On Tuesday, one day after Yom Kippur, and three before the start of Sukkot, shoppers vastly outnumbered masks along the central commercial corridor of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Here, in the heart of New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, COVID-19 is surging, with positivity rates spiking to as high as 17 percent on Sunday.
From what was visible along 13th Avenue just north of New Utrecht Avenue, whether at the outdoor stalls selling palm fronds and citrons, or through storefront windows of busy shops, or the dark glass of lumbering yellow yeshiva buses, even those who took some precautions often failed to cover both their mouth and their nose.
That’s not unique to a neighborhood and a community leery of being singled out by authorities for what some allege is a double standard. Virtually any block in the five boroughs has complacent residents months after sirens wailed inescapably across New York, formerly the global epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, and more recently a sort of U.S. pandemic safe harbor.
But with some experts fearing a second COVID-19 wave—or a backsplash of the first—misconceptions about immunity and social distancing have Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox in danger of getting soaked a second time. The surge threatens not just to help unravel local progress in containing the coronavirus pandemic, but to hamstring school reopenings across America’s largest city.
“Most of the community had it already, so we’re not so worried,” 32-year-old Aron Brever told The Daily Beast in Borough Park, his blue mask hanging around his beard. Brever said he, his wife, and his children all tested positive for the disease in March, but experienced little other than a loss of taste and smell.
“We’re careful, but we’re not afraid,” he added.
Public-health experts and government agencies, the embattled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among them, have said that past infection and attendant antibodies may offer only limited—if any—protection, especially six months later.
“Anybody who’s had COVID in the past is probably at a lower risk for about three months,” said Rabbi Aaron Glatt, chairman of the Department of Medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau, before warning, “We really don’t know. And there have been cases where people have gotten COVID a second time.”
“My advice to people is that you can get COVID a second time,” he told The Daily Beast.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a dire warning, citing that one-day 17-percent positivity rate in the 11219 ZIP Code that covers Borough Park. Recent state and local figures also pointed to a spike in ultra-Orthodox communities in other neighborhoods, as well as in such areas north of the city, and in ZIP Codes in southern Brooklyn with substantial non-Jewish populations.
On Tuesday, with the city-wide positivity rate cracking 3 percent—which, over time, could force schools to close—Mayor Bill de Blasio teased new enforcement measures, fines for failing to wear masks among them. Some yeshivas have already been shut down over fear of wider outbreaks as the city attempts to reopen the largest public-school system in the country.
In Borough Park, Tzvi Rosenberg recalled his own experience with COVID-19 symptoms months ago. Then he suggested most members of the community were taking appropriate precautions, and that many had already conquered the plague.
“Most people had it way back,” Rosenberg told The Daily Beast, enjoying a cigarette unmasked a few feet from a similarly unprotected friend. “In the synagogue, on Yom Kippur, it was all social distancing, masks. We’re not wearing right now, because we’re smoking.”
Misperception is common in the neighborhood, according to local activist and podcaster Yosef Rapaport. The deluge of ultra-Orthodox deaths and funeral notices in the early months of the year, he argued, created an impression of ubiquitous and nearly universal infection. When cases fell as New York flattened the curve over the summer, Rapaport—who lost a brother and a brother-in-law to the disease—said many of his neighbors assumed the catastrophe had passed and that they were immune.
Put together mixed messages from de Blasio and Cuomo, the popularity of President Donald Trump among the area’s socially conservative voters, and “crazy clips from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s St. Petersburg basement,” as Rapaport put it, and the area has faced “a perfect storm” of misinformation.
“We’re being buffeted by outside forces,” said the 66-year-old, describing how many in the community believed in the Trump-touted but medically dubious treatment of hydroxychloroquine, and how a friend approached his wife in synagogue and warned her, falsely, that masks cause COVID-19 infection. “People were lulled into a false sense both from the president and from experience.”
Still, Rapaport maintained the situation had improved dramatically in recent days, thanks to the exhortations of local press and political leaders. He admitted many fail to wear their masks properly, but argued that was hardly unique to Borough Park.
“That you see all over town,” he said.
David Schwartz, a 26-year-old local Democratic Party official, agreed. Having himself tested positive for the disease, he complained his community had been scapegoated for what were really institutional failures.
“It’s not a secret that this is more Republican than other parts of the city,” said Schwartz, who reported having quarantined himself for a full two months as the pathogen coursed through his entire family. “If we’re being failed on information, the city needs to step up.”
De Blasio and Cuomo have held meetings with ecclesiastical and elected authorities in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. And some medical experts defended the local government’s efforts at engagement.
“The de Blasio administration was well aware of the issues there, and have had outreach by people recruited from the community to spread the word, and that’s been going on for a long time,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University and an adviser to the mayor. “The mayor and the governor are right to clamp down on any group that is intentionally defying what we need to sustain the public’s health and control this COVID-19 outbreak.”
Redlener warned that those who fail to comply with social distancing and masking rules risk spreading the disease beyond their own neighborhoods, and suggested an even more “forceful” response might be necessary.
On Tuesday, The Daily Beast encountered employees of the city hospital system distributing leaflets at the 55th Street D Train station, which serves the core of Borough Park. They pointed passersby to a free testing center set up on an empty lot a few blocks south and east.
But when The Daily Beast visited, the facility seemed all but empty.
On approaching a station of the Hatzolah of Borough Park, the volunteer ambulance corps that serves the community, The Daily Beast spotted an unmasked man shutting the gate and climbing behind the steering wheel of a van. The vehicle sported an EMS sticker in the window and several other unmasked individuals in the backseats.
“I don’t talk! I don’t talk to nobody!” the driver shouted before speeding away.
Some messaging, however, seems to be getting through, if sporadically: A number of 13th Avenue shops have taken the precaution of putting up a “Please Wear a Mask” sign. Eli Babio, owner of Black Velvet shoes, hastily raised his mouth and nose guard when a reporter from The Daily Beast entered.
“Of course I’m worried. I’m worried for my health,” he said, despite also reporting having experienced the disease once already.
Babio said he stayed home from services during the High Holidays for the first time in his life, and has his kids taking their religious lessons remotely. He even endorsed the mayor’s suggestion that the city may need to again shut down schools, which could be authorities’ fail-safe for COVID-19 enforcement here.
“If he feels it’s scientifically correct, he should do it,” Babio said.