Thousands of New York City elementary public school students returned to classes Tuesday amid worrisome reports of new coronavirus outbreaks in Brooklyn and Queens and a sudden spike in the testing positivity rate.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had twice before delayed the resumption of in-classroom education for the nation's largest public school system after the teachers union threatened to strike over inadequate Covid-19 safeguards and staffing, said Tuesday that the positive test rate had climbed over 3 percent for the first time in weeks.
"We have not seen a day like that in quite a while," de Blasio said.
To combat the rise, de Blasio announced that people who refuse to wear masks in the hardest-hit neighborhoods will be fined and private schools in those areas that refuse to adhere to social distancing requirements could be closed.
“That will happen aggressively, clearly,” the mayor said. “We don’t want to fine people. If we have to, we will. That will be starting on a large scale today.”
The testing rate had been under 1 percent for weeks Of late, though, the New York City health department has reported that the coronavirus was once against spreading at “an alarming rate,” mostly in neighborhoods that are home to many Orthodox Jews, some of whom have been resistant to social distancing and mask-wearing mandates.
Similar clusters have also been reported in Rockland County, where there is also a large population of Orthodox Jews.
"We have a cluster problem because we have a compliance problem," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who blasted "local government" for failing to crack down on people who refuse to wear masks or social distance.
"What they have done has not worked," Cuomo said.
In particular, Cuomo said he will be speaking with Orthodox-Jewish leaders about the resurgence of Covid-19 in their neighborhoods.
"The public health rules apply to every religion," Cuomo said. "Mask wearing is a state law. ... I don't care what your political opinion is, I don't care what your religious opinion is."
Cuomo also publicly questioned why more New York City police officers weren't wearing masks in public. "What kind of message does that send?" the governor said.
Pre-K and some special education students were the first to return to New York City public schools on Sept. 21. Most middle and high school students were scheduled to return on Thursday.
Still, the students who returned Tuesday were greeted by a lot of empty seats — and not just because of social distancing.
Nearly half of New York City families with children in public schools, some 48 percent, have chosen to keep their kids at home and continue with remote learning, the NBC New York reported.
Six weeks earlier, 30 percent of families had chosen that option.
President Donald Trump, who has been accused of lying to the American public about the dangers of Covid-19, had been pushing hard to get kids back into the classrooms to help get the economy, which suffered when the nation went into lockdown, up and running again.
Olivia Troye, a former White House Coronavirus Task Force adviser-turned-whistleblower, said the Trump administration pressured the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and its leader, Dr. Robert Redfield, to tinker with guidelines and downplay the risks of sending kids back into the schools.
“In terms of the manipulation of the data, it was people within the White House specifically tasking more junior level staff to try to find alternate data, data that fit the narrative that they wanted, which was it only affects people above the age of 75 and it doesn't affect younger schoolchildren,” Troye, who worked directly for Vice President Mike Pence, said on CNN
This, Troye said, was “all part of the narrative of, 'We need to open up these schools, we need to open them up now.'”
Despite the fact that one million people around the world have now died from Covid-19 and a fifth of those fatalities have been in the U.S., there are some in the Trump administration who even deny the existence of the pandemic, Troye added.
“I think there are still people walking around the White House today who don't actually believe this virus is real,” Troye said. “A lot of them disregard it.”
The White House has dismissed Troye as a disgruntled former employee. But Trump is likely to face some tough questioning Monday night at the presidential debate with Joe Biden about his administration’s failure to rein in a plague that has now killed 206,295 people in the U.S. out of a total 7,183,186 infections, according to the latest NBC News figures.
Trump also is likely to be asked why he privately told reporter Bob Woodward in February that Covid-19 was “deadly stuff” but then continued to downplay the danger in pronouncements to the public and politicized the use of masks by refusing for months to wear one in public.
In other coronavirus developments:
- Three games into the NFL season, Covid-19 has forced two teams to yank their players off the practice field. Three players and five staffers with the Tennessee Titans tested positive for the coronavirus just two days after the team defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. So far nobody in the Vikings organization has been infected, but the team has also suspended all "in-person club activities." Both teams have games scheduled for Sunday. The Titans are supposed to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at home. The Vikings are supposed to take on the Houston Texans in Houston. It was not immediately clear if those games would be played. "All decisions will be made with health and safety as our primary consideration," the NFL and players union said in a joint statement. "We will continue to share updates as more information becomes available."
- Top economists said Trump has lost all bragging rights about the economy. “The job market is still a shadow of what it was prior to the pandemic,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said. While the jobless rate has fallen from the pandemic peak of 14.7 percent in April to 8.4 percent in August, the economy is still struggling to recoup 11 million more lost jobs. And not everybody has benefited from the weak recovery. Black unemployment was 13 percent in August and Hispanic unemployment was 10.5 percent. When Trump took the reins from President Barack Obama in January 2017, the unemployment rate was just 4.8 percent.
- Tallahassee police over the weekend broke up a massive party just two miles from the Florida State University campus where local Covid-19 safety rules were ignored. More than 1,000 people and 700 cars were dispersed from the student housing complex. It was just one of a dozen such bashes that police had to contend with, including one on Sunday where two people were hurt by gunfire, The Orlando Sentinel reported. FSU has reported that more than 1,400 students and 26 employees have tested positive for Covid-19 through Sept. 18. Thousands of new Covid-19 infections have been reported at campuses across the country since students started returning to classes, forcing many universities to shut down completely and switch to online education. Florida is one of the worst hit states in the country, with 14,312 deaths out of 704,568 infections as of Tuesday.
- More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began, the American Medical Association reported this month. "The AMA is greatly concerned by an increasing number of reports from national, state and local media suggesting increases in opioid-related mortality—particularly from illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs," the AMA stated. What's behind the increase? A New York Times story said part of the blame may lie in the fact that Covid-19 has forced many drug abusers to get high alone and there is nobody to help them if they overdose.