During a briefing on Monday regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke of concerns surrounding large religious gatherings, including those of Jewish communities, and stated that the rules on gatherings must be followed and enforced or “we’ll close the institutions down.” The crackdown resulted in a public protest Tuesday night where Orthodox Jews shouted and created a bonfire in the street.
“We know religious institutions have been a problem. We know mass gatherings are the super spreader events,” he said. “We know there have been mass gatherings going on in concert with religious institutions in these communities for weeks.”
Cuomo said that the violations were significant in that there were many more than 50 people gathered outside, as state guidelines allow, but more like 1,000 people. On the screen adjacent to him, which serves as a PowerPoint presentation to follow along with his talk, appeared photographs of Jews gathered in “the past couple of weeks.”
Cuomo said the photos were merely “emblematic” of the problem.
“What did you think was going to happen?” he asked. “Religious institutions are mass gatherings and raise the greatest potential [for infection transmission]. It’s schools and it’s large mass gatherings.”
“These have been going on for weeks,” Cuomo continued. “You don’t see masks, and you see clear violation of social distancing.”
He said that in order to keep religious institutions open, “the community must agree — whether it’s the Jewish community, whether we’re talking about Black churches, whether we’re talking about Roman Catholic churches — … to the rules, and they have to agree that they are going to follow the rules” and enforce them.
Cuomo advised that he would be meeting with those in the ultra-Orthodox community to have a face-to-face discussion about his concerns.
“This cannot happen again,” he stated. “If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we’ll close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that.”
Cuomo, who identifies as Roman Catholic, provided an example of how he would like to see the rules enforced.
“If the rule is no more than 50% of the people in a Black church, I want someone at that door, [and] when 50% enter the church, a person there says to the pastor, ‘You agree to follow the rules. That’s 50%. That’s it, or we close it down,'” he outlined. “It does not work without enforcement.”
“If I do not have the agreement from the religious community directly as a starting point, then we will close down the religious institutions,” Cuomo said. “If they do agree to do it in partnership, then I want a real enforcement capacity. We’re not going to make the same mistake twice.”
According to reports and video footage posted online, more than 100 consequently gathered in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio limiting religious gatherings in the area to 25% capacity.
Borough Park is reportedly one of a number of New York City communities deemed a “red zone” as coronavirus infection rates have been at 3% for seven days straight.
“Mr. Cuomo, Mr. de Blasio think we’re nobodies. Are we nobodies?” protestor Heshy Tischler called out, according to NBC New York. His question was met with a resounding no.
Chants also broke out in the street of “Jewish lives matter.”
Jews say that they feel like they are being scapegoated for the rise in the infection rate, with four Jewish lawmakers remarking in a statement, “Governor Cuomo’s choice to single out a particular religious group, complete with a slideshow of photos to highlight his point, was outrageous. His language was dangerous and divisive, and left the implication that Orthodox Jews alone are responsible for rising COVID cases in New York State.”
One group took to Twitter to show that one of the photos used in Cuomo’s PowerPoint, created by his staff, was not recent but from the 2006 funeral of the then-Satmar Grand Rebbe.