ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and officials on New York’s coronavirus task force imposed new social distancing and mass gathering restrictions within geographic boundaries of state virus hotspots Tuesday as new infections continue to surge downstate and in pockets of Western New York.
Stricter social distancing, maximum capacity and mass gathering rules will apply to geographic areas surrounding COVID clusters throughout the state as the pandemic continues.
“We have a COVID cluster problem,” Cuomo said Tuesday afternoon during a coronavirus briefing in the state Capitol. “The cluster problem is serious, because a cluster problem can grow ... What’s our strategy? Crush the cluster and stop the spread.”
COVID-19 clusters, or pockets with a high density of cases, have a ripple effect as the virus contagion spreads through a community. The governor compared a spreading cluster to waves, or the concentric circles created after dropping an object into water.
Officials in the state’s coronavirus task force have focused thousands of daily COVID-19 rapid tests over the last 10 days to tackle new infections and prevent a second wave across New York after rising numbers in 20 hotspot ZIP codes tied to virus clusters in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, Orange and Rockland counties in the Mid-Hudson Region, Western New York and multiple colleges and universities across upstate.
Mass gatherings are prohibited and nonessential businesses will be closed in a 1-mile area of the hotspot ZIP codes under a “red advisory.”
Dining is closed to takeout only and schools will transition and operate under remote learning. The state will require houses of worship in red zones to operate with 10 people maximum or 25% capacity in the 1-mile radius. Local governments must enforce the new rules by Friday.
The stricter regulations will be in effect in an area for a minimum of 14 days, or one virus incubation period.
“Then we’ll see where we are on the numbers and we’ll adjust from there,” Cuomo said.
State officials label COVID clusters by geographic proximity to addresses with confirmed coronavirus cases.
“This is a last resort ... this was a last resort,” said Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, adding officials persist in telling Cuomo’s top aides they will get local enforcement under control, meanwhile, photos of large social and religious gatherings continue to appear on social media.
The virus spreads most rapidly following large gatherings. Dozens of clusters throughout New York have been tied to groups of college or university students, factory and farm workers, groups in bars or restaurants, religious services or private parties.
Separate rules apply in the yellow caution area, or 1.5 miles outside the hotspot. Schools remain closed or limited to remote learning with 25 maximum worshipers in a house of worship, gatherings limited to 10 attendees, and high-risk, nonessential businesses, such as gyms, will be closed.
“It’s (about) the area around the cluster and then, as a precautionary measure, the area around that,” the governor said. “That’s how you attack a cluster: The most intense action on the cluster itself and then precautionary action as you pull back.”
Houses of worship are limited to 50% capacity with gatherings capped at 25 people under a yellow advisory, or the 1-mile area beyond the 1.5-mile orange zone outside a COVID hotspot. Nonessential businesses will remain open in the yellow zone, with indoor and outdoor dining limited to four people per table. Schools may continue in-person learning, but must conduct weekly tests of on-site students, teachers and staff. The state Department of Health will set a required testing sample percentage threshold by Friday.
“I am more and more concerned about schools the more experience we have,” Cuomo said. “The more we get into this, the more important I think it is that schools do random testing.”
The New York State United Teachers union is in favor of the state’s plan.
“Erring on the side of caution means closing school buildings when there is serious risk of spreading COVID-19, and we believe the state is taking the right steps by seeking to close schools in these hotspots,” according to a Tuesday statement from NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
Local governments must assign police to the state’s enforcement task force after months of the governor pleading for officials to enforce his coronavirus orders requiring New Yorkers to remain six feet from others and wear face masks.
“There’s no one who can say they didn’t see this coming,” Cuomo said. “We can sit here all day long and come up with laws and rules. They’re only as good as their enforcement. A lack of enforcement has contributed to this problem.”
The state’s enforcement effort includes hundreds of state troopers and State Liquor Authority investigators ensuring localities and establishments are following the mandates. New York City is required to commit 400 police officers to the effort for the five boroughs.
Cuomo informed religious leaders in all houses of worship in the state about the special cluster initiative Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, he increased individual fines to $15,000 for sponsors of mass gatherings.
“We do it because we’re effective, that’s why,” Cuomo said of the new rules Tuesday.
The state reported a 1.2% positive coronavirus infection rate Tuesday, with an average 5.5% positivity rate in the 20 hotspot ZIP codes. Nine New Yorkers died from the virus Monday, up from eight the day before.