THE RED ZONE: A Roundtable Discussion on the New York COVID Uptick

Clockwise from top right: Assemblyman Eichenstein; Dr. Alan Kadish; Mr. Rosenberg; Councilman Yeger; Hamodia Reporter Rafael Hoffman, Moderator (Dmitriy Kalinin)

The recent uptick in COVID cases in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods in New York City shined a spotlight on the resurgence of the ongoing health crisis. In recent weeks, strict restrictions from city and state officials and some of the reactions to those actions quickly spiraled into a charged standoff between many in the community and the political leadership.

Hamodia, together with Touro College, convened a roundtable to offer different perspectives on some of the multifaceted challenges presently faced and to identify positive ways to move forward.

Participating in the discussion were Dr. Alan Kadish, President of the Touro College & University System and New York Medical College, one of Touro’s medical schools; Simcha Eichenstein, State Assemblyman for much of Boro Park and Flatbush; Yechezkel Rosenberg, longtime Hatzolah member and community activist; and Kalman Yeger, City Councilman for much of Boro Park and Flatbush.

The nature of the most recent COVID outbreak in Jewish communities raises some new questions as to its threat level and whether high rates of antibodies could affect the virus’s trajectory. Dr. Kadish, can you address some of these issues?

Dr. Kadish: COVID-19 has been around for about 10 months, and in that time, tremendous progress has been made in understanding it. But this virus constantly surprises us because it’s a new disease, and we are facing situations we have never before faced. Therefore, making definitive statements assuming that aspects of the virus or its trajectory might have changed is potentially dangerous, because there is too much that we don’t know.

With that introduction, so far it does seem that the current ratio of serious illness compared to the uptick in positive tests has been less than we saw in March and April. But that should not make us ignore it or feel comfortable about it, and I’ll explain why. Firstly, we now know that in January the disease was already circulating in parts of California and New York. However, we did not see a dramatic uptick in deaths until two months later. So it seems clear that the virus can percolate for a while before it begins to pose a serious threat.

Secondly, although it seems the death rate is lower than in the spring, there have been some deaths in our communities. Even one preventable death is one too many halachically, morally and ethically.

There are several potential explanations as to why the death rate is lower. Perhaps it is because antibodies are protecting some people; perhaps many of the vulnerable already contracted the virus; perhaps the elderly, the overweight and those who have other underlying conditions are protecting themselves better. These are all possible reasons as to why the situation is better than it was in March and April, but we’ve been surprised before and we could be surprised again. We have already seen an increase in hospitalizations and in ICU occupancy. Even if one recovers from COVID, some research is showing that there could be risks of heart or neurological damage.

We cannot afford to forget how horrible the initial outbreak was for our community and must recognize that even if it doesn’t seem to be affecting as many people as seriously as it did back in the spring, we still need to be vigilant and figure out how we can best prevent people from ending up in the ICU and from COVID-related deaths.

So I don’t think the basic recommendations really have changed that much, which is wear a mask, stay socially distanced, and try to avoid large gatherings. More people will die if we’re not careful. There’s no justification for ignoring the guidelines, which are widely accepted by the medical community. There’s certainly no justification for burning masks, which have been shown to be life-saving.

We can and should protest what we think are biased and unfair ways that the community has been treated, but that has to be completely separated from the fact that the medical recommendations are solid and for our own good.

And if we do that, I think that we can still improve the situation.

There has been a great deal of negative feeling regarding the restrictions on shuls and the closure of yeshivos, with many viewing them as impositions on religious freedom or even anti-Semitism. Given both the facts of the virus’ continued proliferation in the community with what could be called a weak response, and the limitations the restrictions have placed on Jewish communal life on the other, how do you view this phenomenon?

Assemblyman Eichenstein: I think these are two different issues, and both can be true at the same time.

It is true that there is a lot of resentment to the excessive lockdowns both as they relate to yeshivos and houses of worship as well as to nonessential businesses. And there is also the issue of the statements of public officials in singling out the Jewish community and stoking anti-Semitism.

The Governor of the State of New York went on national television and basically said that the “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish community are the ones who don’t want to follow the rules. That’s a very divisive statement. Now, of course we should wear masks and abide by the rules, but it’s inexcusable for elected official in the United States to speak like that.

In terms of the excessive lockdowns, there’s a good reason why people are upset.

Back in March and April, nearly all our Rebbes and Rabbanim closed their shuls and their schools, something that had never been done in recent memory. Why? Because there was a deadly pandemic and we all understood that we had to do our part to fight it.

