Seven months ago, the lives of New Yorkers dramatically changed when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Since then, more than 470,000 New Yorkers have tested positive for COVID-19. Tragically, more than 25,500 residents of the Empire State have lost their lives. Because of the pandemic, New Yorkers are experiencing fear, grief, and loss. Because of the restrictions that were—wisely or unwisely—put in place to protect against the pandemic, many New Yorkers have experienced unemployment, the loss of small businesses, financial stress, social isolation, and even food insecurity.
Over the past several months, much—but not all—of New York State gradually re-opened for business under the Governor’s NY Forward plan. On October 6, 2020, however, Gov. Andrew Cuomo threw the state’s gears into reverse by adopting new restrictions in six clusters, or “hot spots,” where COVID-19 is on the rise. The clusters are located in Broome, Kings, Orange, Queens, and Rockland Counties, respectively. According to an October 7 press release, recent COVID-19 tests in 20 New York zip codes show that 5.1% of individuals tested positive for the virus. Throughout the rest of the state, the positive test rate is only 1.05%. In response to these results, the Governor has—in consultation with medical experts—created a three-tiered Cluster Action Initiative that is scheduled to remain in effect until November 5, 2020. Within these COVID-19 clusters, the following color-coded system of restrictions is now in effect:
Yellow zones (least severe):
- Non-essential gatherings limited to 25 attendees or less;
- Houses of worship limited to 50% capacity and required to follow DOH guidance;
- Restaurants and taverns must limit groups to four people; and
- DOH to issue guidance on mandatory testing of school personnel and students.
Orange zones (moderately severe):
- Non-essential gatherings limited to 10 attendees or less;
- Certain specified non-essential businesses to limit in-person workforce by 100%;
- Houses of worship limited to 33% capacity or 25 people, whichever number is lower;
- Indoor, on-premises food and beverage service suspended at restaurants and taverns; and
Red zones (most severe):
- No non-essential gatherings;
- All non-essential businesses to reduce in-person workforce by 100%;
- Houses of worship limited to 25% of capacity or 10 people; whichever number is lower;
- On-premises food and beverage service suspended at restaurants and taverns; and
- All schools closed for in-person instruction unless an executive order states otherwise.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms acknowledges that Gov. Cuomo is attempting to prevent a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the restrictions mandated by his Clustered Action Initiative are excessive, especially with regard to houses of worship. Across New York, churches and other faith communities have gone to great trouble—and great expense—to establish and follow COVID-19 safety protocols. An uptick in the infection rate in a community is reason for heightened precautions. It is not, however, a reason to effectively shut down in-person services at all but the smallest of churches. NYCF calls upon the Governor to consider the impact of his new initiative upon religious liberty and to loosen the unnecessarily draconian restrictions he has placed upon houses of worship.