Cuomo cracks down on state’s COVID clusters with closures and upped fines for noncompliance

Andrew Cuomo announcing his new plan for attacking COVID clusters and stabilizing economy in New York City press conference

On Oct. 5, Gov. Cuomo held a live press conference in order to announce New York state’s plans going forward in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the announcement, Cuomo emphasized the importance of increased testing, contact tracing, and enforcement of and compliance with the state’s COVID guidelines, especially amongst the state’s religious communities. Cuomo also spent time talking about the inaccuracy that often comes with associating COVID clusters with ZIP codes, and announced how he plans on making sure that COVID clusters are more precisely identified moving forward.  

Cuomo started off the conference by reviewing the case numbers for the state’s various COVID hotspots. “Our hotspot ZIP codes are where many states are right now,” Cuomo said. 

Statewide, COVID cases are under 1.1 percent when not counting hotspot ZIP codes, but when hotspots are accounted for, the statewide case numbers are at 1.2 percent. While the state has seen a steady decline in COVID case numbers since the beginning of the outbreak in March, over the course of the past few weeks, clusters have began popping back up in certain parts of the state, most notably in ZIP codes in Western New York, Orange County and Broome County, as well as in certain ZIP codes in Queens, Brooklyn and Rockland County.

“One percent is an unbelievably low infection rate, and as we go into the fall, I believe it will be practically unsustainable,” Cuomo said. He cited various concerns that come with the fall season, such as the reopening of schools, the start of flu season and the movement of more people from outdoors to indoors. 

Cuomo said that although schools reopening have led to a steeper increase in positive cases than he had hoped for, he congratulated SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras and the SUNY system at large for doing a good job at keeping case numbers down.

“SUNY’s doing a great job, that’s why Dr. Jim Malatras is here today,” said Cuomo. “If SUNY wasn’t doing a great job, Dr. Jim Malatras would not be here today.”

After stating the facts and putting them into context, Cuomo laid out what his next steps would be to reduce COVID infections in the state’s various hotspots. 

“These hotspots need to be attacked,” Cuomo said. He emphasized that increased testing was the number one way to keep the hotspot numbers down, followed by contact tracing and strict enforcement of the state’s guidelines by the state’s municipalities. 

“Testing in itself doesn’t tell you anything, it just tells you you have a problem. Contact tracing helps you solve the problem,” Cuomo said.

In response to those who have criticized or disregarded the state’s guidelines as draconian or unnecessary, Cuomo quipped back by saying that enforcement is not cruel, but kind, and that “enforcement saves lives.” Cuomo went on to spend a lot of time hammering home that the state’s guidelines are only as good as how they are enforced.

“Any rule is only as good as the enforcement, especially when it’s a rule that people don’t want to follow,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo then went on the attack, aiming his ire at the state’s municipalities, many of whom he claimed have not done a good enough job at enforcing the state’s COVID-related guidelines. He argued that warnings are neither good enough, nor a form of enforcement. To prove his case, he referenced the success of the taskforce he put together in June to punish those businesses who go against the state’s coronavirus guidelines.

“We did over 1,000 violations and you know what? Compliance has been markedly better than it has been,” Cuomo said. “When was the last time any of you wrote a story about bars and restaurants, and about gatherings in front of bars and restaurants?”

Cuomo went on to give a list of common infection sites put in order of priority, with schools being the first priority, religious gatherings being the second, and public spaces and businesses being the third and fourth. The key to negating the virus’s spread in each of these areas, Cuomo claimed, is enforcement.

“My number one concern has always been schools,” Cuomo said. “I said to the parents of this state; I will not allow your child to be sent to any school that I would not send my child. Period.” 

Cuomo stated that in order for COVID numbers to go down in the state’s various hotspots, testing numbers need to go up. He claimed that many of the most afflicted school districts have provided insufficient testing data thus far, making it a hard problem to solve. He announced that there would be a prioritization of testing in schools that are located in hotspot clusters, and also said that schools in hotspot areas would be closed beginning Oct. 6.

Cuomo then went on to address mass gatherings in the religious communities of the state. 

“We know there have been mass gatherings going on in concert with religious institutions in these communities for weeks,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo showed the press photos of mass religious gatherings that have been held the past few weeks, in spite of the guidelines put in place which limit the number of people that can attend any given religious gathering at any given place or time.

Cuomo went on to state that if religious institutions are to remain open, that they must agree to the state’s rules, follow the state’s rules and be an active partner in the enforcement of the rules. He also said that he would be meeting with members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities on Oct. 6 to discuss with them directly his expectations.

“If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we will close the institutions down,” Cuomo said. “I am prepared to do that.”

Lastly, Cuomo talked about how the current system of tracking coronavirus clusters via ZIP code is often misleading. He said that while they are a good template for starting to track clusters, they can be insufficient in instances where neighborhoods inside designated hotspot ZIP codes do not have cases, or in instances where neighborhoods outside of designated hotspot ZIP codes have an abundance of them.

Cuomo advocated for more precise identification of coronavirus clusters, saying that he plans on bringing together a team of epidemiologists and demographers to designate the right areas as clusters, so that the state can more effectively help the most afflicted areas moving forward.

Since the address, Cuomo has got work on creating a plan for attacking the aforementioned COVID clusters, called the Cluster Action Initiative. Working with Dr. Noam Ross of EcoHealth Alliance, Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota and former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, Cuomo has categorized the different clusters by color. 

Clusters that are designated as yellow have the least density of COVID cases, and are referred to as “precautionary zones”. The Cluster Action Initiative states that in yellow clusters, houses of worship can hold gatherings at up to 50 percent capacity and mass gatherings can consist of up to 25 people. Businesses will remain open, and both indoor and outdoor dining will be allowed with the stipulation that tables may only seat as many as four people at a time. Schools in the yellow areas must conduct mandatory testing.

For orange clusters, houses of worship can only hold up to 33 percent of their maximum capacity, with a maximum of 25 people. Mass gatherings can only consist of up to ten people, high-risk non-essential businesses will be closed, such as gyms or spas, and dining may only be outdoors with the stipulation that only four people can sit at a table.

For red areas with those most affected by COVID, houses of worship can hold up to 25 percent of their maximum capacity with a 10 person limit, only take-out dining is available, and schools will be closed.

Cuomo announced that he has upped the fine to $15,000 for those who are caught hosting mass gatherings. 

Cuomo said that schools have until Friday to be in accordance with the new guidelines released under the Cluster Action Initiative, and that these guidelines will last for 14 days minimum, and after 14 days, “we’ll adjust from there.”