New York City deploying Asian undercover force to combat hate crimes

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City plans to deploy an all-Asian undercover police team and expand community outreach in more than 200 languages to combat a rise in hate crimes against Asians, authorities said on Thursday.

“If you are going to commit a hate crime in New York City, we will find you,” New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said in unveiling the two-pronged plan to fight bias crimes.

“We are not going to tolerate anyone being targeted because of the color of their skin, the religion they worship, their sexual preference or anything else,” Shea said.

Just days after a spate of assaults on Asian-Americans in New York City last weekend, Shea said he was ramping up the NYPD’s undercover force with plain-clothed officers, all of them of Asian descent. Starting this weekend, they will patrol subways, grocery stores and other locations to stem anti-Asian incidents that total 26 so far this year, including 12 assaults, police said.

“The next person you target through speech or menacing activity may be a plain-clothed New York police officer – so think twice,” Shea said.

The 26 incidents so far have resulted in seven arrests, police said. Those incidents included 12 assaults so far this year, three of them last weekend, police said. By comparison, at this time last year, there were no assaults reported against Asian-Americans, police said.

Because hate crimes too often go unreported, now anyone dialing 911 can utter a single English word for their native language – such as Mandarin – and police operators will help access translators who speak more than 200 languages, police said.

Advocates tied the surge in hate crimes to blame that has been placed on the Asian-American Pacific Islander community for the coronavirus spread.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose by 149% in 2020 in 16 major cities compared with 2019, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Violent incidents included people being slashed with a box cutter, lit on fire and verbal harassment, according to testimony at a U.S. congressional hearing on anti-Asian violence convened this month.

The most deadly incident was this month’s shooting spree at three Atlanta area spas that left eight people dead, six of them Asian women. A 21-year-old white man has been charged with multiple counts of murder, and police investigating motives have not ruled out the possibility that the attacks were provoked, at least in part, by anti-immigrant or anti-Asian sentiments.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

One resident dies in New York nursing home blaze, one firefighter missing

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) -An early morning fire swept through a nursing home north of New York City on Tuesday, killing at least one resident and leaving a firefighter missing and feared dead, a fire official said.

The blaze, reported shortly before 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT), spread through about half of the Evergreen Court Home for Adults and temporarily trapped some residents, Rockland County Fire Coordinator Chris Kear said.

With smoke and flames shooting from the building, police and firefighters rescued as many as 30 residents, including 20 who were sent to a hospital where one later died, Kear said.

“We are sad to report that there is one resident that passed away at a local area hospital,” Kear told reporters at the scene shortly after daybreak. “There are several others that are in serious condition.”

Evergreen Court in Spring Valley, about 30 miles (48 km) north of New York City, houses 100 to 125 residents, and officials were still checking to see that all were accounted for, he said.

One firefighter was missing and feared buried under the smoldering rubble, Kear said.

“We are currently going to bring in a mini excavator and start pulling apart the remaining pieces of the rubble piece by piece so we can locate this firefighter and bring him home,” he said.

Two other firefighters were taken to a local hospital where one was later released and the other was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, he said.

The fire is under investigation. Kear declined to speculate on its cause.

“It’s a sad day on many fronts but the work by the local fire department, mutual aid companies and the Spring Valley Police Department saved numerous, numerous lives here,” he added.

New York State Police public information officer Steven Nevel said several agencies responded to the alarm.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Sarah Morland in Gdansk and Derek Francis in Bengaluru; Editing by Alison Williams, John Stonestreet and Richard Chang)

New York City schools perpetuate racism, lawsuit contends

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – A group of New York City students filed a sweeping lawsuit on Tuesday that accuses the United States’ largest public school system of perpetuating racism by using a deeply flawed admissions process for selective programs that favors white students.

The lawsuit, which was brought in state court in Manhattan by several prominent civil rights attorneys, argues that a “rigged system” begins sorting children academically when they are as young as 4 years old, using criteria that disproportionately benefit more affluent, white students.

