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Cuomo places new restrictions on WNY hot zones; NYC closes its schools as virus rate climbs

Governor Cuomo's office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared more regions as microcluster coronavirus hot zones as the rate of COVID-19 continues to climb in New York.

The new designations come as New York City’s mayor closed the city’s schools effective Thursday, as the virus rate there reached 3%.

Cuomo is changing some yellow zones in western New York to orange zones. Effective Friday, there will be new restrictions on religious gatherings, along with some business closures, including gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlors. Indoor dining is banned.

And schools in the orange zone, which include most of the city of Buffalo and many of its suburbs, will close for four days, and can reopen only with more intensive testing of students and teachers.

The Buffalo region overall is at a 5.1% virus positivity rate, which the governor said is the “worst situation” in the state.

The Rochester-Finger Lakes region has the second-highest COVID-19 rate in the state, followed by central New York. Portions of those regions remain designated as yellow zones. All three regions that are now spiking did not see high rates of the virus in the spring, compared to downstate areas.

The governor frequently has policy disagreements with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and on Wednesday, there was another one.

Cuomo said the rate of the virus in New York City is nearing the level where it will be reclassified from a yellow zone to an orange zone, which would mandate school closures there. While Cuomo said the state’s data shows the rate at 2.5% in New York City, the mayor said the city’s numbers shows the rate is at 3%, and that schools will shut down beginning Thursday for at least a week.

De Blasio said there will need to be new testing protocols put in place for students and teachers before the schools can reopen.

“Certainly through Thanksgiving, school will be closed,” de Blasio said.

The difference between the state’s and the city’s numbers means that while schools in New York City will be closed, for the time being, indoor dining and other business activities will still be permitted, though the mayor said he expects Cuomo will declare the city an orange zone very soon.

The governor also warned New Yorkers not to hold large gatherings on Thanksgiving, saying his gut feeling is that there will be a “tremendous spike” of the virus after the holiday.

Cuomo has set a limit of 10 or fewer people at in-home gatherings. But some county sheriffs in the state have said they don’t plan to enforce those rules, saying it’s a violation of people’s privacy. The governor condemned the sheriffs’ comments, saying they can’t pick and choose which laws they enforce.

“There’s a law, and you have to enforce the law,” Cuomo said. “Or don’t call yourself a law enforcement officer.”

The governor admits there are practical issues with police enforcing the law, but he said that’s different than refusing to carry it out.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.