New York City moves to curb COVID-19 spread in new clusters

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City officials said on Wednesday they were working to address a rise in COVID-19 cases in parts of Brooklyn and Queens that was raising “a lot of concern.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the new outbreaks, including a large cluster in three Brooklyn neighborhoods, accounted for about 20% of confirmed positive cases citywide.

“We’re seeing a serious uptick in multiple neighborhoods simultaneously and it’s something we have to address with a very aggressive public health effort right away,” de Blasio told reporters, adding that the Sheriff’s Office and the New York Police Department would help tackle the spread.

Dr. Mitch Katz, the CEO of New York City’s public healthcare system, said the city would distribute masks, gloves and hand sanitizer while officials will ask religious leaders to reinforce key public health messages.

Robocalls in English and Yiddish and sound trucks will urge residents to physically distance and wear a face covering, Katz said. Brooklyn is home to many Orthodox Jews, a community that has been hard-hit by the coronavirus and where compliance with restrictions has been at times problematic.

After becoming the global epicenter of the pandemic in the spring, the city’s positive test results have fallen to below 1%.

However, in the borough of Queens, positive cases have risen to 2.24% in Kew Gardens and 3.69% in Edgemere-Far Rockaway. In Brooklyn, officials are concerned about Williamsburg, with a 2% positive rate, and a southern part of the borough that includes Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst that officials are calling the Ocean Parkway Cluster, where the positive rate is 4.71%, the health department said.

Overall, there has been a slight uptick in coronavirus cases in New York City over the last two months. On Sept. 14, the city reported 380 new cases, the highest since July 20.

However, the average percent of tests coming back positive has remained virtually unchanged since August, according to city data.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

New York police break up massive crowd at rabbi’s funeral that defied virus shutdown

By Nathan Layne and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York police broke up a massive crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews who took part in a rabbi’s funeral in defiance of a statewide coronavirus shutdown, and the mayor walked back comments on the gathering that some Jewish leaders called discriminatory.

City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea told a news conference on Wednesday that some 12 summonses were issued for a variety of offenses at the Brooklyn gathering on Tuesday night, which he estimated involved “thousands of people crammed onto one block.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio personally oversaw the dispersal of the Hasidic residents in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section who had gathered late on Tuesday for the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, who died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A Jewish congregation had worked with police on a plan to close streets so the funeral could adhere to social-distancing rules, said Mitchell Silber, executive director at the Community Security Initiative, a program to protect Jewish institutions.

Both the rabbi’s congregation and the police were surprised at the number of people who attended, he said.

“This was a single event, planned by one congregation. The troubling incident last night should not negatively reflect on Hasidim, the Williamsburg community, Orthodox Jewry or the entire Jewish community,” Silber told Reuters.

Some Jewish leaders criticized de Blasio, who wrote on Twitter late on Tuesday that he had instructed the city’s police department to “summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups.”

“This is about stopping this disease and saving lives,” the mayor wrote on Twitter. The disease has killed more than 23,000 people in New York state despite stay-at-home orders and a shutdown of schools and businesses.

The criticism was for de Blasio’s having addressed the tweet to “the Jewish community, and all communities.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League noted that New York City is home to more than one million Jews.

“The few who don’t social distance should be called out – but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews,” Greenblatt wrote on Twitter.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America representing Orthodox rabbis, said he was concerned the comments could encourage anti-Semitism.

“We are very concerned about the mayor’s comment which stigmatizes an entire community for the irresponsible behavior of a small group,” Dratch said in an email to Reuters.

At a news conference with Shea, de Blasio said he regretted the way he expressed concern about the gathering of mourners but that he spoke “out of passion” for the safety of the people of his city, the epicenter of the country’s crisis.

“Again this is a community I love, this is a community I’ve spent a lot of times working with. And if you saw anger and frustration, you’re right,” de Blasio said. “I spoke out of real distress and people’s lives were in danger before my eyes, and I was not going to tolerate that.”

At the news conference, Shea said, “People have to be accountable for their own actions regardless of what neighborhood, ethnicity, where they come from – we cannot have what we had last night.”

