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Coronavirus Updates: These Five NYC Zip Codes Have The Highest Positive Test Rates

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This is our daily update of breaking COVID-19 news for Thursday, August 20th, 2020. Previous daily updates can be found here, and up-to-date statistics are here.

New York City is in Phase 4 of reopening now, which includes zoos, botanical gardens, and professional sports (without fans). A look at preparing for the spread of coronavirus is here, and if you have lingering questions about the virus, here is our regularly updated coronavirus FAQ. Here are some local and state hotlines for more information: NYC: 311; NY State Hotline: 888-364-3065; NJ State Hotline: 800-222-1222.

Here's the latest:

4:30 p.m. Five zip codes in New York City have positive testing rates higher than 2.5% in a recent four week period, the highest in the entire city, where the overall positive testing rate for coronavirus has been at or below 2.2% for two months.

The data, which was released on Tuesday by the Department of Health, provides a detailed look at how different neighborhoods have been impacted by the pandemic. The positivity rate by zip code was part of a larger set of recent testing data taken over four weeks ending on Saturday, August 15th.

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park (11220), which saw a spike of more than 200 cases last week, had the highest positivity rate of 3.12%. Coming in second was the nearby area of Bensonhurst/Mapletown (11204), which had a positivity of 2.93%.

Staten Island's Elm Park (10302) had a positivity rate of 2.79%. It was followed by two adjacent sections in the northern section of the Bronx known as Fordham/Kingsbridge/University Heights (10468) and Belmont (10458), which had positivity rates of 2.61% and 2.74% respectively.

Positivity rate for coronavirus testing in NYC for the most recent four week period. Department of Health

All five neighborhoods have positivity rates that fall well below the city's warning threshold for the positivity rate, which is currently set at 5%. On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio reduced that number from 15%.

"We think this is now the right threshold for our current condition, where we want to keep beating this disease back even more," he said.

But the positivity rates in the five neighborhoods are dangerously close to 3%. Should the citywide rate reach that level, the mayor has said he would not open public schools.

The emergence of more granular testing data raises the question of whether the city should reopen schools in neighborhoods with relative higher infection levels.

A group of teachers, parents and administrators at P.S. 169, a school at Sunset Park, on Wednesday issued a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio that pointed out that the neighborhood's higher positivity rate, which The City reported rose to as high as 5% in early August.

"Until all communities fall below the 3% threshold, the only equitable solution is for all school buildings to remain closed in New York City. Any other course of action would jeopardize the health and safety of already disenfranchised communities," the letter said.

Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at the CUNY School of Public Health, argued a citywide rate is a "crude metric," especially since health officials can measure infections by zip code.

"It's not one size fits all," he said. "Every school is different, every community is different."

This story has been updated to say that overall positivity rates in NYC have been at or below 2.2% for around two months. A prior version said that it had been below 2%.

After Slow Decline, Jobless Claims Climb Above 1 Million Again

About 1.1 million people filed for state unemployment benefits last week, an increase from the prior week when claims dropped below 1 million for the first time in about five months, the Department of Labor reported on Thursday.

Another 543,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program for those who are self-employed people, gig workers and others not covered by traditional unemployment benefits. Unlike the figures for state claims, the number is not seasonally adjusted.

The increase after weeks of declining jobless levels was another sign that the economy is still in upheaval due to the ongoing pandemic and the surrounding uncertainty for businesses and individuals. Prior to last week, the number of people filing for state unemployment benefits had been gradually declining or flat for about a month.

Economists polled by Dow Jones had projected that the latest unemployment claims would show a decline from 970,000 to 923,000. The numbers are still staggeringly high. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, weekly jobless claims averaged around 220,000.

“The fact that the claims are so high this far into the crisis is concerning,” Ann Elizabeth Konkel, an economist at the job site Indeed told the Washington Post. “Yet the depths of the damage remain to be seen. I would definitely call it a canary raising alarms in the economic coal mine.”

In New York, there were 62,397 new applications for state unemployment insurance, an increase of nearly 9,800. The number of New Yorkers currently receiving state unemployment benefits climbed by 2% to 1.5 million.

While most thought the numbers of newly unemployed would continue to go down, Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota, predicted that claims would in fact rise based on an uptick in Google searches for the phrase "file for unemployment."

On Thursday, Sojourner noted that should the correlation between Google searches and job claims hold, next week could see the latter fall again.

It is not clear whether the latest job report will spur members of Congress and the White House to resume talks on a potential stimulus package that would bring back direct federal weekly payments to unemployed Americans. Democrats have insisted on the original amount of $600. But on Tuesday, Republicans reportedly floated another proposal that would reduce the checks to $300. The extra weekly benefit has been a major sticking point for fiscal hawks in the GOP, who have argued that the size of the benefit deters people from returning to the workforce.

Some economists, however, have stridently rejected that assertion, saying that there is no evidence of that effect in the labor force.

Facing a stalement on the stimulus, President Trump had issued a series of executive actions that included providing an extra payment of $400 a week, of which $100 would be paid by states. Many governors sharply criticized the plan, saying states were facing historic budget crises and could not afford meet the matching 25% share.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has outright rejected the plan as unconstitutional because the president did not receive approval from Congress. He has said he would not seek the federal funding even if he could waive the matching amount.

“I don’t know what the feds most recent decision is, I don’t know that any of it is legal," he said during a phone conference on Wednesday. "I don’t believe the whole executive order mechanism is legal. So, I think this is all an artificial construction for political reasons."

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