With the threat of targeted lockdowns hanging over Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, community leaders are scrambling to contain the growing rate of COVID infections — and in some cases appear to be taking steps to artificially downplay the severity of transmission.
Residents of Borough Park and Williamsburg received anonymous robocalls this week urging them against getting tested, “as this drives up the numbers,” according to a Yiddish recording shared with Gothamist. On Wednesday, leaders of the Bobov Hasidic dynasty asked congregates who previously had the virus, and are thus less likely to be currently infected, to get swabbed at a neighborhood clinic immediately.
Perhaps most alarmingly, sources in the Orthodox medical community say that some healthcare providers in Borough Park are withholding COVID-19 test results from public health authorities — despite recent advisories from the state and city clarifying that such reporting is legally required.
City Hall officials acknowledged to Gothamist that the underreporting of rapid antigen tests, which are not sent to a lab, remains an ongoing problem. A spokesperson for the state Health Department, Jonah Bruno, said the agency was “looking into the matter.”
“It’s the rise of these new [rapid testing] machines that are all over the place at point of care facilities, where there’s not a history or system of reporting,” said Councilmember Mark Levine, who chairs the City Council’s Health Committee. “It also could be willful at some places.”
A review of the state’s COVID schools report card, which tracks positive cases by school name or district, found that many yeshivas in Borough Park were not reporting any results at all. At some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, teachers have been told to do the school a “favor” and avoid getting tested, even if they’re feeling sick, the Forward reported last week.
The apparent effort to suppress the true infection rate comes as the uptick in COVID cases has now spread to at least ten neighborhoods (or 14 in NYC, according to the state Health Department). Borough Park and Bensonhurst lead all city zip codes with a positive test rate of more than 6 percent. As of last week, they were also among the five least tested neighborhoods per resident of 146 total zip codes in the five boroughs.
A source in Borough Park’s Orthodox community said it was common knowledge that local leaders — including some healthcare providers — were advising residents with COVID symptoms against getting tested in order to drive down the positivity rate.
“There’s no question that they’re trying to game the system,” the person said. “It’s the hospitalizations that they won’t be able to hide.”
A spokesperson for the NYC Health Department said there has been a slight increase in citywide visits to emergency departments for COVID-like illness.
New York’s Orthodox communities were among the hardest hit during the initial months of the pandemic, with Borough Park and Midwood leading Brooklyn in infections.
Amid fears of a possible second wave, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to scale up testing, outreach and compliance inspections in the neighborhoods of concern. The areas, many of which are predominantly Orthodox, could see localized shutdowns of businesses and private schools if rates don’t improve.
“In the absence of our doing the right thing, we will need to be in a lockdown type situation as occurred in Israel because they haven’t been able to control the spread of the virus,” Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of New York City Health and Hospitals, which is managing the contact tracing program, said at a press conference on September 23rd.
To an extent, the efforts seem to be working. During a visit to Borough Park on Wednesday afternoon, the majority of residents were seen wearing masks — a striking departure from the widespread complacency observed just last week. Neighborhood residents largely attributed the shift to recent guidance from their religious leaders.
“All the rabbis in the community said: ‘Let’s follow the rules and we’re not going to get into trouble,'” a barista at Milk Crate, a kosher cafe, told Gothamist. “You don’t want to be the only one wearing a mask when no one else is, you know?” he added. “It’s better this way.”
But while most residents on the street were wearing masks, the majority of those praying inside Borough Park’s best-known synagogue, Shomrei Shabbos, were not. Some observers were seen putting their masks on as they walked out of the building and into the street.
A person who’s attended shul in the neighborhood confided that religious leaders “aren’t enforcing [mask] wearing once the doors are closed. It’s all for show.”
Many residents have also taken exception to the threat of police issuing $50 fines to those who refuse to wear masks.
“I pass the 66th precinct every day, can’t say I’ve seen a cop wearing a mask once,” said an Orthodox man in his 20s, who declined to be named. “If they’re the ones enforcing the rules, at least they should be the following the rules.”
There was no visible NYPD presence along Borough Park’s bustling 13th Avenue on Wednesday. Instead, the city had dispatched dozens of members of the Test & Trace Corps to pass out masks and hand sanitizer.
Darwin John Adeniye, a Test & Trace employee, said he’d conducted outreach in Borough Park multiple times in the last month.
“We were here a couple of weeks ago and we actually had a lot of difficulties giving out masks to people,” said Adeniye, a Pelham resident who volunteers with the group African Communities Together. He’d noticed that more people seemed to be discussing the return of the virus in recent days. “We went out to give face masks [on Wednesday] and the level of acceptance was really high.”