As a result, minority students are often denied an opportunity to gain access to more selective programs, from elementary to high school, and are instead relegated to failing schools that exacerbate existing inequities, the lawsuit contends.

“Nearly every facet of the New York City public education system operates not only to prop up, but also to affirmatively reproduce, the artificial racial hierarchies that have subordinated people of color for centuries in the United States,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint asks a judge to order the school system to eliminate its current admissions screening process for selective programs, including gifted and talented programs and more academically rigorous middle and high schools.

“For many Black and Latinx eighth graders, entire swaths of high schools and programs are functionally off-limits,” the lawsuit alleges.

The city’s public school system is the country’s largest, with approximately 1 million students, and has long been seen as deeply segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. Close to three-quarters of Black and Latino students attend schools that have less than 10% white students, while more than a third of white students attend schools with majority white populations, according to data collected by the City Council.

Two years ago, de Blasio attempted to eliminate the admissions exam for elite specialized high schools, but the state legislature, which has authority over the exam, rejected his proposal.

In a statement, Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the city’s education department, noted the de Blasio administration has recently made some changes, including using teacher evaluations rather than a standardized test to identify gifted 4-year-olds and temporarily suspending middle-school admissions screens.

“This administration has taken bold, unprecedented steps to advance equity in our admissions policies,” she said. “Our persistent work to drive equity for New York City families is ongoing, and we will review the suit.”

The lawsuit, however, argued those moves do not go far enough to address the problem.

At a news conference, de Blasio would not specifically comment on pending litigation. But he agreed that specialized high school admissions are “broken” and said the city needs a new system for its gifted and talented program.

The plaintiffs include IntegrateNYC, a youth-led nonprofit devoted to integrating the school system.

Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, is a lead attorney, along with civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and law professors from Yale University, Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan. The law firm Sidley Austin is also representing the plaintiffs.

In addition to admissions criteria, the lawsuit also faults the school system’s curriculum, arguing that students of color learn that “civilization is equated with whiteness” and that history is taught from a Eurocentric point of view.

While the school system is majority Black and Latino, most teachers and administrators are white, the lawsuit notes.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

New York City high school students to return to classroom on March 22: mayor

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Public high schools in New York City will welcome students back for in-person instruction on March 22, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday, the latest step by the United States’ largest school system to open classrooms shuttered due to COVID-19.

“We have all the pieces we need to bring high school back and bring it back strong, and, of course, bring it back safely,” de Blasio told a news conference. “We are bringing our schools back fully in September, period.”

The mayor has made restarting in-person instruction a priority, even as health experts have warned that teenagers are more likely to spread the virus than younger children, making the reopening of public high schools riskier than lower grades.

Students in Los Angeles, Chicago and other big cities have been shut out of the classroom since last year, as officials struggle to come to agreements with teacher unions on restarting in-person classes prior to widespread vaccinations.

Sari Rosenberg, who teaches at high school in Manhattan, said she misses the classroom but believes the risk remains too high given that teenagers can spread the disease without symptoms and teachers and staff are still getting inoculated.

“I think that it’s premature,” Rosenberg said.

Reopening the city’s public high schools will serve as the first major test for incoming schools chancellor Meisha Porter, who will take over from Richard Carranza this month. Carranza resigned from the post last month.

Porter said on Monday that about 55,000 high schoolers — out of a total population of 282,000 high school students — will resume in-person education on March 22.

New York City shut down schools in mid-November due to an increasing COVID-19 infection rate and has gradually brought students back to classrooms, starting with the youngest students and followed by middle school students last month.

De Blasio had promised high school students would not be far behind.

New York City’s school system is the largest in the United States with 1.1 million students and 1,800 buildings.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Nathan Layne; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

New coronavirus variant identified in New York: researchers

By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) – A new coronavirus variant that shares some similarities with a more transmissible and intractable variant discovered in South Africa is on the rise in New York City, researchers said on Wednesday.

