NYC Jewish Neighborhood Lockdown Sparks Concern

NYC Jewish Neighborhood Lockdown Sparks Concern
The crossroads of Queens Boulevard and 108th Street in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, on Oct. 23, 2020. (Petr Svab/The Epoch Times)
Petr Svab

NEW YORK—The New York City neighborhood of Forest Hills, home to the largest Bukharian Jewish community outside of Israel, was recently designated by local authorities for a strict lockdown, which shuttered schools, gatherings, and businesses deemed “nonessential.”

According to the state, the neighborhood was a center of a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus “cluster.” But data indicates the area wasn’t particularly problematic, compared to some other ZIP codes that faced no restrictions. Locals offered a mix of opinions on the lockdown. Some supported the decision or even suggested going further; others were dismayed.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Forest Hills lockdown on Oct. 6 along with several other areas facing restrictions.

In the central “red” areas of the lockdown, all nonessential businesses, such as clothes shops and bars, were shut down. Restaurants were only allowed to provide takeout service. Schools were shut down and gatherings prohibited. In the surrounding “orange” areas, places such as gyms and beauty parlors remained closed, but retail was allowed to open and restaurants could seat people outdoors. Gatherings were limited to 10 people.

“When you see the cluster, you have to stop it at that point," Cuomo said. "What's our strategy? Crush the cluster and stop the spread.”

But the Forest Hills "red" area only spanned several blocks, leading to a situation in which people looking to buy clothes or eat out could just walk a few more minutes down the street or take one or two subway stops to escape the zone. If the state worried about people unwittingly spreading the virus, the policy seemed to encourage it.

At one point, businesses on one side of Queens Boulevard were ordered to close, but not on the other, according to several people in the area who spoke with The Epoch Times.

“It was ridiculous,” said Sara, a local teacher. She was worried the state would close her school next, since it's on the edge of the lockdown zone.

Another local resident, Ivana, supported the lockdown.

“Absolutely. I agree. I think all schools should be closed. I think everything should be closed until January, February,” she said. “At least we’re safe. What about our grandmothers and mothers and stuff like that? We have to keep everybody safe.”

She did say, however, that she recently went to a dine-in restaurant in New Jersey, effectively dodging the lockdown.

Sara (not her real name) shared the impression that the state is targeting the area because it’s heavily Jewish, and because of the notion that orthodox Jews flout social distancing and mask rules. She acknowledged that in her experience, local orthodox Jews do tend to wear masks less.

After two weeks, the state eased the restrictions, declaring Forest Hills a “yellow” area, where schools and businesses can open, but gatherings are still limited to 25 people.

It’s not clear whether the lockdown had any effect.

Cuomo said the infection numbers have improved, but also acknowledged they were small to begin with.

“They are such small geographic areas and the numbers are so small they can literally be generated by just a couple of events that violated rules,” he said at an Oct. 22 press conference. “So you will see them rise and you will see them fall and that is going to be the way of the world as we know it for the foreseeable future until we get the vaccines.”

In the adjacent neighborhood of Kew Gardens Hills, which was also included in the lockdown, newly detected infections dropped to 8 from 34, according to weekly data by ZIP code released by the city on Oct. 22.

But in Forest Hills, weekly infections rose to 38 from 28.

The data shows that the infection rates fluctuate all the time, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

The state set criteria for moving neighborhoods in and out of the red, orange, and yellow zones, but also noted the authorities can declare the zones regardless of the criteria. The data indicates that a number of neighborhoods would qualify for yellow or even orange designations, but haven’t been declared as such.

The criteria is mainly based on the positivity rate, meaning the percentage of tests that return positive. Cuomo said the zones aren’t based on ZIP codes, census tracts, or “any political metric.” That makes it difficult to fact check the decisions, since the authorities can make the positivity rate go up or down by changing the size of the area it’s calculated from.

Questions about the validity of the lockdown sent to Cuomo’s office were answered by the state’s Department of Health (DOH). Its spokeswoman, Jill Montag, referred The Epoch Times to Cuomo’s recent speeches and press releases.

“Also, please note that DOH has not imposed any movement restrictions on people living in red zones,” she added via email. “All people should continue following COVID prevention measures, including wearing a mask and social distancing.”

Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
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