Then it came to reopening. After the initial outbreak, the Governor originally put houses of worship in phase four of the reopening plan. At the same time, beaches were opening without any real plan for social distancing. Plans were worked out to allow theaters to operate. They found ways to allow every other aspect of life to go on, but when it came to religion, they told us they do not deem it essential. Now, that might be the state’s prerogative, but for us a house of worship is not only essential, it’s the basis of our entire way of life.

So, when you talk about the distrust in government, it didn’t start now. Starting then, and consistently since, government basically told us, “We are not interested in working with you and gaining an understanding of what is essential to your community and what can be done for its life to go on safely. “

It’s against that background that we look back at what happened last week. The Governor held a call with Jewish Orthodox leaders. I did not participate in the call because all the listeners were placed on mute, and the “conversation” was them listening to the Governor. Had it been a dialogue, even if there would have been disagreements, I would have been happy to participate, but I do not take part in one-sided conversations.

On that call, Governor Cuomo informed the leaders that due to the uptick, he would like to go back to a 50%-capacity limit in houses of worship. I’m sure that there were those on the call who didn’t like it, but we have seen an uptick, and I think the move was generally understood and deemed fair. I would even say that such a move would have been the right thing to do under the circumstances.

But then, hours later, the Governor walked out to the cameras and announced that he’s limiting gatherings at houses of worship to a maximum of 10 people. What that shows is that the Governor and his team don’t care to understand what the facts are here on the ground.

If you claim that this is based on science and facts, how does it make sense to restrict a shul that’s 20,000 feet and one that is 1,000 feet to the same 10-person capacity? He also added that the 10-person limit cannot be exceeded for outdoor worship. We’ve been told all along that outdoor activities are much safer than indoor ones. There was beautiful weather on Simchas Torah, and had he been interested in a conversation, we could have proposed plans to move some services outside. I’m not saying our rabbinical leadership would have gone along with it, but at least it would have been a real dialogue.

What is clear to anybody following the news is that we are caught in a fight between a mayor and a governor who are trying to show which one can wave the bigger stick and come up with more restrictive guidelines. It’s a petty game, and unfortunately our community is now its victim.

Dr. Kadish: I fully agree that the political process on the local, state and federal level has let the community down. People are not working together. They’re not providing a consistent message. They’re being arbitrary, and I think we have every right to demand better from our political leadership.

Demonizing the community is not justified, and it’s also not helpful. What we need is a conversation focused on how we can protect both our community and the community at large. There needs to be a concerted effort to find a rational way to get everybody on board and to allow for our community to function safely.

That said, I want to emphasize that whatever failings we call out in the political leadership do not provide an excuse for saying, “Let’s not follow rules that can save lives.”

Assemblyman Eichenstein: I want to be clear as well that despite my feelings about the Governor and Mayor on this, I fully agree with that sentiment. I and my colleagues representing the community have been urging mask wearing and social distancing, and I will continue to do that. I wear a mask, and I believe that everyone should do so as well. None of what I said is intended as an excuse not to take our responsibility to counter the virus seriously.

Mr. Rosenberg: If we want to discuss things that have fueled the community’s lack of trust in what they are being told by officials, I think there is another important point to discuss.

One of the points mentioned on the Governor’s call was the community’s perception that 50% of people have antibodies, when in reality it’s only 18%. Now, I am not qualified to address what level is needed for herd immunity, but to say that only 18% of the community has antibodies is simply false. We did antibody testing back in May which showed that between 50% and 70% of people had them, and more recent testing showed many areas are closer to 70%.

The city and state getting this wrong shines a light on two problems. First, if you want to say you are basing your decisions on facts, you better get the facts right. Second, of all the thousands of cases Hatzolah has dealt with since the pandemic began, many of which I personally oversaw, we only have one instance of a real reinfection. There were dozens of reports of people who thought they were reinfected, but after further review and contact it turned out that some people never really had COVID in the first place or did not have it now, and each with its own story was basically disproving them to be real cases of reinfection. People who presently have antibodies, which is a very large part of our community, legitimately do not see a need to live their lives with the same restrictions as those who don’t.

Now, I understand that it’s hard to segregate a population that way, but if we do more testing and get a much better picture of the status of our community’s level of antibodies, we can give health advice that is based on real facts.