The new variant, known as B.1.526, was first identified in samples collected in New York in November, and by mid-February represented about 12% of cases, researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said on Wednesday.

The variant was also described in research originally published online February 15 by California Institute of Technology scientists. Neither study has been reviewed by outside experts.

The Columbia researchers said an analysis of publicly available databases did not show a high prevalence of coronavirus variants recently identified in South Africa and Brazil in case samples from New York City and surrounding areas.

“Instead we found high numbers of this home-grown lineage,” Dr. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a statement.

The Columbia study was designed to search genomes from patient samples for mutations associated with worrisome British, South African and Brazilian virus variants. One mutation, E484K, in a genome region encoding the virus receptor binding domain, has been shown to be an escape mutation that greatly reduces the effectiveness of monoclonal and vaccine-induced antibodies.

Of the 65 virus samples containing the E484K mutation Ho’s team identified, a handful represented cases involving the known concerning variants, but 49 of the 65 belonged to the new New York B.1.526 lineage.

Studies have shown that recently launched coronavirus vaccines are still likely to neutralize the virus and protect against severe illness, even for infections with new variants. Vaccine makers are also working to develop booster shots to combat mutated versions of the virus.

New York City restaurants to resume limited indoor dining on Feb. 14: governor

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, citing an improvement in the state’s coronavirus metrics, on Friday allowed New York City’s restaurants to resume limited indoor dining, reflecting a restriction-easing trend taking hold in the country.

The thousands of New York City restaurants that have been surviving on takeout business and makeshift outdoor pavilions since mid-December may reopen their indoor dining areas at 25% of capacity on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, Cuomo said.

Despite the resumption of indoor dining, which comes on what is traditionally one of the industry’s busiest days, Cuomo sounded a note of caution, saying that he is ready to reverse the move if the trajectory of COVID-19 indicators worsens.

“There are possible scenarios that could develop that are problematic,” he said at a briefing.

The state’s hospitalization rate and percentage of residents testing positive for the virus have both abated since earlier this month when the post-holiday surge of infections hit its peak, he said.

Earlier this week, California eased its strict stay-at-home orders, allowing restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining and greater social mixing, as public health authorities there also reported slower rates of infections and hospitalizations.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

New York City to enforce quarantine order for U.K. travelers with home visits -mayor

(Reuters) – New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday said members of the city Sheriff’s office would start paying home visits to enforce a quarantine order for travelers from the United Kingdom in an effort to stop the spread of a new COVID-19 variant found in that country.

De Blasio said that all international travelers to New York City would start receiving a Department of Health Commissioner’s order to quarantine, delivered via certified mail, and travelers could face a $1000 fine per day for violating the rules.

The city Sheriff’s office will check on travelers from the U.K. at their homes or hotels to ensure compliance, de Blasio said, taking extra precaution out of concern that those travelers could bring a new, highly transmissible variant of the virus to New York.

“We’re going to provide them with that commissioner’s order, but then there’s going to be a follow up, direct home visit or hotel visit from the sheriff’s deputy to confirm that they are following the quarantine,” de Blasio said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

New York City changes admissions at many schools to ease racial segregation

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City is overhauling how it admits students to some of its most competitive public schools to make them less segregated by race and wealth, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday.

Some selective Manhattan high schools, particularly in wealthy neighborhoods, are allowed to give children who live nearby priority in admissions, which has tended to put children living in poorer neighborhoods at a disadvantage. These so-called geographic priorities will be ended over the coming two years, making it easier for children from anywhere to apply for a spot, the mayor said at a news conference.

The city will also end “screening” practices at hundreds of middle schools that admit students based on a mixture of grades, test results, attendance rates.

These practices led to disproportionately high admissions of white and Asian students and fewer Black and Latino students in the best-performing schools in the nation’s largest and most diverse education system, which serves some 1.1 million children. Admissions will instead be determined by a random lottery.

“We have been doing this work for seven years to more equitably redistribute resources throughout our school system,” de Blasio told reporters. “I think these changes will improve justice and fairness.”