David Harris, chief executive of the AJC global Jewish advocacy group, said de Blasio has been a “good friend” of the Jewish community and the Twitter comments that offended many in the community had been out of character.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)

Judge upholds New York City’s mandatory measles vaccination order

FILE PHOTO: Materials are seen left at demonstration by people opposed to childhood vaccination after officials in Rockland County, a New York City suburb, banned children not vaccinated against measles from public spaces, in West Nyack, New York, U.S. March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Brooklyn judge on Thursday ruled against a group of parents who challenged New York City’s recently imposed mandatory measles vaccination order, rejecting their arguments that the city’s public health authority exceeded its authority.

In a six-page decision rendered hours after a hearing on the matter, Judge Lawrence Knipel denied the parents’ petition seeking to lift the vaccination order, imposed last week to stem the worst measles outbreak to hit the city since 1991.

The judge sided with municipal health officials who defended the order as a rare but necessary step to contain a surge in the highly contagious disease that has infected at least 329 people so far, most of them children from Orthodox Jewish communities in the borough of Brooklyn.

Another 222 cases have been diagnosed elsewhere in New York state, mostly in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Rockland County, northwest of Manhattan.

The New York outbreaks are part of a larger resurgence of measles across the country, with at least 555 cases confirmed in 20 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health experts say the virus, which can cause severe complications and even death, has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated. Most profess philosophical or religious reasons or cite concerns – debunked by medical science – that the three-way measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine may cause autism.

The judge rejected the parents’ contention that the vaccination order was excessive or coercive, noting that it does not call for forcibly administering the vaccine to those who refuse it.

Under the public health emergency declared last Tuesday by Mayor Bill de Blasio, residents of certain affected Brooklyn neighborhoods who refuse orders to obtain an MMR vaccine face fines unless they can otherwise demonstrate immunity to measles or provide a valid medical exemption.

The court challenge was filed in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court on behalf of five mothers and their children in the affected neighborhoods. Their identities were kept confidential to protect the children’s privacy, their lawyers said.

They told Knipel in court on Thursday the city had overstepped its authority and that quarantining the infected would be a preferable approach.

Robert Krakow, an attorney for the parents, estimated that just 0.0006 percent of the population of Brooklyn and Queens had measles. “That’s not an epidemic,” he said. “It’s not Ebola. It’s not smallpox.”

The health department’s lawyers argued that quarantining was ineffective because people carrying the virus can be contagious before symptoms appear.

The judge cited 39 cases diagnosed in Michigan that have been traced to an individual traveling from the Williamsburg community at the epicenter of Brooklyn’s outbreak. The surge in measles there originated with an unvaccinated child who became infected on a visit to Israel, where the highly contagious virus is also running rampant.

Krakow later told Reuters he was reviewing the judge’s dismissal of the case – brought under special proceedings for the appeal of administrative actions – to determine how his clients might respond.

The number of measles cases worldwide nearly quadrupled in the first quarter of 2019 to 112,163 compared with the same period last year, the World Health Organization said this week.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot and G Crosse)

New York City defends measles vaccination order in court

FILE PHOTO: A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg, two days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn in response to a measles outbreak, is seen in New York, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City’s Department of Health defended its mandatory measles vaccination order in a state court on Thursday after a group of anonymous Brooklyn parents sued, arguing that the order was unconstitutional.

The department issued the order last week, saying it was an unusual but necessary step to contain the worst outbreak of the highly contagious virus seen in the city since 1991. The outbreak has infected 329 people so far, most of them children from Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn.

The order, which was extended this week, requires unvaccinated people living in certain affected Brooklyn neighborhoods to get the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine if they cannot otherwise demonstrate immunity to measles, or face a $1,000 fine.

Five people who said they were parents living in the affected neighborhoods sued the department this week in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court, filing their lawsuit anonymously in order, their lawyers said, to protect their children’s privacy.

Their lawyers told Judge Lawrence Knipel that the city had overstepped its authority, saying 329 confirmed cases so far did not constitute an epidemic. They argued that quarantining people with measles would be a preferable approach.

