Jewish community braces for rise of Omicron in NYC

As Omicron spreads, fears are growing that December 2021 could be a repeat of the horrors of March 2020

New Yorkers waiting in line on the month of May (photo credit: ALEXI ROSENFELD)
New Yorkers waiting in line on the month of May
(photo credit: ALEXI ROSENFELD)

NEW YORK – Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the old saying goes.

With restaurants across New York City rapidly shuttering, lines at COVID-19 test centers spreading around the block, and breakthrough virus cases and deaths on the rise as the Omicron variant spreads, fears are growing that December 2021 could be a repeat of the horrors of March 2020, when the city was the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Despite masking and vaccine mandates, like all New Yorkers, the Jewish community is bracing for further closures of restaurants, synagogues, schools and more, as the surge skyrockets and halts holiday plans.

“This feels very much like March 2020,” Inna Mashiach, co-owner of Brooklyn-based Israeli café Reunion, said this week. “There’s a huge outbreak, especially in our area of Brooklyn.”

Mashiach said traffic was significantly slower over the weekend.

 People line up at a COVID-19 testing site in Times Square during the coronavirus disease pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, December 17, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI/FILE PHOTO) People line up at a COVID-19 testing site in Times Square during the coronavirus disease pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, December 17, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI/FILE PHOTO)

“I’m sure that will continue into the new year,” she said.

Closing down throughout the coronavirus crisis was never an option for Mashiach, who has co-owned Reunion with her husband, Eldad, since 2014. Instead, the Israeli couple found ways to be innovative.

“As newcomers to America, my husband and I don’t have the option of shutting down. We don’t have family here or a security net to fall back on. We did everything we can to remain open during these hard times,” she told the Post last year.

“We invested in special heating lamps to offer patrons a chance to eat outside in healthy conditions despite the snow.”

But the rise of Omicron forced the resourceful restaurateurs to shut down for at least one day this week, after some staff had been infected.

“We had to close today to give the opportunity for everyone to get tested and to reassess,” she said. “We hope to open again tomorrow and continue serving our community. We know we will overcome and get through this surge.”

In Manhattan, the hotbed borough of transmission, with a rate of 790.87 cases per 100,000 people, the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center announced all in-person programs and classes, including group fitness, will be suspended or pivoted to virtual format through January 2.

“Our community’s health remains our top priority, and fortunately our virtual presence has been well established.

“We are so mindful of the need for people to connect with one another, especially during the holidays, and we remain committed to helping to facilitate that,” JCC Manhattan CEO Rabbi Joy Levitt said.

Rabbi Diana Fersko, who leads The Village Temple, a reform congregation in Manhattan, said she is concerned about Omicron and is “proceeding with caution.

“We are currently on a preplanned break for our religious school, and had already planned to have two Zoom services this week and next so that we could allow our custodial staff holiday time with family,” she said. “After those two weeks, we will reassess.

“We feel deeply blessed to have enjoyed a season of togetherness with in-person services and the sounds of children learning together in our religious school,” Fersko continued.

“Distance is a very difficult thing for the Jewish community. Judaism is organized around the concept of togetherness – praying as a group, learning in pairs, celebrating life’s joys in public, mourning life’s challenges in community. We will proceed with caution but will do everything in our power to continue to be together – as life should be.”

The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan announced that it would be closing its high school and switching to virtual learning, until it adjourns for winter break in the middle of next week. The decision was prompted by 14 COVID cases over the previous two days. The school has a vaccine mandate for students.

“In light of this trend, as well as unknowns about spread within grades, in consultation with our advisory committee, we have decided that in-school learning for the high school is not safe enough for these final days before winter break,” Ariela Dubler, the head of school, wrote. “There is, of course, much uncertainty at this time.”

The Shefa School in Manhattan, which serves students with learning disabilities, is also going remote until winter break.

On the synagogue front, a number of synagogues have announced a return to all-virtual services. In addition to Romemu, Central Synagogue, the large Reform congregation in Midtown, also cited the rise in cases and announced on its website that “this week’s worship services for Shabbat... will only be held virtually.” East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn made the same decision, as did Lab/Shul, a nondenominational congregation in Manhattan.

MORE THAN 10 areas of New York City saw their seven-day positivity rates surpass 10%, and 17 communities reported 300 or more new COVID-19 cases, between December 10 and 16, according to the latest data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.The soaring numbers suggest a larger number of breakthrough cases than before, especially since many areas with higher infection rates also reported most, if not all, of their residents as being fully vaccinated.

Coronavirus has already claimed at least 34,000 lives in New York City since March 2020, when “the city that never sleeps” was nearly deserted for weeks. Since the vaccine rollout in late 2020, the city has slowly rebounded. Now, the variant threatens to upend holiday plans and disrupt the former pandemic epicenter’s progress once again, including a pause on many tourist favorites less than a week before Christmas.

Traditionally, New York welcomes a rush of visitors, and their money, during the season.

Radio City Music Hall announced last week it was canceling the four remaining Christmas shows starring its famous “Rockette” dancers due to “increasing challenges from the pandemic.”

The multi-award-winning musical Hamilton was also canceled without notice.

The popular sketch television show Saturday Night Live said it would not film in front of a live audience, and would have a limited cast and crew.

With just weeks remaining in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio sought this week to prepare New York City residents for what he and his health team expect to be a case surge that will rapidly intensify over the next month. But he expects it to be short-lived.

“We’re going to have a challenging few weeks, but the good news is – based on everything our healthcare leadership understands at this moment – we are talking about a matter of weeks,” de Blasio said Monday.

“We’re going to see a really fast upsurge in cases. We’re going to see a lot of New Yorkers affected by Omicron.

“So far, the cases are more mild than what we’ve experienced previously, but there’s a lot of evidence we’re still waiting for,” he added. “What we do know is Omicron moves very fast; it’s very transmissible. It moves fast; we have to move faster. And we do know vaccination helps against Omicron.”

Debby Hirshman, cohead of K-8 Jewish day school Schechter Manhattan, also remains optimistic that the surge will be short-term and won’t disrupt schools, forcing learning to return virtual or close entirely like in 2020.

“We’ve been a vigilant school on COVID since its inception,” she said. “As soon as vaccinations were available, they were required at school. We continue to test and follow all laws. We do not have any plans to shut down. It’s not even an applicable question. At this moment, we are in session all week until holiday break and back in January.”

JTA contributed to this report.