It would also help us to amplify the health message that we feel needs to get across, which is that for those who do not have antibodies, the present government guidelines are not enough and need to be stronger. I can tell you that in a small shul, even with only 10 people, if someone there has COVID, the virus will spread, and a person who does not have antibodies and is medically vulnerable should not be davening in such a setting.

These people now need to go back to where they were Pesach time, which is not venturing beyond their front porch.

Councilman Yeger: Going back to the original question, I would start by saying that neither I nor anybody here believes that the Mayor or the Governor is anti-Semitic. But what many feel is that they have fed anti-Semitism through their consistent insensitivity to the community.

The Mayor’s Office announced on the first day of Sukkos, when all of the community’s representatives were obviously offline, that he was going to make an announcement the next day. That announcement turned out to be about school closings in our neighborhoods. There was not a word from the administration to any of us in advance, and it was done on a day when we were all unreachable. Why couldn’t they wait one day to have a conversation about what this would look like and to discuss the reasoning behind it? What was the rush?

When I finally did get to discuss the matter with the Mayor, I told him that it’s Sukkos and all the yeshivos are closed for at least 10 days anyway, which he could have found out if he would have taken the time to talk to us.

The same goes for the restrictions on shuls. You want to tell me that it makes sense to have the same capacity restriction for a basement shteibel as for Chaim Berlin’s beis medrash?

People are willing to comply with laws only as far as they can comprehend their purpose. We don’t like to wait at red lights, but we do it because we understand that the other way is green and that society has to work that way. But governance can only go on with the consent of the governed.

It’s not as if our community and its leaders have never responded seriously to the pandemic. I’m constantly reminded of the iconic picture of the Bobover Rav davening alone in his huge beis medrash. Now we all understand that if he wanted to have a minyan for himself, it could have been arranged, but he wanted to send a message as to how seriously this has to be taken. And he was hardly alone: Nearly every Rebbe and Rav across the board sent the same message.

As this recent uptick became more serious, we went to work again. With the help of my colleagues, the Boro Park JCC and several others, we distributed 418,000 masks before Yom Tov. Every community organization from Hatzolah to Misaskim and many others were working in lockstep, and we were beginning to get the message out that this is not over and that we must still take precautions to mitigate the impact of this deadly virus. There was a recognition of that reality, and whether people were responding to the health risks or the threat of another lockdown, the fact was that the behavior was starting to change.

But none of that work was recognized, and most of those successes were lost because Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio decided to turn around and ruin them. That is what has allowed the chaos that we have seen over the last week to ensue.

The community’s decision to move ahead with life more or less as usual during the summer months, when there were virtually no COVID cases, seemed somewhat logical to many given the local facts on the ground at the time. Do you feel that this period created a disconnect between the community and those urging continued caution that then hamstrung an appropriate response once the present uptick began?

Dr. Kadish: I don’t think there’s any question that the fact that the virus was quiet for several months led people to become skeptical and perhaps relax restrictions. It was not only in our community. I happened to have been out west on a business trip, where I drove through Sedona, Arizona, and people there were acting as if the pandemic was a thing of the past. It was a period of quiet, and people were flocking outside in crowds, mostly unmasked.

The COVID restrictions are not easy to deal with for a long period of time and people became sanguine about it. They became comfortable with the situation and started to question why we need to be so careful.

The problem with that attitude when dealing with a disease that we don’t completely understand yet, is that not adhering to health restrictions even when things are quiet has the potential to lead to an uptick resulting in a crisis such as the one we are currently facing.

I think it’s perfectly understandable that people were tired of restrictions and felt comfortable with the fact that the disease had gone away, But it’s a luxury we cannot afford until coronavirus actually does go away. So the reaction we saw was understandable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s desirable or acceptable.

Mr. Rosenberg: When things started to quiet down back at the end of April or May, our communities very slowly and cautiously began to open up on their own. In the first phase, so to speak, we let the young people who had antibodies start going back to shul. Two weeks later, there still wasn’t a single case, so we let even the older people with antibodies begin to attend shul. After four and five weeks went by without a single case, we said, “Okay, we can go back to business.”

This was not just based on looking at Boro Park. I and others working with Hatzolah were in touch on almost a daily basis with Monsey, Monroe, Lakewood, Crown Heights and Williamsburg, so we have a broad base of information in front of us, and we know clearly, there were no new cases popping up.

About six weeks ago, there was awedding that had 16 positive cases tied to it and we started to see cases coming from other sources as well. So, we told the community, “Okay, now unless you have antibodies, we have to go back to where we were before.” That was an extremely hard thing for people to accept after three months of mostly normal life, but that is the reality.

