The ongoing dispute between Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over which of them gets to dictate when businesses, schools and houses of worship may open, and at what capacity, came to the forefront again this week, this time over the new coronavirus cluster closures.
De Blasio on Thursday reported a rapid increase in COVID-19 testing in the areas that have seen a cluster of rising cases, including much of central Queens and Far Rockaway, and a leveling off of new infections. That raises the possibility of relaxing new restrictions that closed some schools, left churches and synagogues meant to seat hundreds only able to have 10 or 25 people in at a time, and either shuttered or severely restricted some businesses but not others of the same kind, in some cases right across the street from each other.
De Blasio said officials could know as soon as Sunday whether it might be feasible to lift the new regulations soon, in response to a question from NBC’s Andrew Siff during a virtual press conference.
“Andrew, we're not there yet to know the final answer,” the mayor said. “I told you by the end of this week — and that means to me, Sunday — that we will have a good picture of whether we're in striking range of pulling off the restrictions next week, or whether we need more time.
“I can tell you the obvious, leveling off as the first step in the right direction. The first thing we all had to do was stop the growth of the virus, stop the increase in the infection rate and, you know, start to turn it around. That is clearly happening, but there's more to do. There's more to do. So, good start, a lot more to do.
“People have to get tested. They have to follow these rules. And then at the end of this week, we'll have a better picture of what next week will look like.”
Cuomo, reiterating the position he has taken many times in disputes with de Blasio during the coronavirus crisis, then said in an interview that the power to decide when to lift the restrictions lies with him, not the mayor.
"It is too early to tell, and so we stop playing this game where local officials speak about something that they have no authority over and then confuse people," Cuomo said. "It's a total state decision."
On Monday the governor said he would announce changes to the zones affected by the new restrictions this Wednesday, the Daily News reported.
The new restrictions were imposed last week on sections of Queens and Brooklyn as well as some areas upstate, in response to a surge in cases mostly reported in areas with large Orthodox Jewish communities. The regime labels hot spots with rising infections as red zones, surrounding areas as orange zones and spaces around those as yellow zones. The strictness of the new rules is strongest in the red zones and then weakens from orange to yellow. Churches, synagogues and mosques, for example, may only allow 10 people in at a time in the red zones but 25 in the orange ones, and up to 50 percent of their regular maximum capacity in the yellow areas. Schools are closed for in-person learning in the red and orange zones but not the yellow ones.
Cuomo last Wednesday had threatened to withhold state funding from any schools operating in violation of the new restrictions, specifically citing yeshivas, as well as the local governments in whose jurisdictions they sit, including the city.
“We are taking three actions today,” he said during his virtual press event. “Number one, we are sending a notification to local governments saying they must enforce public health law under Section 16, enforcing the public health law especially in the red zones. Especially when it comes to closing schools and religious gatherings. If the local government does not effectively enforce the law, we will withhold funds from the local government.”
The other actions, he said, were to send letters to schools in the red zones warning them they will lose funding if they do not close, and to already withhold monies from those “identified as violating the closure order” while serving them with notices mandating that they shut down.
Asked about the threats to funding, de Blasio dismissed them as “bluster,” saying local government is where the rubber meets the road and that city workers trying to halt a resurgence of the virus deserve respect.
“And I am deeply concerned that there is a threat here of a second wave,” he said. “My job is to stop that second wave, not to play games, not to focus on threats, but the threat we should be worried about is the threat of a second wave of the coronavirus in New York City. That's what all levels of government should be talking about together, together, and not using wordplay, but actually supporting each other to get this work done.”
The mayor also said one problem is that it is not completely clear when an institution is operating as a school and when it is functioning as a child care center. The latter is allowed to be open under the new restrictions.
But Cuomo was having none of that.
“There is a difference, just so you know, between providing child care and operating a school,” he said. “You cannot operate a school and then say, ‘Well, tomorrow I've turned it into a child care center. So, now I'm operating the school, but it's not a school, it's a child care center.’ There's an apple, and there's an orange. There's a school, and there's a child care center.
“A child care center has a separate license, separate regulations, separate age categories, separate operating guidelines. Child care facilities can operate, but they have to be licensed child care facilities and then they have to be inspected to make sure they're following the rules.
“But a school is not a child care facility, and you fool no one by saying, ‘Oh no, they're not walking into a school, they're walking into a child care facility.’ Maybe you can fool some people, but you can't fool the State of New York.”
The new restrictions were imposed for two weeks and are due to expire Wednesday absent further action. A map posted by the city at bit.ly/34BlhHG details where the red, orange and yellow zones lie down to the level of individual buildings and details the rules for any property when an address is entered.
Cuomo and de Blasio have frequently clashed over the imposition of restrictions on society meant to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Several times, de Blasio has proposed a policy and Cuomo has first responded by saying he does not have the authority to do so, and then implementing a rule similar to what the mayor had put forward, sometimes the next day. It happened early in the crisis regarding the closures of businesses and schools, requirements to wear face masks and the decision to keep children home for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year.
It happened again before schools reopened, when de Blasio proposed a blend of in-person and remote learning and Cuomo responded by saying only he could decide whether schools would open at all. Then when the recent surges in cases occurred, de Blasio said he would shut schools in the hot spots, Cuomo said he did not have the authority to do so — and then the governor ordered them closed the next day.
Their mixed messages have at times proved confusing to the public.
“The mayor is saying one thing and then the governor says another,” central Queens Community Board 6 District Manager Frank Gulluscio said after the newest restrictions were announced, adding that people don’t have time to follow all the developments, which seem to constantly be changing. “Everyone was getting back to some kind of schedule and it’s just thrown out the window ... Please have the right hand talk to the left hand.”
This article was updated to include Gov. Cuomo's Monday statement that changes to the cluster zones would be announced Wednesday.