Home featured How N.Y.C.’s Conservative Bastion Became a Virus Hot Spot

How N.Y.C.’s Conservative Bastion Became a Virus Hot Spot

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When supporters flocked to a rally for President Trump on Staten Island last month, many left their masks at home. Others have been spotted mingling in barbershops and at family gatherings — signs of a dwindling vigilance that has given some neighbors pause. By Tuesday, the coronavirus outbreak here had gotten so bad that public health officials descended on the borough’s strip malls and street corners, hoping to slow the virus’s spread.

As New York City faces the prospect of a second wave of coronavirus infections, Staten Island finds itself at the leading edge of the pandemic’s resurgence. The borough’s positive test rate is the highest in the city — a full point higher than the citywide rate.

Two Staten Island ZIP codes have now risen above 5 percent, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to target the borough for a “Day of Action” on Tuesday, sending a flood of volunteers to raise awareness about the problem and to combat growing fatigue with the limitations that have become a daily part of life for millions of New Yorkers.

But Staten Island has long diverged from the rest of the city both culturally and politically, and some borough residents bristle at restrictions in a way that can at times more closely resemble the backlash in Republican strongholds in other parts of the nation — places that are now grappling with their own rise in cases.

Many here take coronavirus precautions seriously, pulling masks over their faces as they emerge from their cars. But some say they’ve seen other Staten Islanders begin to let their guard down. Whether the borough can beat back this latest surge is a question that could help determine whether the city at large can keep the pandemic at bay.

After months of largely successful efforts to rein in the virus, New York City has seen daily cases climb, surpassing 1,000 infections five days in a row last week — a level that last occurred in May. As city health officials continued to discuss new restrictions on Monday, Mr. de Blasio warned that New Yorkers have “one last chance” to stop a second wave that could force the closing of schools.

For a city that has already suffered through severe shutdowns of its economy, losing the slow but steady gains of recent months, such as a limited return to indoor dining at restaurants, is a chilling prospect.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Tuesday that New York State’s positive rate for testing jumped to more than 3 percent, with more than 1,500 hospitalizations, in another troubling sign that the virus is spreading in the region.

Staten Island will test the city and state’s strategy of tamping down clusters of cases as they emerge, as officials did in Orthodox Jewish sections of Brooklyn and Queens recently and in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Soundview in the Bronx.

But even as cases surge across the city, officials say tracing the origin of clusters has become nearly impossible. It remains to be seen whether Staten Island is a temporary hot spot, or a harbinger.

ImageThe Tottenville neighborhood of Staten Island has one of the highest positive test rates in the city.
Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Health officials have not said why specifically Staten Island is seeing more cases, but encouraged residents to follow the same precautions officials are pushing across the city, from wearing a mask to avoiding large gatherings. While some cases are linked to travel or nursing homes, health officials said they largely do not know how people are getting infected.

The uptick in Staten Island is happening in a swath of New York where Republican leaders have fought restrictions by Democrats who control the city. Residents have strong social ties to New Jersey, and the borough is home to many police officers and firefighters. Staten Island is a solitary stronghold in the city for President Trump, who has downplayed the importance of masks and the seriousness of the virus.

Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who is leading in her bid to oust the Democrat who represents Staten Island in Congress, rejected the idea that Mr. Trump had anything to do with how residents of the borough view masks.

“I think it’s probably that Republicans don’t like mandates as much — that could be some of the reluctance,” she said.

Joseph Borelli, a Republican city councilman who represents Staten Island, said he could not explain the increase in cases. But he has seen it himself.

“A friend of mine tested positive — a firefighter who likely got it at his firehouse working. I was in contact with him, so I got a test yesterday,” said Mr. Borelli, who said the test came back negative.

Mr. Borelli, an ally of President Trump, said he hoped that Mr. de Blasio did not “rush” to shut the city down again. He said that two factors might have contributed to new cases on Staten Island — police officers and firefighters who never stopped working could get the virus at work and bring it home, and his borough’s closeness with New Jersey, which is seeing a huge rise in cases and a test positivity rate above 7 percent.

“Staten Island is more similar in density and lifestyle to New Jersey than the rest of the city,” Mr. Borelli said. “Most of my constituents on the South Shore regularly shop and visit family in New Jersey.”

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat in his second term, announced Staten Island as the city’s next target for combating the virus on Monday.

“We’re having some challenges in Staten Island so we’re going to focus a lot of resources there to protect the people on Staten Island and to stop this second wave,” the mayor said.

The news added to what had already been a tough week for Staten Island, a borough that often feels neglected and misunderstood. Within a few days, residents learned that the Yankees were pulling their minor league team out of the borough and that Mr. Trump had lost his re-election bid, despite support in their Republican oasis.

More than 60 percent of Staten Island voters supported President Trump this year, compared with about 27 percent citywide, though mail-in ballots have not yet been counted. Mr. Trump got about 56 percent of the vote on Staten Island in 2016. Nearly three-quarters of Staten Island residents are white, compared with less than 50 percent of residents citywide.

At a shopping center in the borough on Tuesday, Kathy Melka, who lives in Eltingville, said she takes the virus seriously. She wears a mask outdoors and avoids social gatherings, except for her trips to church. But she said some Staten Islanders seem to be less cautious.

“I think people are getting careless now and congregating in groups without masks on,” Ms. Melka, 70, said. “I saw it in the park the other day.”

The Tottenville and Great Kills neighborhoods on the southern edge of Staten Island have the highest positive test rates in the city, at 5.74 percent and 5.04 percent, according to city data. The overall rate for the borough is 3.38 percent compared with the citywide average of 2.34 percent. Only one of the island’s dozen ZIP codes has a positivity rate below the citywide average.

At Tottenville Bagels, Doug Hopkins, 36, who lives in Woodrow and works in Tottenville, said he only wears a mask when he is indoors.

“When I’m outside, I don’t wear a mask,” he said. “I need to breathe air. Out of respect, I wear it in the store.”

Nearly 20 people waited outside a free testing tent at the Conference House Park visitors center in Tottenville on Tuesday afternoon, including two police officers who work on the island. Paul Christman, a Tottenville resident, was one of few people wearing a mask at the park nearby. Mr. Christman, a 60-year-old retired court officer who has underlying conditions, was out for his daily exercise.

“I’m doing what I need to do for myself and those around me,” he said.

Mr. Christman said health officials had always predicted there will be a spike in the colder months, but President Trump could have set a better example.

“If the president had worn masks, maybe you’d get 10 percent more of the population wearing them and not have the spread you have,” he said. “If you get one more person wearing a mask, it’s a win.”

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