Now, the question that I’ve started getting all the time is, “How is it that Mr. X caught COVID? He was being so careful.” The answer is very simple. The definition of “so careful” today is very different than what it meant in April. In April, it meant staying in your house and not even letting family members visit you. Now, it means going to a smaller minyan and davening in the corner with a mask. That’s better than doing nothing, but unfortunately, it falls short of where we need to be right now.

Do you feel there are other deeper causes to the community’s continued reticence to take serious action to curb the spread even as its realities become ever clearer?

Dr. Kadish: I think that some of the broader national politics certainly play a role, but it’s not anything new that medicine and politics should be intertwined. Why was the polio vaccine developed before vaccines for other deadly diseases? Because Franklin Roosevelt had polio, and towards the end of his life, he and some associates got together and decided to place a focus on developing a polio vaccine.

For us, I think it’s unfortunate that mask-wearing and some other health restrictions designed to save lives have become tied to some of the nation’s political tensions.

I certainly think that a lot of the issues the other speakers here have mentioned have led to skepticism, and the problem with that is not just the distrust and the stoking of anti-Semitism, but that more people are not listening to what is very sound health advice.

So if there is one message that I hope is taken from this conversation, it is that we have to figure out a way to isolate our community’s feelings about the political aspects of this issue and at the same time to embrace the strict measures that are needed to protect people’s lives.

Assemblyman Eichenstein: I appreciate your trying to separate these issues and it is important for individuals to do that and protect themselves regardless of what they think of officials. But unfortunately, they are intertwined.

The city reached out to us in the third week of September to say, “There’s a 5% positivity rate in your community, major uptick, five alarm fire!” Then we were told that really, they started to see this uptick in the first week of August. I don’t doubt it, because you don’t go from zero cases in June to 5% overnight; it ticks up slowly. But I was not out of town for eight weeks. Why didn’t the city speak to us until there was a real crisis? If we had started working on this together in August, we could have done so much more.

It’s government’s responsibility to deal with this in a well thought-out manner and not wait until there’s a serious situation, and then to go from normal life to a lockdown.

Besides the political issues we’ve discussed, do you think there are other causes as to why it’s been difficult to get community’s response up and running in time to beat back this resurgence?

Mr. Rosenberg: I’m having a hard time believing that the widespread laxity with the rules is all about politics. We are frum Jews, and we know how much each life means. What’s driving the regular kollel yungerman or baal habayis who’s not so into politics to disregard the guidelines?

I think people are just becoming complacent. People know that most of us had it already, and for those who had it, for now at least, it seems that they really don’t have to be as careful. It might not stay that way forever, but it hasn’t been proven wrong yet.

Even for those that haven’t had it yet, the feeling among most in their 20s and 30s, and certainly younger is, “If I get it, I’m going to be sick for a week or two, and I’ll come out of it.” And the fact is that for the most part, they’re right.

As I mentioned before, if we were able to focus in on what in our community is a relatively small group of people that are the most vulnerable, everybody would listen. The problem is that we’re just making general statements for everybody that don’t make sense for a large part of the population, and expecting everybody to listen. When you do that, everybody gets lax. But if we could focus in on where the real risks lie, I think we could do a better job.

Do you see practical ways to focus in on the facts in our communities and to respond with solutions that can really work?

Councilman Yeger: One of the things that had been spoken about over the last few months after the lockdowns in March and April was the creation of a robust testing and tracing program. “Robust” is the word used time and again to describe it. The City of New York was going to create a program that would address those who had tested positive with contact tracers who would find them and identify those they had been exposed to and quarantine them.

The whole purpose of this was that we would never again have a mass shutdown, but that we would be able to identify the problems and isolate them. So after a few people got infected at a chasunah, these tracers should have been reaching out to get the guest list and quarantining them for two weeks.

Where is that? Nowhere to be found. We do have people in our community who have received calls from the tracers, but the reality is that we still ended up with the shutdown, and the tracers have not seemed to be able to stem the spread that led us there.

The other thing that needs to be done is increased testing. This would allow those who are testing positive to isolate themselves and for the city to see what our real positivity rates are. If there is a larger pool of people testing, it is likely the rates will be much lower, because now, by and large, it is people who are sick who are getting tested.

I’m not the guy who puts his head in the sand and says, “Nothing to see here, no coronavirus, carry on with your day.” But what I am saying is that we have to know the real metrics before we base policy on it.

