Orthodox Jews Set Fire to Masks in Protest at New York's COVID Restrictions

Orthodox Jews in New York have set fire to a pile of face masks in protest at the city's new COVID-19 restrictions which target areas with large Orthodox populations.

Videos posted on social media show a crowd of Orthodox Jews, who are not socially distancing or covering their face, burning the masks in the Brooklyn area of New York in response to the guidelines brought in by governor Andrew Cuomo.

The New York Fire Department later extinguished the small fire in the middle of the street, with a line of people appearing to briefly try and block the firefighters' attempts to put out the blaze.

The protests arrived after Cuomo announced a "cluster action" to target hot spots in Brooklyn, Queens, and Broome, Orange and Rockland Counties following a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Many of the "red zone" areas that are hit hardest with the new restrictions, including the closing of schools, non-essential businesses and limiting attendance in places of worship to 10 people, have high Orthodox Jewish populations.

The new rules will also see an increased $15,000 fine imposed to anyone who organizes a mass gathering.

On Monday night, police struggled to break up a large crowd of people celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.

"I spoke to members of the Orthodox Jewish community today. I spoke to the leaders myself this morning. We had a very good conversation," Cuomo said while announcing the restrictions on Tuesday.

"I have been very close to the Orthodox community for many years. I understand the imposition this is going to place on them, and I said to them I need their cooperation.

"The Torah speaks about how certain religious obligations can be excused, if you are going to save a life. This is about saving a life," Cuomo added.

"No large gatherings in synagogues to save a life. You look at where the infection rate is, you look at those clusters, people will die in those clusters and this is about protecting people and saving lives."

Several Jewish lawmakers and groups have condemned the move as unfairly blaming Orthodox Jews for the rising COVID-19 cases in New York.

In a joint statement, state senator Simcha Felder, assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and councilmen Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch accused Cuomo of a "duplicitous bait-and-switch" after allegedly stating places of worship would be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.

"Outrageously, just hours later, Governor Cuomo announced a draconian return to restrictions that would shutter thousands of New York businesses and limit houses of worship to a maximum capacity of 10 (no matter the maximum capacity of the building)," the statement added.

The group also accused Cuomo of using "dangerous and divisive" language against the Jewish community.

"His rhetoric in recent days has been irresponsible and pejorative, particularly to a community of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, for whom his language was reminiscent of past verbal attacks on Jewish communities," they said.

"Governor Cuomo's choice to single out a particular religious group, complete with a slideshow of photos to highlight his point, was outrageous."

In a statement, Agudath Israel, an organization representing haredi Orthodox communities, also condemned the lack of notice given by the governor about the new restrictions despite speaking with local Jewish leaders beforehand.

"It should be made clear that the Governor's reference to a 'good conversation' he had with a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders was largely a one-way monologue, and contained no mention of this new plan.

"Agudath Israel intends to explore all appropriate measures to undo this deeply offensive action."

Last week, Agudath Israel and the Boro Park Jewish Community Council launched an initiative to distribute 400,000 masks in Brooklyn to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Cuomo's office has been contacted for comment.

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A sign warns people of COVID-19 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg on October 1 in New York City. Orthodox Jews in New York have set fire to a pile of face masks in protest at the city's new COVID-19 restrictions. Spencer Platt/Getty
Orthodox Jews Set Fire to Masks in Protest at New York's COVID Restrictions | U.S.