15% of Virus Tests Are Positive, and Few Wear Masks in One Orthodox Suburb


PALM TREE, N.Y. — In this town of 26,000 residents, where life revolves around family, religious services and prayer, the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive is at least 15 percent, among the highest in New York. There are more than 200 active cases, enough to place this Orthodox Jewish community northwest of New York City into a state-ordered “red zone” with strict new restrictions on synagogue capacity and public gatherings.

And yet on Wednesday, as men and boys streamed out of prayer services at Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar for the holiday of Sukkot, the vast majority were not wearing face masks.

Dina Aker, 67, walked by the synagogue, also not wearing a mask. Her husband, 73, had caught the coronavirus in May, despite, according to Mrs. Aker, being mainly confined to their home. That left her feeling that there was no utility to masks, and that new lockdown measures would serve to only prolong the spread of the disease.

“It’s better that everybody should have it and the thing is finished,” Mrs. Aker said. “I pray every day, ‘Please, my lovely God, make it finish.’”

The peaceful scenes during Sukkot, where families gather in open-air, leaf-covered booths in a celebration of the fall harvest, were interrupted only by a loudspeaker atop a green-and-white town police car parked in front of a shopping center on Forest Road; a recording in both Yiddish and English warned there was a spike in coronavirus cases in the area and stated the importance of wearing a mask.

A police officer stood near the car handing out disposable masks.

The uptick in the ultra-Orthodox enclaves north of the city has been driven, among many other factors, by distrust of scientific messaging and secular authority, a dedication to communal life, dense living conditions, and fatalism about the virus brought by a traumatic spring of death and sickness, public health officials and experts say.

The test positivity rates and the case rates in these communities are higher than those in the hot spots of Brooklyn and Queens, although state officials are equally alarmed about the recent outbreaks in New York City. (Many health experts believe that positivity rates are often an indicator that more testing is necessary.)

The infections in the region’s ultra-Orthodox communities — specifically in Rockland and Orange counties in New York, and in Lakewood in central New Jersey — may be related; these areas are tightly interconnected, and grew out of an expansion of New York City’s Orthodox Jewish communities. Residents often travel from one place to another for religious celebrations and gatherings, or to visit family.

Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert, the Rockland County health commissioner, said it had been difficult to determine the source of many of the infections, in part because residents in these communities have not fully cooperated with contact tracers. But the interconnectivity among the communities appears to have played a part.

Gatherings had been taking place where attendees were not wearing masks or socially distancing, she said. Many infections now, she added, were spreading within immediate households because of difficulties isolating and confusion about the need to so.

“It is very concerning,” she said. “Our cases have increased tremendously in the last two weeks.” About masks and social distancing, she added, “I still see evidence that there is more compliance needed, so that needs to continue to be addressed.”

As of Wednesday, the 1,155 active virus cases in just two ZIP codes — in Spring Valley and Monsey, which both have large ultra-Orthodox populations — represented three-quarters of the cases in Rockland County.

In Orange County, the health commissioner ordered schools closed in Palm Tree, where the positivity rate has soared in recent days to as high as 28 percent. In Lakewood, which is home to one of the world’s largest Orthodox yeshivas, the positivity rate has reached 27 percent, the highest in the state.

There has been anger in the suburban religious communities north of the city over how Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo communicated new restrictions — which include in the red zones a limit of 10 people in a house of worship and the closing of all schools for at least two weeks. But unlike in Brooklyn, there have not been public protests.

The state’s regulations were scheduled to begin on Friday, although a lawsuit filed on Thursday by Agudath Israel, an Orthodox umbrella organization, seeks to stop the strict limit on synagogue attendance.

In a conference call early this week with community leaders just before the new restrictions were announced, the governor did not reveal his plan to reduce capacity at synagogues to 10, four Orthodox elected officials wrote in an open letter. They felt blindsided.

“Cuomo said that this was done in collaboration with Orthodox Jewish communities’ leaders,” Aron B. Wieder, a Rockland County legislator, said in a Yiddish in a video that was posted on Twitter and had been viewed more than 61,000 times. “This is an utter lie.”

Mr. Wieder, who is Hasidic, urged people to wear masks, not because the governor said so, but to protect themselves and their community. Other leaders said they also hoped community members would follow the rules, even as they feared that the governor’s actions made their task more difficult.

“When the trust is gone,” Mr. Wieder said in an interview, “it is a very toxic concoction of making things worse, and I am afraid that that’s where we are right now.”

Those leaders worried the new rules would be rejected as impractical and would not be followed. A synagogue with a 1,000-seat capacity in the red zone, for example, can barely host a minyan, the 10 men needed for a traditional prayer service. But a few blocks away, a tiny synagogue, if it falls into a zone of lesser restriction, can potentially seat 25 or more.

“Years of trust and bridge building was just wiped out by the stroke of a gubernatorial pen,” said Rabbi Yisroel Kahan, the executive director of the Oizrim Jewish Council, a Jewish outreach group in Monsey.

The Cuomo administration said they had deferred to epidemiologists, after its call with the community, to implement those tighter restrictions.

The suburban areas affected by the new restrictions included some of the poorest communities in the country. The Satmar Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, in Palm Tree, is a densely populated enclave with a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent, census data shows. About 60 percent of the population is under 18, and large families often live in small homes and apartments.

About 30 minutes to the south, the red zone in Rockland County includes the Hasidic village of New Square, an enclave of Squarer Hasidim, which has an estimated poverty rate of more than 60 percent. The red zone also includes parts of Monsey, a hamlet with a diverse mix of Orthodox Jewish sects and synagogues that came to national attention last December when a rabbi was fatally stabbed at a Hanukkah party there.

Rockland and Orange County leaders said their personnel were receiving training from the state on how to enforce the regulations, which would also close all nonessential businesses for a minimum of two weeks.

Just over a year ago, ultra-Orthodox communities in Rockland and Orange counties, as well as in Brooklyn, experienced a measles outbreak driven by misinformation about vaccine safety and low rates of vaccination. With education efforts by health authorities and school closings by county officials, vaccination rates rose and the outbreak ended.

Similarly, the communities have been susceptible to misinformation about the coronavirus. Many residents believed that their towns had suffered so much in the spring that they had reached herd immunity, a claim rejected by public health officials.

“People were saying, I haven’t changed my lifestyle, day care is open, school is open, nothing changed,” Rabbi Kahan said. “This leads people to not believe it until they see it.”

Over the last few weeks, assumptions have been upended, and some behavior has begun to change, health and town officials said. Mask-wearing has become more common, if still not enough. Some synagogues have posted signs advising high-risk people not to enter and set up outdoor tents for prayer. Town officials in Palm Tree and nearby Monroe have been distributing masks and making announcements about the virus in Yiddish, which they say has led to more compliance.

But Mr. Cuomo ordered the much more stringent measures as the positivity rate continued to rise.

Community leaders said that despite the anger about the new restrictions, they hoped that enough would change to stem the frightening increase. Joshua Hans, the Rockland County coordinator of Hatzoloh, the Jewish ambulance corps, says that since late last month, the number of Covid-related calls has continued to rise. There are now about 60 calls to the service a day, he said, double what there normally are, “and that is directly attributable to Covid.”

“The last time we’ve seen these call numbers was mid-April,” he said. “It is really bringing us back.”

Jesse McKinley contributed reporting.





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