New N.Y.C. Virus Shutdown Brings Confusion, Anger and Lawsuits

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As New York officials on Thursday hurriedly launched a targeted lockdown to stamp out a surge in coronavirus cases, chaos, confusion and tension erupted over restrictions that will close schools and businesses and greatly limit attendance at places of worship.

There were competing hot-spot maps, issued by Mayor Bill de Blasio and then by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, which overlapped and contradicted each other. Schools and businesses that were to be shut down on one map were not on the other.

Two lawsuits were filed on Thursday, one by an Orthodox Jewish group and the other by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, to stop the state from enforcing the governor’s restrictions on houses of worship.

The legal actions came after ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn this week lit masks on fire and attacked an Orthodox reporter who has documented local resistance to social distancing.

And in other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and Windsor Terrace, parents rallied against the sudden closure of schools.

Even as local officials and religious leaders acknowledged the need to take action before the virus outbreak explodes into a full-scale second wave, they bristled at the haphazard way the new restrictions were announced, giving some schools less than a day to shut down after months of working diligently to reopen.

“When elephants fight, the grass suffers,” said Justin Brannan, a councilman whose district encompasses southwestern Brooklyn. “We’re the grass.”

Many of Mr. Brannan’s constituents send their children to Bensonhurst’s Academy of Talented Scholars, a school Mr. de Blasio closed on Tuesday that will remain shuttered, even though it falls outside of Mr. Cuomo’s school closure zones.

Conversely, in Windsor Terrace, students that were to start their third day of in-person learning at Public School 130 on Thursday woke up to the discovery that their school was closed. Though Mr. de Blasio was prepared to let the school open, Mr. Cuomo’s office put the school in an “orange zone,” a nomenclature denoting heightened risk and more stringent restrictions.

Instead of dropping off their children, school parents participated in a news conference to oppose the closing. They questioned the governor’s decision, noting that the school does not have any positive cases and that the neighborhood falls below the city’s statistical benchmark for school closure.

“I feel decisions were made without the best interest for our kids,” said Travis Adkins, 44, who has two children at the school. “Governor Cuomo should make decisions based on facts, not fear.”

The new restrictions also limited houses of worship in the “red zone” to just 10 individuals, a number that coincides with the minimum requirements of a Jewish prayer service.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Brooklyn and Queens, said in court documents that it had abided by all public health regulations and had seen no new virus cases linked to its facilities. Nevertheless, the documents said, the order “effectively orders the diocese’s churches within the ‘red’ and ‘orange’ zones to once again shut their doors.”

“The executive orders this week have left us with no other option than to go to court,” Nicholas DiMarzio, Bishop of Brooklyn, said in a statement. “The state has completely disregarded the fact that our safety protocols have worked and it is an insult to once again penalize all those who have made the safe return to church work.”

The sequence of events leading to the current New York City turmoil is as confusing as the outcome.

On Sunday, citing a worrisome rise in coronavirus cases in certain areas heavily populated by Orthodox Jews, Mr. de Blasio proposed shuttering schools and nonessential businesses in certain neighborhoods and imposing lesser restrictions in other neighborhoods of concern. Mr. de Blasio’s proposal, which he said should go into effect that Wednesday, was contingent on Mr. Cuomo’s approval, which came in fits and starts and with significant modifications.

On Monday, Mr. Cuomo approved the school closures, but accelerated them by a day, giving parents and teachers less time to prepare for all-remote learning. The news had educators like Jennifer Colonna, a kindergarten teacher at Public School 192 in Borough Park, frantically gathering the materials they would need to teach from home.

“I feel like it’s a competition between the two of them, both of them throwing their weight around,” Ms. Colonna said of the governor and mayor.

Mr. Cuomo was less sure about the mayor’s plan to close nonessential businesses. He got hung up on the plan’s reliance on ZIP codes, which provide understandable but imprecise geographic boundaries.

On Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo unveiled his rejiggered plan, relying on his own color-coded maps, featuring red zones for hot spots, orange zones for areas of heightened concern, and yellow zones indicating precautionary areas.

The new maps imposed severe restrictions on houses of worship. And unlike Mr. de Blasio, who danced around the concentration of Orthodox Jews in many of these neighborhoods, Mr. Cuomo openly talked about shutting down synagogues.

“The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, what’s happening there is the rules were never enforced in these communities,” Mr. Cuomo said on Thursday.

City Hall officials were perplexed by the governor’s new maps, and frustrated by their lack of clarity, but thankful that he had agreed to do something, a de Blasio administration official said. But the map files the state had given the city were flawed, two city officials said, with some geographic borders not corresponding to streets, leaving people to guess whether their schools or stores were required to close.

Robert Mujica, the governor’s budget director and a member of his coronavirus task force, said city officials are merely upset that the governor’s office second-guessed them, and that they should have worked with the state earlier in the process.

“Their plan was to put this in place on Wednesday,” Mr. Mujica said. “We, having no info on this until Sunday afternoon, worked around the clock to deal with their timeline and get the maps drawn in a way that actually made sense.”

The city had to do so much back and forth with the state on the boundaries that the searchable maps were not ready to be released until 8 p.m. Wednesday, hours after the city had hoped to release them.

That left businesses scrambling to figure out which zone they were in, and if they had to close shop.

“We’ll see what happens,” said Adam Stepan, a stylist at Estelle Hair Salon in Forest Hills, Queens, which is in an orange zone and will have to close. “Nobody’s reached out to us like they did in March. Maybe you could tell us what’s going on.”

He pointed to one of his colleagues cutting a customer’s hair: “She’s a single mother with two kids and she had to hire a babysitter today. The kids were supposed to be in school.”

In the Kensington section of Brooklyn, parents began ringing the doorbell at Smart Kids R Us, a home day care situated in one of Mr. Cuomo’s orange zones, where schools must close. The business serves essential workers, but space is limited and the demand in the last day from parents desperate to find spots for their children has brought the owner, Carlotta Norton, to tears.

One mother rang her doorbell and begged for a placement. She told Ms. Norton that if she didn’t show up to her job at a grocery store, she would lose it. She said her child was small and wouldn’t take up much space. Ms. Norton had to turn her down.

She expressed frustration at government officials, and at the Orthodox Jews in her neighborhood who she said were protesting the new restrictions.

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, said the zoned system has caused a great deal of consternation and confusion.

She faulted political leaders for failing to develop a more sophisticated shutdown process in the six months or so since New York City first locked down as the virus swept across the city, killing 24,000 residents, destroying innumerable businesses and sending the economy into a tailspin.

“Now that we have protocols in place you would hope that the response would be more nuanced and targeted,” she said.

Joseph Goldstein, Jeffery C. Mays, Sean Piccoli, Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Liam Stack contributed reporting.

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