New York City is dismissing fines on more than two dozen shuls cited for violating state restrictions while in red and orange zones, Councilman Kalman Yeger said on Wednesday afternoon, after the restrictions were ruled unconstitutional Tuesday by a federal judge.
In response to rising COVID-19 infection rates in the late summer and fall, Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted in early October a “Cluster Action Initiative,” categorizing parts of the state into various colored “zones,” based on COVID-test-positivity rates. In the most-restrictive “red” zone, guidelines included limiting services at houses of worship to 10 people or 25 percent of maximum occupancy, whichever is fewer. In the intermediate “orange” zone, maximum attendance at houses of worship wa limited to the lesser of 25 people or 33% of occupancy.
Much of the enforcement of the state restrictions fell to city agencies, which levied fines of $15,000 on 26 shuls in Brooklyn and Queens.
While houses of worship were subject to these limitations, “essential businesses” were allowed to remain open without occupancy restriction in red zones; in orange zones, all businesses were allowed open except specific high-risk ones like barber shops and salons. Agudath Israel and the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese argued that this disparity was an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of religion. (In least-restrictive yellow zones, houses of worship were limited to 50% of occupancy — a restriction not challenged by the plaintiffs.)
After a landmark Supreme Court decision in November that ruled the restrictions must satisfy “strict scrutiny” — that they must be narrowly tailored to fulfill a compelling state interest in the least restrictive means possible — a federal judge on Tuesday issued a permanent injunction dismissing all the restrictions on houses of worship in red and orange zones. The Cuomo Administration did not contest the injunction, essentially admitting that the restrictions could not withstand strict scrutiny.
At his press conference Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked by a Hamodia reporter whether he will dismiss the fines, and the mayor was noncommittal, saying, “I need to talk to the Law Department about what we think of that decision and how we’re going to proceed.”
But Councilman Yeger subsequently told Hamodia that he’d spoken to New York City Sheriff Joseph Fucito at the time the press conference was occurring, and the sheriff indeed said the fines would be dismissed.
Yeger also told Hamodia he is “grateful” to Fucito “for the professional way he has handled the speedy dismissal of these summonses,” and “to the Agudas Yisroel of America and the Brooklyn Diocese for leading this legal battle.”
“The United States Constitution is the true victor here,” said the Councilman. “From the very beginning, the executive orders improperly targeted religious observance and discriminated against a small group of New Yorkers. It’s a shame the fight had to go all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but religious freedom prevailed, as I was always confident it would.”