing. "Schools opening are almost a predictor of increased infection rate. Colleges opening turned out to be more problematic than we thought."
He added: "We expect to see the infection rate go up in the fall."
Cuomo noted that New York — once the global epicenter of the pandemic — has among the lowest infection rates in the United States at about 1% positivity level, but it will be hard to maintain.
"I believe it is going to be practically unsustainable, but it is remarkable that we are that low right now," he said.
Cuomo made the comments as he announced that schools in "hot spot" neighborhoods for viral spread in New York City will be closed starting Tuesday. He said he remains concerned about those clusters sparking a larger outbreak of coronavirus in the state.
He showed a map of the state, with cluster areas marked. "Picture that map as a map of dry grass and picture those hot spots as embers within the field of dried grass … The only course is to run to those embers and stamp them out immediately and dramatically. That’s why I don’t sleep at night, so you have to attack the clusters," he said.
Concern about mass gatherings
The state's top-20 ZIP codes for spread were seeing a positivity rate of 5.5% for the virus on Sunday, according to the latest figures. The rest of the state has a positivity rate of 1.01%, which goes up to 1.22% with the cluster areas included. Eight people in the state died of coronavirus-related causes Sunday, and 636 remained hospitalized, the state said.
Many of the "hot spots" have large Orthodox Jewish populations, and Cuomo discussed "mass gatherings" as a significant risk factor. He showed images of religious celebrations in Orthodox Jewish communities, saying those violations of current restrictions need to stop. He cited a requirement to keep occupancy at those gatherings at 50% capacity.
The gatherings, he said, have been happening despite repeated calls for compliance with limits to the size of those crowds to keep distancing requirements.
Cuomo said he will be meeting Tuesday with religious leaders, including from the Orthodox Jewish community and some from Nassau County, and tell them that religious institutions will remain open "with two conditions:" They have to agree to follow rules on crowd limitations and social distancing, and they need to agree to enforce those rules at the door.
"Whether it’s the Jewish community, whether we are talking about Black churches, whether we are talking about Roman Catholic churches — the religious community … has to agree that they are going to follow the rules" and enforce them, Cuomo said.
The number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Sunday was 56 in Nassau, 49 in Suffolk County and 468 in New York City, according to state data released Monday.
Long Island schools see more cases
New coronavirus cases in multiple Long Island school districts have resulted in temporary school closures and other measures in recent days, according to the districts and an online state database.
In the Sachem Central School District, nine students and one staff member have tested positive for the virus across four schools since the beginning of the academic year. That includes five students at Sachem High School North in Lake Ronkonkoma, which closed Thursday and will remain closed until at least Wednesday, according to the district.
Sachem Superintendent Chris Pellettieri, in a letter on Friday, wrote that the five students had attended the same "social event" the weekend prior.
District spokeswoman Jessica Novins did not respond to a request for information about the event.
"I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to ask that our Sachem school community continue to do its part to protect the health and safety of our students, staff and families," Pellettieri wrote. "I know we are all eager to be back together and enjoying social activities, but I implore you to stay vigilant."
The Roslyn, Islip, Bayport-Blue Point and Commack school districts also have temporarily closed schools in recent days because of cases. Roslyn High School in Roslyn Heights was closed on Monday after two students tested positive. Bayport-Blue Point High School in Bayport was closed on Friday after one student tested positive. Islip High School in Islip was closed Monday after one staff member tested positive. Sawmill Intermediate School in Commack was closed Monday after one student tested positive.
Other districts reported cases leading to contact-tracing and quarantining of students and staff, but no closures.
Three Village Central School District has reported cases at three schools. District Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich has released four letters that appear to indicate five people, all from the same class at William Sidney Mount Elementary School in Stony Brook, have contracted the virus. The letters do not indicate whether those infected were students or staff members. Pedisich wrote the class in question is under quarantine.
Shoreham-Wading River High School, in Shoreham, dismissed students early on Friday after two students tested positive for the virus.
In the Farmingdale schools, a student at Woodward Parkway Elementary School in South Farmingdale tested positive, according to a letter from the district.
The Connetquot Central School District has reported five cases in recent days. The positives came from a student at Oakdale-Bohemia Middle School; a staff member at Sycamore Elementary School; a staff member who works at Cherokee Street and Sycamore Avenue elementary schools; and two students at John Pearl Elementary School.
District Superintendent Lynda G. Adams, in a letter Friday, wrote that one of the positive cases "is believed to have stemmed from an off-site social gathering that occurred last weekend, which has subsequently spawned multiple positive cases of COVID-19 across our region."
With Matthew Chayes and Michael Gormley