Orthodox Jews Say They’re Being Targeted by New NYC Lockdowns
A group of Orthodox Jewish men gathered Tuesday evening in Brooklyn, burning masks to protest the newest iteration of New York’s pandemic lockdown. Their anger is reasonable, because the newest lockdown—which disproportionately affects the city’s Jewish community and explicitly targets religious gatherings—is not. It is deeply stupid and unfair, exactly the sort of easily avoidable government overreach that makes even well-intended people doing their best to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 understandably skeptical of public health directives.
At issue is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Cluster Action Initiative,” implemented at the request of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and announced several hours before the fire. The program identifies infection clusters—areas with positive test rates above 3 percent for seven consecutive days—and imposes a graduated system of restrictions until the rate drops.
In the strictest rule set, the “red zone,” schools along with businesses deemed nonessential are closed. In-person dining is banned. Houses of worship are limited to gatherings of 25 percent capacity or 10 people, whichever is smaller, with $15,000 fines for violations. In fact, as Cuomo said Tuesday in a line sure to appear in forthcoming First Amendment litigation, religious gatherings are the main target: “The new rules are most impactful on houses of worship,” he declared. “This virus is not coming from nonessential business.” (Then why, one wonders, are those businesses required to close?)
From there Cuomo pivoted to claiming the support of New York City’s Orthodox Jewish leaders, because in some of these neighborhoods, “houses of worship” basically means synagogues, and “private schools” means Hebrew schools and yeshivas. The lockdown arrived in the middle of Sukkot, a week-long holiday celebrated, as holidays generally are, with gatherings—including gatherings where a minimum of 11 people are needed to guarantee a required quorum.
Cuomo, who is not himself Jewish, tried to buttress his argument by citing Jewish teaching. “The Torah speaks about how certain religious obligations can be excused if you are going to save a life….That’s what this is,” he said. “I felt very good about my conversation with the Orthodox community.”
Suffice it to say the Orthodox community does not feel equally good. A group of rabbis said their conversation with the governor was “a one-way monologue” in which Cuomo never mentioned his strict assembly rule. A statement from four Jewish city council members slammed the “draconian” plan as “a scientifically and constitutionally questionable shutdown” enacted after a “duplicitous bait-and-switch.” Per their account, the governor obtained community buy-in by promising synagogues could operate at 50 percent capacity with no numerical cap. For a synagogue large enough to seat hundreds or thousands, that’s a guideline very far from the 10-person limit ultimately mandated. (And if 25 percent capacity is safe in a small building, it’s surely safe in a large building too.)
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