Regarding some of the chaos going on in Boro Park, which is definitely not representative of what most people are doing but which has produced some ugly stories that made their way to the general public, do you see ways that the community itself, with its own infrastructure, can do more to take ownership of this and to really do what needs to be done both to beat back both the virus’ resurgence and to work on the PR aspect?

Assemblyman Eichenstein: Regarding the protests that happened over the last week or so, I fully agree that this is not the way to accomplish anything. In fact, it’s counterproductive. All it does is bring the press corps to Boro Park, which is certainly not helpful. The other unfortunate thing these protests did was to take over the entire focus of the press. The discussion is no longer about the substance of the lockdown, it’s all about the protests.

To the other half of your question, yes, we have a responsibility. Of course we do. That’s what the Torah teaches us. We should abide by the rules. That’s why there’s been a push to encourage mask-wearing and social distancing.

Yeshivos not only know they have a responsibility, they’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with plans to open safely. Look at a school like Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway. Their having to close doesn’t show a failure. What it shows you is that they were set up to find positive cases and to respond to it before it turned into a major outbreak.

We have to use our experience and build on it.

Mr. Rosenberg: You mentioned the demonstrations from last week, and I think that nearly all the manhigim and Rabbanim of the community said very clearly not take part in these protests.

In terms of doing more to get the community to respond, it is important to emphasize the health guidelines we all know about, but the fact is that our daily lives are more social than the average secular person, and that makes it much harder to rein in behavior.

Most people in the city get up and go to work and come home, and now they might be working from home in the first place. Every once in a while, they might go to a restaurant or a theater, ball game, whatever. We go to shul to daven three times a day. We have daily shiurim we attend. We usually have multiple simchos we attend every week. That does not absolve us, but it is a different challenge than the rest of society is facing.

Dr. Kadish: We deserve a much better partner. We deserve to be treated better. But we need to try to see if we can get this under control ourselves, regardless of what anyone else does.

The quickest way to get rid of the rules, to reopen the yeshivos, to get back to all the integral parts of frum life, is to say, regardless of the failings that anyone else has, we’re going to act responsibly.

We are the ones who are best suited to make guidelines that are tailored to the needs of the community, but following guidelines will be effective in making the community healthier and will get us back to normal. If we do that, we will take away the excuses of those who are biased against the community and who are using this to target it. I don’t think we should hide behind the failings of others, and by doing so we only hurt ourselves.

Do you see a path to rebuild a positive relationship with our government officials? And what more do you feel needs to be done on the side of the community and its liaisons to build a mature relationship based on mutual respect? Is there a realistic way to do this, especially in the present toxic environment?

Assemblyman Eichenstein: We don’t have much of a choice. We have to come together and we have to work with government. I hope that the Governor and the Mayor understand that what happened last week in Boro Park was a direct result of their actions. That is not an excuse, but it is a reality I hope they grasp.

We need to move on and go back to where we were a few weeks ago when we were working together. We brought all our Rabbanim together. We brought all our yeshivos together. Hatzolah and other organizations and leaders were urging people to wear masks, and we were building on that. Was it perfect? Of course not. There’s no community in the state that has 100% compliance for mask-wearing. Do we need to do more? Absolutely. We have a responsibility to do more, and it’s the right thing to do. You should do it to protect your own health, your neighbors’ health, and you should do it because we are still living in galus, and if the government is asking us to wear a mask, we should listen.

We had the buy-in from our entire rabbinical leadership on a level that I have never seen before. There’s a better way to do it. We know we can do it. We know we could urge people to do the right thing to wear masks and we should do it.

But it also behooves our Governor and Mayor to get beyond their press conferences and sound bites for national news. If we could just pause for a moment and let cooler heads prevail and get back to a place where we were working together and communicating, we could rebuild our relationships.

Dr. Kadish, we opened with you and we will turn to you again for some closing thoughts.

Dr. Kadish: We’re in the midst of a serious crisis. There is what appears to be a growing health crisis. There’s a crisis in our relationship with our political leaders, and the community has a very real public relations crisis.

We can fix this, but we have to work together to do the right thing. We know the health guidelines we should be following. We have a right to protest, but it has to be done peacefully and responsibly. We have a responsibility to do what it takes to get these messages out and to do whatever we can to save lives.

We can do it, but it’s going to take a conscious effort, and it’s going to take hard work and real leadership.