What Happens When a Virus Crackdown Cuts Right Through a Neighborhood

At the Rego Center, a small mall in Queens, handwritten signs that were common during the early days of the pandemic have once again started to pop up: “We’re closed! Estamos cerrados!”

But a short walk away, at the Queens Center, shoppers carrying heavy bags busily maneuvered through the four-story mall. Diners ate at a first-floor Shake Shack.

The only difference was that the two malls were on opposite sides of a line on a map, hastily drawn last week by the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, that separated areas of Brooklyn and Queens where coronavirus cases have been dangerously spiking — red zones, he called them — from neighboring areas that had lesser risk.

Over the span of a few days, New York City has undergone a striking reversal of fortune. On the first day of October, restaurants had just reopened for indoor dining, subway ridership hit its highest level since the pandemic began and Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the start of in-person public school, the only big-city mayor to even attempt such a feat.

“We did it. You did it. New York City did it,” the mayor declared. “This is a key moment in our rebirth.”

But now, New York enters a precarious stage as city and state leaders try something novel for an American city during the pandemic: simultaneously allowing reopenings in some neighborhoods while ordering businesses and schools to close in others.

No other state has tried such a granular approach to rising cases, public health experts said, opting instead for closures at the county or state level. New York State’s plan cuts through city neighborhoods, ZIP codes and, in some cases, even streets.

State and city officials hope this approach will prevent the need for any new citywide lockdowns, which could further devastate the local economy.

Mr. de Blasio has warned that new shutdowns loom as more than 500 people test positive each day, and the number of New Yorkers hospitalized hit its highest level since the start of the summer, with the percentage of positive tests rising since last month.

The state and city initially blamed the uptick on a lack of compliance with masking and social distancing rules in Orthodox Jewish communities, centering the closure zones around those areas. But rates have also been rising elsewhere, leading officials to monitor several other parts of the city.

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The restriction plan has left many in the city feeling confused and divided.

“I wish I was one block away,” said George Rakitzis, 60, seated in a booth at the Silver Spoon, a diner he owns that is between the Queens Center and the Rego Center.

ImageGeorge Rakitzis, owner of the Silver Spoon Diner in Elmhurst, Queens, on Thursday. Mr. Rakitzis had to stop indoor dining because his restaurant was in one of the trouble zones.
Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

He had readied his dining room for indoor eating — more staff, high plastic barriers between tables — only to be forced to stop serving inside because the restaurant was in one of the trouble zones. He pointed to his printout of the state’s restriction guideline map, which showed his diner’s location as a dot near the edge of “orange,” the second-most hazardous zone.

The city currently sits on a precipice, with both futures visible in different neighborhoods. If the recent upticks in Brooklyn and Queens can be controlled, confidence may return and reopenings would go forward. If they cannot be, shutdowns could become more widespread.

Already, the rising numbers have caused ripple effects. Subway ridership, which hit a pandemic-era peak of 1.82 million on Oct. 1, has not reached that level again since. Pedestrian activity in Midtown Manhattan was increasing through late September, but the numbers have been tapering, according to local counts.

“Our goal is to get everybody healthy and safe and then back to real life,” said Alfred C. Cerullo III, the president of the Grand Central Partnership, a business improvement district. “Anything that slows that or creates a shock to the system is not only unfortunate but it’s scary for the long term.”

The new closures added strain to struggling small businesses. They have also taxed an already resource-starved city government, which barely had enough people to check every school before students returned last week and lacked the state-ordered number of inspectors for restaurants when indoor dining resumed.

The dividing lines can be stark between Lockdown City and the rest of New York.

In Forest Hills, Queens, parents protested the impending closure of a public school in an area where cases have been rising, while in nearby Corona, students attended class in person, quietly lining up each morning in six-foot intervals.

Restaurants in huge swaths of southern Brooklyn, site of the largest cluster of new cases, have been forced to return to takeout only, while in Manhattan, diners are still able to eat indoors, for the first time since March. In some cases, separate sides of the same street have different rules.

In the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, Lenox Romeo, 58, struggled just to understand why he was being ordered to shut his barbershop on Nostrand Avenue, which he’s owned for three decades, even after creating a website to take online bookings instead of his usual informal walk-ins.

His shop is in an “orange” zone, where most retail stores are allowed to open but nail salons, barbershops, gyms and other such personal care businesses — as well as schools — must temporarily close for at least 14 days.

“We thought, we meet the requirements so we should be good,” he said. “Why are we closing? We’re doing everything we’re supposed to do. The issue is not coming from here.”

Several blocks away in a “red” zone of Midwood, where only essential businesses may operate, a hair salon lamented its situation: “We are sad to announce that we will be closed for the next two weeks because of our zone,” read a sign on the closed door.

But inside at least two chairs could be seen occupied by people draped in black haircutting gowns, in apparent violation of the rules. A woman who came to the door declined to answer questions.

At the Queens Center Mall, located in an orange zone, restaurants were meant to return to only outdoor service. But at the Shake Shack, indoor dining continued. A manager said no city or state officials had visited.

Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Even in the parts of the city that remain fully open, anxiety is growing. Business owners, parents and religious leaders have had to become amateur epidemiologists as they attempt to plan for the future.

“Day by day, we’re watching the positivity rate,” said Carlos Suarez, the owner of three Manhattan restaurants that opened for indoor dining last week. “If I had a restaurant in Brooklyn, I’d be a lot more concerned.”

Public health experts were encouraged by the data-driven focus on “hot spot” areas — “I like the microtargeting,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health — but warned that all of New York City remained vulnerable to the pandemic.

“They’re still part of a huge, tightly packed metropolis. It’s impossible to wall off a community,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University.

The surge in cases in Brooklyn and Queens amplified questions about the city’s ability to keep new infections from spreading. Even before the rise in cases in nine ZIP codes in Brooklyn and Queens, many experts expected an increase because of cooling weather, more indoor activity and a growing complacency about pandemic restrictions.

Mr. Cuomo has chided Mr. de Blasio for not doing enough to enforce the existing rules, especially in Orthodox Jewish communities. “The question now is enforcement,” Mr. Cuomo said on Wednesday. The governor said the state would withhold funds from the city and other localities if they did not enforce gathering limits and school closures.

The mayor has announced that the Police Department and officers from other city agencies would help monitor mask compliance in “hot spot” areas and that the city had begun a crackdown on noncompliant businesses and houses of worship.

At the same time, it is not clear that precautions are being followed in the areas of the city not under new restrictions. In Murray Hill in Manhattan on a recent Sunday, football fans crowded around televisions mounted outside bars. In Jackson Heights, Queens, restaurant owners hardened their outdoor patios into structures with walls that, according to city guidelines, would require them to follow the rules of indoor dining.

Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

City and state officials have expressed confidence that new enforcement measures along with expanded testing and a large corps of contact tracers would allow New York City to contain the spread and avoid the fate of European cities that appeared to have controlled the virus only to return to lockdowns as it spread again. That is, if New Yorkers continue to follow the pandemic rules.

Inside the city’s Health Department, some officials have counseled broader action, but for the moment Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio are watching to see if two weeks of localized closures will be enough.

Some elected officials, like Mark Levine, the chair of the City Council’s health committee, have already begun to urge more — halting or even reversing reopening citywide.

“I can’t remember the last time government officials told people to work from home if they can,” he said. “But that should be the message.”

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