“It’s excessive, it’s coercive,” Robert Krakow, a lawyer for the parents, said in court. He said he estimated that 0.0006 percent of the population of Brooklyn and Queens had measles. “That’s not an epidemic,” he said. “It’s not Ebola. It’s not smallpox.” He said even vaccinated people could spread the virus and that the vaccination carried a “risk of injury,” which the city disputed.

The department’s lawyers argued that this is a serious outbreak and that quarantining was ineffective because infected people can be contagious before symptoms appear. They said the lawsuit relied on bogus or discredited science.

Lawyers for the Health Department said three or more cases constituted an outbreak, given the United States had declared the disease eliminated in 2000, meaning it is no longer present year round. Measles can lead to serious complications and death.

“The percentage is irrelevant,” Sherrill Kurland, a lawyer from the city’s Law Department, told the court. “The rates of transmission has continued to increase. These areas remain serious for concern.”

The Brooklyn outbreak has been traced to an unvaccinated child who became infected on a visit to Israel, which is also grappling with an outbreak.

The number of measles cases worldwide nearly quadrupled in the first quarter of 2019 to 112,163 compared with the same period last year, the World Health Organization said this week, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported measles cases in at least 20 U.S. states.

Judge Knipel said he would release his decision on whether to temporarily block the city’s order by the end of the week.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. jurors’ identities in ‘El Chapo’ drug trial to remain secret

Recaptured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. judge in Brooklyn has ruled that the identities of jurors expected to decide the fate of accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at a trial this year will be kept secret.

In a decision on Monday, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said jurors’ names, addresses and places of employment will be shielded from Guzman, his lawyers, prosecutors and the press.

He also ordered that jurors be transported to and from the courthouse by federal marshals, and sequestered from the public while there.

Guzman’s lawyer had argued that an anonymous jury would undermine the presumption that his client was innocent, create an “extremely unfair” impression that he was dangerous, and impair his ability to question prospective jurors.

“Mr. Guzman is obviously disappointed by the decision,” the lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, said in an email on Tuesday. “All he is asking for is a fair trial in front of an impartial jury.”

U.S. prosecutors have accused Guzman, 60, of running a global cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling operation as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, and playing a central role in a decade-long Mexican drug war where more than 100,000 people have died.

Cogan said the U.S. government “presented strong and credible reasons to believe that the jury needs protection,” and the evidence might depict a “pattern of violence” by Guzman and his associates that might cause jurors to fear for their safety.

“That many of the allegations involve murder, assault, kidnapping, or torture of potential witnesses or those suspected of assisting law enforcement makes the government’s concerns particularly salient,” Cogan wrote.

The judge also said the significant media attention to the case could raise the potential for juror names to become public, exposing jurors to the risk of intimidation or harassment.

Balarezo had in court papers said keeping juror identities from the public and news media would be a “fair compromise.”

Guzman’s trial is scheduled to begin in September, according to court records, and could last a few months.

Mexican authorities captured Guzman and an associate in January 2016 by pulling over a Ford Focus they had stolen, after Guzman had fled through tunnels and drains from a raid on a safe house in northwest Mexico.

The arrest came six months after Guzman had escaped through a tunnel from a high-security Mexican prison. Guzman was extradited to the United States in January 2017.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)

Brooklyn man sentenced to 15 years prison over Islamic State support

By Jonathan Stempel and Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Brooklyn man was sentenced on Friday to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State.

Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 27, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Kuntz in the federal court in Brooklyn.

The defendant, an Uzbekistan citizen who once chopped salad at a Brooklyn gyro shop, was one of six people charged in the same case with plotting to aid Islamic State, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.

Prosecutors sought a 15-year prison term, the maximum possible. Lawyers for Juraboev sought no more than five years, calling him an “unsophisticated, gullible, and lonely young man” who reached “wrong conclusions” about Islam and Islamic State.

Michael Weil, a federal public defender representing Juraboev, declined to comment after the sentencing.

