Brooklyn Boro

Local leaders scrounge for coronavirus clues as de Blasio ceases public early warnings of outbreaks

October 20, 2020 Yoav Gonen, THE CITY

This story was originally published on Oct. 19 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed coronavirus-curbing restrictions in swaths of Brooklyn and Queens nearly two weeks ago, the city’s health department ceased issuing daily public alerts of infection trends in areas experiencing coronavirus flare-ups.

Even as Mayor Bill de Blasio now hints that shutdowns of schools and non-essential businesses in some state-designated zones could go on for weeks more, local officials in other potential trouble spots are still struggling to get reliable information as the neighborhoods — so far — remain immune from crackdowns.

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Take Tottenville, at the southern tip of Staten Island. There, according to an Oct. 13 city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene presentation to local officials, including Borough President James Oddo and Councilmember Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island), more than 3 percent of those tested in ZIP code 10307 between Sept. 26 and Oct. 9 were positive for the virus.

On Friday, Oddo told THE CITY, he got a private update: that past week, 4.1 percent of residents tested in the ZIP code came up COVID-positive.

“I think the more informed the public is, the better,” said Oddo. “If it’s of concern, if it’s of note, if it’s something that maybe hasn’t risen to a certain threshold yet that would necessitate action — but we’re keeping an eye on it — the more people that know about it the better.”

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. Photo: New York City Department of Transportation.

But the warning signal hasn’t surfaced in the mayor’s four-day-a-week virus updates to the news media and public.

That’s even though his top pandemic adviser, Dr. Jay Varma, told the City Council on Friday that a positive test rate above 3 percent serves as a “trigger” for stepped up testing, outreach and enforcement — potentially leading to shutdowns if infections don’t slow.

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The mayor requested shutdowns in three zip codes in and around Kew Gardens, Queens, starting earlier this month after their positive-test rates surpassed that 3 percent mark.

Dr. Jay Varma speaks at a City Hall news, Oct. 4, 2020. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
For several days before that, de Blasio publicly highlighted as “areas of concern” a total of nearly two dozen ZIP codes where COVID rates were moving in the wrong direction, and urged residents there to be vigilant and get tested.

The local information drought since the governor stepped in with a system of red, orange and yellow zones is making it harder to do exactly what the mayor is pleading for, say community leaders.

“If we want to convince the community to live by the science, to adhere to rules grounded in science — give them the science,” Oddo said. “Give them the data.”

‘Public Needs to Know’

De Blasio has spoken only generally about how three virus hot spots in Brooklyn and Queens are faring, even after the state instituted school and business closures — along with restrictions on mass and religious gatherings — nearly two weeks ago.

“In the communities most affected, there are still some that are not moving the right direction, but a number of them have either leveled off or started to go, you know, towards better numbers, lower numbers,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Friday.

City Council Health Committee Chair Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) said that as virus risks rise and fall in different neighborhoods and the threat of more area shutdowns looms, getting local information to the public becomes even more important.

“The public needs to know whether their neighborhood is at risk and understand if their hot spot neighborhood is making progress,” said Levine. “The lack of real-time neighborhood-based data is a major impediment to people who are trying to do the right thing.”

Another Councilmember, Vanessa Gibson (D-The Bronx), said she also had received a briefing last Tuesday from health officials about four zip codes of concern. Among them: 10453 in Morris Heights, where the positivity rate reached 2.5 percent, as well as 10452 in nearby Highbridge, where the figure hit 1.9 percent.

She said the city promised to ramp up rapid testing in those neighborhoods, while expanding the hours of operation of other testing sites. “I want an aggressive response, just like all the other neighborhoods are getting, because even though our numbers are low they could still increase rapidly,” said Gibson.

City health officials declined to provide the same data to THE CITY that they had shared with officials in The Bronx and Staten Island.

‘A Political Calculation’

Among the neighborhoods flagged by the city on Sept. 25 as areas of concern were the 11211 and 11249 ZIP codes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which the health department tracks as a single unit.

Like some other Brooklyn areas hit with an increase in infections, the neighborhood has a large Orthodox Jewish community with significant pockets of resistance to government restrictions.

For 11 days, health officials provided daily stats showing the area moving from a 14-day average COVID positive-test rate of 1.55 percent to a 2.25 percent positivity rate on Oct. 6 — levels high enough to put it on a “Tier 2” watch list designated by the city.

But when Cuomo instituted his color-coded map of hot spot areas, the neighborhood fell into a yellow zone — where the only mandate remains weekly virus testing at schools.

Social distancing markers were created in Williamsburg’s Domino Park. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Since then, that early-warning system has all but disappeared, leaving only a four-week average disclosed by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The most recent data, covering the period from Sept. 13 through Oct. 10, showed a 2.26 percent positivity rate for the Williamsburg ZIP codes.

Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes portions of 11211, says his request for more recent and hyperlocal data has fallen on deaf ears.

“At this point, I’ve requested both from the governor and from the mayor the positivity rates — because I’m in a yellow zone or a Tier 2 zone. I’ve gotten no updates from anyone,” said Reynoso. “What I believe is happening is they’re taking a political calculation, not a health one, at this point with the information.”

‘A Few More Weeks’

The mayor and governor are well aware just how sensitive even the potential threat of area shutdowns can be.

After Cuomo announced the new restrictions on businesses and mass gatherings in red and orange zones for a minimum of two weeks starting Oct. 7, groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Borough Park responded with days of protests.

On Monday, de Blasio suggested for the first time that the southern Brooklyn red zone centered near Borough Park is suffering from a shortage of residents getting tested. The health department declined to provide current testing numbers when THE CITY asked for them Friday.

‘The state determined a different approach,’ de Blasio said.

Fewer than 6,000 out of every 100,000 residents in the two ZIP codes encompassing Borough Park have been tested at some point in the last four weeks, publicly released data shows — less than half the share tested in many neighborhoods to the north.

The mayor said on Monday that the city is no longer providing ZIP code-level virus numbers to avoid “confusion” now that the state has stepped in with its color-coded system.

“The state determined a different approach that certainly made it important to be careful about the information we put out, so it doesn’t create confusion, and it doesn’t create a situation where there’s two different interpretations going on publicly that make it hard for people to know where to go,” de Blasio told reporters Monday.

“I do not want to put out information that then causes you and everyone to constantly be further confused by the differences of the information.”

At the same time, he hinted that some current zone shutdowns would continue beyond the initial two weeks prescribed by Cuomo early this month. “I think it’s going to be a few more weeks in most areas,” de Blasio said.

‘We Can Adjust’

On Monday, the state for the first time separately reported positive-test rates for the two red-restricted areas in Queens — one centered around Far Rockaway, in addition to the Kew Gardens zone. The results had previously been combined into one data point for red zones in Queens.

The data showed all three zones headed in the right direction, with weekly data showing the Brooklyn red zone dropping from a positivity rate of 6.69 percent to 5.29 percent; the Kew Gardens zone dropping from 3.82 percent to 2.58 percent; and the Far Rockaway zone dropping from 2.33 percent to 2.08 percent.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

During a phone call with reporters on Monday, Cuomo said he expected the boundaries of the zones to be altered Wednesday — even as he acknowledged that criteria for easing restrictions are still being set for each community.

“We can adjust the zones. You can make them bigger, you can make them smaller,” said Cuomo. “And I do anticipate changes to the zones.”

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