Although calls to overhaul school admissions long predate the novel coronavirus pandemic, the disruption caused by school closures to stem the spread of COVID-19 was a factor in the overhaul: for example, some state exams were canceled and attendance rates became more difficult to track, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told reporters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union welcomed the changes but said they should have come sooner, and called for the permanent removal of screening at the high-school level.

“It should not have taken a pandemic to finally remove discriminatory admissions screens for children applying to middle school and to remove the egregious district priorities that concentrate wealth and resources into a few schools,” NYCLU organizer Toni Smith-Thompson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Tom Brown)

Storm may help U.S. Northeast contain coronavirus but could disrupt vaccine delivery

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A winter storm that has blasted the U.S. Northeast with snow, rain and gusty winds was likely to dump a foot or more of snow on parts of New England before heading out to sea on Thursday.

The first major snowstorm of the season forced much of the population to obey stay-at-home coronavirus orders, but also disrupted travel, possibly including distribution of the new COVID-19 vaccine.

By early Thursday morning, the storm had dumped more snow on New York City than all of last year’s winter storms combined, the National Weather Service said.

It also brought its wintry mix to Washington, parts of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania on Wednesday, affecting an area home to more than 50 million people.

Forecasts showed it would pummel Boston and parts of the New England region before heading out to sea around nightfall.

Before then, many areas could expect 12 to 18 inches of snow.

Wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour were likely to knock down trees and power lines, the National Weather Service said.

Roads were treacherous. A pileup of 30 to 60 cars on Interstate-80 in Pennsylvania on Wednesday killed two people and injured more, state police said.

At the same time, trucks were delivering the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccine. Healthcare workers around the country started receiving the first inoculations this week.

“We are also watching very carefully the delivery of the vaccine,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told a news conference on Wednesday, noting that some 35 hospitals in his state were expecting deliveries between Wednesday and Friday. “If we didn’t have enough already on our hands, that’s another dimension.”

The New York area’s three major airports reported 20% to 30% of flights were canceled on Wednesday and more cancellations were expected. Amtrak reduced rail service.

New Jersey Transit on Thursday extended its suspension of all rail service, in addition to halting several bus lines including those destined for New York City.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Timothy Garnder in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Winter storm set to deliver disruptive blow to U.S. Northeast

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A major winter storm was making its way up the U.S. East Coast on Wednesday, ready to deliver a disruptive blow to the region, with up to 2 feet (60 cm) of snow in parts of the Northeast and freezing rain in some Mid-Atlantic areas, forecasters said.

The Nor’easter, which was already bringing a wintry mix of precipitation to Virginia and North Carolina early in the day, was moving up the coast that is home to more than 50 million people before exiting the Boston area on Thursday afternoon, they said.

Meteorologist Bob Oravec of the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said the forecast could have been worse if not for the speed at which the system was traveling.

“It’s not a slow-moving system at all, so it’s not going to be a very prolonged snow event,” Oravec said by phone.

Ground zero for snow accumulation is an area that includes several ski resorts stretching from central Pennsylvania to upstate New York, where 18 to 24 inches was expected, Oravec said.

“Typically, when you have a big snowstorm like this, you can have snow totals one to two inches plus per hour,” he added.

But a much larger area that includes the New York City area is likely to get more than a foot of snow, he said.

New York City officials began warning residents on Tuesday of the potential for hazardous travel and urged people to stay off the roads.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that it was shaping up to be the first major snowstorm in a couple of years, “and people need to take it seriously.”

New York City schools, which just recently reopened their classrooms after a brief pandemic-induced shutdown, were set to go fully remote on Thursday when students are likely to wake up to more than a foot of snow on the ground, de Blasio said. The snow could significantly reduce visibility and potentially cripple travel in places, while winds of up to 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour) could down trees and power lines, causing power outages, the weather service said.

Many areas of North Carolina and southwestern Virginia were expected to get freezing rain that will leave a quarter-inch of ice on the roads, the service said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brian in Chicago)