Authorities said Juraboev had in August 2014 posted an online threat to kill then-U.S. President Barack Obama on behalf of Islamic State, and spoke of planting a bomb on Coney Island if the group ordered it.

Juraboev was arrested in February 2015, after buying a plane ticket to fly the next month to Istanbul, Turkey, intending to then travel to Syria to join Islamic State, authorities said.

Two co-defendants, Akhror Saidakhmetov and Abror Habibov, pleaded guilty this year, and charges are still pending against co-defendants Dilkhayot Kasimov, Azizjon Rakhmatov and Akmal Zakirov, court records show. Saidakhmetov faces a Dec. 13 sentencing.

Saidakhmetov was also arrested in February 2015, as he was boarding a plane to Istanbul, authorities said.

The arrests of Juraboev and Saidakhmetov followed roughly five months of interactions between the men and a paid informant posing as being ideologically sympathetic.

Other defendants were charged with conspiring to pay Juraboev’s and Saidakhmetov’s travel expenses.

Another Uzbekistan citizen, Dilshod Khusanov, was in August charged in a separate case with having discussed with Zakirov providing funds for Saidakhmetov’s trip, and helping others join Islamic State or al-Nusrah Front, another militant group.

More than 100 people have faced U.S. charges in connection with Islamic State since 2014.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

New York train crash injures more than 100 commuters

Emergency Vehicles gathered around train crash in NYC

By Jonathan Oatis

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York City train derailed at a downtown Brooklyn terminal during Wednesday’s morning rush hour, injuring more than 100 commuters in the metropolitan area’s second major rail accident since late September.

Emergency crews swarmed Atlantic Terminal after the Long Island Rail Road train went off the tracks inside the busy transportation hub at 8:20 a.m. local time, the New York City Fire Department said.

While none of the injuries were life-threatening, at least 11 people were sent to the hospital, Deputy Assistant Chief Dan Donoghue said at a briefing at the crash site. Between 600 and 700 people were on the train, he said.

The train, arriving from the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway, failed to stop on time. Traveling at a fairly slow speed, it derailed after striking a bumping block, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at the briefing.

About 103 people were injured, the fire department said in a Twitter message. The front two cars of the six-carriage train were severely damaged. The station’s partitions and bumping block, which prevents railway vehicles from going past the end of a section of track, were also damaged.

Passengers said the blood and chaos following the derailment was frightening.

“There were people crying,” said Aaron Neufeld, a 26-year-old paralegal who commutes on the rail line daily. “I saw some bloody faces.”

Neufeld, who was riding in the second car, said the train appeared to be approaching normally until it crashed, knocking passengers on top of one another and shattering glass windows.

“Bags went flying,” he said. “People were thrown to the ground.”

The engineer was probably responsible for failing to stop the train before it hit the bumper, said Tom Prendergast, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs the railroad.

The train was traveling between 10 and 15 miles per hour as it approached the bumper, he said, which is standard.

“At that speed, it’s pretty much the locomotive engineer’s responsibility to stop the train,” Prendergast said as he stood beside Cuomo at the briefing. Investigators will interview the engineer, the conductor and brakeman to determine the cause of the accident, he said.

There were no major service disruptions for other Long Island Rail Road lines at the terminal, an MTA official said.

Earlier, officials said crews were working to restore service at the terminal by the evening rush hour.

In late September, a New Jersey Transit train crashed into a terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, killing one woman and injuring 114 people, including the engineer.

Cuomo, who has made infrastructure improvements a centerpiece of his agenda, said Wednesday’s incident was minor in comparison. The most serious injury in the crash was a broken leg, he said.

“There was extensive damage in Hoboken,” Cuomo said. “That train was coming in much faster, did much more damage.”

The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board said they were sending investigators to the scene.

The Long Island Rail Road is the United State’s largest commuter rail system, serving more than 330,000 passengers a day, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Atlantic Terminal, which also connects commuters to nine city subway lines, is one of the busiest New York stations.

(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus, David Shepardson and David Ingram; Writing by Laila Kearney; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn)