Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups in New York state are suing Governor Andrew Cuomo over new restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, saying the curbs are unconstitutional and “explicitly target” members of the religious community.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in United States District Court, organisations including Agudath Israel of America slammed an executive order Cuomo signed on Tuesday that puts limits on the number of people allowed to gather indoors, including in houses of worship.
The order “singles out and discriminates against all houses of worship – and synagogues in particular – by imposing occupancy and gathering restrictions that make it impossible for Orthodox Jews to comply with both their religious obligations and the Order”, the lawsuit reads.
The plaintiffs – including a handful of synagogues and rabbis – are seeking a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunctions against the state’s restrictions, and a judgement stating the governor’s executive order is unconstitutional and void.
Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, Cuomo signed an executive order that limits indoor gatherings in the most severe “red” COVID-19 infection zones to 10 people, and to 25 people in moderate infection areas.
A spokesman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told the Wall Street Journal that the city would start enforcing the new restrictions on Thursday, and that among other penalties, a mass gathering could incur a maximum fine of $15,000.
“One of the prime places of mass gatherings are houses of worship. I understand it’s a sensitive topic, but that is the truth – period. You want to solve the problem? Acknowledge the problem,” Cuomo said during a news conference Tuesday.
Cuomo said he consulted with ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders before the measures were imposed. “I asked for them to work with me to follow these guidelines and that was positively received,” he told reporters.
“I said to them that I’m doing this for a very simple reason: because I have such respect and love for the Orthodox community.”
However, the new restrictions sparked criticism from many ultra-Orthodox community members, hundreds of whom protested in Borough Park, a neighbourhood of Brooklyn, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
“I understand you need to wear a mask. I understand you social distance. What bothers me is: You pick on the good people,” Brooklyn resident Meir Nimni told the Associated Press news agency on Wednesday.
“Everybody here wants to live, and everybody cares” about stopping the novel coronavirus, Nimni said. But he saw a double standard that’s “just not fair”.
Local and state legislators also slammed the executive order, accusing Cuomo of singling out the ultra-Orthodox community without cause.
“His language was dangerous and divisive, and left the implication that Orthodox Jews alone are responsible for rising COVID cases in New York State,” the legislators wrote in an open letter. “This implication is not born out by the state’s own data.”
The Governor is wrong, and he knows he's wrong.
— Kalman Yeger ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם (@KalmanYeger) October 7, 2020
New York state reported 1,836 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the health department reported. Of that, 696 cases were in New York City.
Within the top 20 zip codes experiencing recent outbreaks, which include those in Brooklyn, Queens and Rockland and Orange counties, the average positive COVID-19 testing rate was 5.8 percent, the New York state government said on Thursday.
Elsewhere in the state, the positive test rate is 1.01 percent.
Those 20 areas also currently account for 23.2 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases in the state, but only account for 6.2 percent of the total population, the government said.