Orange County has ordered all schools in the Village of Kiryas Joel and Town of Palm to shut down immediately for at least two weeks.
Monday’s order from the Orange County Health Commissioner Dr. Irina Gelman came after the 10950 zip code tested positive at the highest rate in the state, topping out at 27.6 percent averaged over three days. The shutdown comes in the midst of a statewide clamp-down on COVID clusters that includes closing nearly 100 schools in New York City as well.
At a press conference in front of the Orange County Government Center on Tuesday, Gelman said that each of the schools in the affected area had at least 12 positive cases.
For schools to reopen, the municipality must test positive at a rate below nine percent, averaged over a week, according to the order. Students who live in the affected areas are not allowed to be bused to schools in other communities, either.
‘A surgical shutdown’
County Executive Steve Neuhaus described the approach as “a surgical shutdown” that would target specific municipalities instead of an entire zip code, in his daily COVID video briefing on Monday.
“If Monroe-Woodbury has, for example, a very minimal amount of positive cases if any positive cases at all, should we have to shut down the school district? No,” he said. “I wanted to make that clear for you because a lot of people are starting to panic. But again, if numbers start to go up we might have to head down that road.”
In addition to the Hasidic Jewish community at the center of the COVID cluster, “we’re also seeing the impact on the Latino community, many of whom worked in Palm Tree and again live in these other municipalities,” said Neuhaus. He said viral spread had been most problematic through schools, religious gatherings, public spaces and some businesses.
If schools were to continue operating in defiance of the order, “we would go out in conjunction with the state police,” said Gelman. “I understand there’s a component of enforcement,” she said, in response to repeated questions from reporters about what would be done to clamp down on events like large weddings or schools continuing illegally. “But at the end of the day there has to be buy-in.”
‘The number one priority’
Joel Petlin, superintendent of Kiryas Joel Public School District, issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon:
“The health and safety of our students and staff are the number one priority of the Kiryas Joel community. We have been following strict protocols for health screening and masking at the public school and we will continue to do so upon our return. There is no substitute for in-person instruction and therapy and we look forward to getting back as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
There are approximately 20 private schools affected by the Health Department order. The number of students could not be learned. According to U.S. Census information from July 2019, the population of Kiryas Joel totaled 26,813. The number of people under the age of 18 was 61.1 percent, or more than 16,380 young people.
A different cultural identity
Gelman emphasizes that we are all suffering from pandemic fatigue. She’s seen a loosening up on compliance across the county, from Warwick to Middletown. Still, there is no getting around the fact that in the Hasidic community, where a difference in cultural identity runs deep, securing buy-in is proving to be a particular challenge.
Ben Friedman, 54, who lives in Kiryas Joel, estimates that his community is split about 50-50 when it comes to mask-wearing.
He was protesting masking and social distancing on the street with his brother this spring, by which point both men had already suffered through bouts with COVID-19. Friedman’s illness lasted about three weeks, he said.
“We took hot baths, drank a lot of water and we got through,” he said. “Only the old way you get from your grandmother.”
His community pretty much adhered to masking and distancing rules for the first couple of months, he said. Then in late May, after President Trump ordered governors to reopen houses of worship, “they got loose on it,” he said.
Friedman said he knows many people who have died of the virus, said Friedman.
“It’s not denying how serious COVID-19 is, but for a person who doesn’t have a condition, what I found is they were all able to manage. Even if people did have a condition, if they drank a lot of water, most of them made it,” he said. “The only people I know who died were people who were rushed to the hospital.”
Even if masking did slow the spread by a few months, he said, what have you gained?
“I feel that there’s much more effective ways of people to stay healthy than wear a mask,” he said. “The main thing is the general health, a person needs to be able to fight off infections.”
Poor, large families, small homes
Kiryas Joel is the most densely populated part of the county, with 19,318 people per square mile, according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates. Newburgh, by contrast, has about 7,365 people per square mile. Infection rate followed population density in the first wave of COVID, said Gelman.
“They’re poor, they have very large families, small homes and large synagogues, they’re always bunched in with other people,” said Dr. Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor and leading authority on the contemporary Orthodox Jewish movement. “With something like COVID, the weakest link is always the source of the spread. You could have a family with 12 people and one gets infected. They live all together. They’re not going to go off alone.”
“Within the community, there is high pressure to conform,” said Heilman. Science tends to be looked down in the Orthodox community as “the wisdom of goyim,” he said, and “the important thing is learning what the rabbis tell us. Put that all together and you have a situation where people aren’t likely to respond to information coming from outside sources.”
“They are absolutely convinced that going to the synagogue is what God has commanded of them,” the professor said, “and since this has been a time of going to synagogue that’s how it’s spread.”
Like the measles epidemic that broke out in New York’s Orthodox communities last year, the COVID resurgence is stoking a flare-up in anti-Semitism that had already been spreading, said Heilman, since the election of President Trump.
“People are afraid to be near these ultra-Orthodox Jews, because they’re easy to spot,” Heilman said. “Most Jews don’t stand out, but a man with a beard and black hat and earlocks is a sitting duck.
“I understand where it comes from,” he said, “but it’s one thing to oppose people because of the things that they do, and it’s another thing to oppose them because of the thing that they are.”
Members of the Orthodox community “are absolutely convinced that going to the synagogue is what God has commanded of them, and since this has been a time of going to synagogue that’s how it’s spread.”
- Dr. Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor and leading authority on the contemporary Orthodox Jewish movement