Synagogues in Borough Park were buzzing with activity Saturday night, with unmasked men in traditional dress filing in and out, others seen praying from windows above the street, and crowds of more than 100 men gathered in a sukkah, an outdoor tented structure, all singing in unison. Seen through flaps in the canvas walls, few if any, were wearing masks.
Despite an executive order prohibiting mass gatherings in areas where COVID-19 cases are on the rise, ritual observances began as usual in Borough Park for Simchat Torah, an annual celebration of the Torah marked by dancing and singing in large groups.
In Borough Park, squarely in a “red zone” according to the state’s designation, the COVID-19 positivity rate is nearly five times that of the citywide average, according to the most recent statistics available.
“We’re going to celebrate,” one maskless man said, striding south on 13th Avenue dressed in traditional garb. When asked about social distancing inside the synagogue, or shul, he declined to give specifics and left before giving his name. “We’re doing the best we can.”
A 26-year-old woman who declined to provide her name was one of the few people seen wearing face coverings in the neighborhood.
“I think it’s very important that everybody should be wearing masks,” she said. “I think some people are celebrating differently this year, but I can’t speak for everyone.”
There were no police or other city enforcement officers seen over the course of several hours spent observing activity in the neighborhood, despite a pledge from the city and state that a joint task force would deputize 1,600 workers from different agencies to enforce Cuomo’s executive order.
Under the rules that went into effect on Thursday, houses of worship in the red zone areas of Brooklyn and Queens where the COVID-19 infection rate is the highest could face fines of $15,000 for hosting large gatherings, and individuals can be fined $1,000 for not wearing masks.
Nevertheless, on Friday a COVID-19 positive rabbi spoke to hundreds of maskless congregants from behind a plexiglass wall.
Asked about the incident during a conference call with reporters on Sunday, Cuomo said that "if true, then I hope action will be taken. You cannot allow a law to be violated otherwise no one will follow it. People will get sick. People will endanger nurses and doctors. People will infect other people who are innocent bystanders, and people will die. This is not a joke."
Regarding enforcement of mass gathering and social distancing regulations in COVID-19 red zones, Cuomo said it was the responsibility of local officials to step up. “The mayor said he would identify 400 city employees who would work with our task force on doing the enforcement," Cuomo said, referring to de Blasio, but was unable to offer an update on whether that was happening.
On Saturday, the New York City sheriff’s office said they said they wrote 13 summonses for violating executive orders in the red zones, including five houses of worship and one party hall. The Sheriffs office also said they broke up a rave in Cunningham Park in Queens outside of the cluster zone, arresting four people.
The NYPD refused to provide enforcement details but said it would “continue our education and awareness campaign and will deploy our resources as conditions warrant.”
The Mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week, Agudath Israel of America, an advocacy group for Haredi sects, unsuccessfully sued the state to try to block implementation of Cuomo’s order. Rabbi Avi Shafren, a spokesman for the group, said they were encouraging people to celebrate the holiday safely.
“The way that Simchat Torah is celebrated will have to be radically different from the usual raucous, full of contact dancing and singing,” he said. “The requirements of the holiday do not require the singing and the dancing, so we try to compromise and do the best we can and are willing to even change very radically the way the holiday unfolds.”
But none of those restrictions were apparent Saturday night, and the festivities were expected to continue throughout the day on Sunday. Despite signs on synagogue doors warning masks were required for entry, men streamed in and out without them.
In one Orthodox Shul, men were instructed to use the women’s entrance to avoid scrutiny, a community member said, who refused to give their name for fear of retribution.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “This is happening in every large shul in Brooklyn.”
Leading up to the implementation of the executive order, ultra-Orthodox Jewish anti-lock down protesters waving Trump 2020 flags burned masks, attacked a journalist, and slashed the tires of a news truck in two consecutive nights of unrest.
The intimidation tactics continued Saturday night, with a group of men surrounding a news photographer on 13th Avenue, telling him to leave the area. The group subsequently threatened a Gothamist/WNYC reporter.
“If you're looking for issues come back,” one warned, as the men followed the reporter for a block before dispersing. “Don't make yourself into a story tonight.”
Listen to reporter Gwynne Hogan's radio story for WNYC: