How N.Y.C.’s Conservative Bastion Became a Virus Hot Spot

By Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Alexandra E. Petri

Staten Island has bristled at coronavirus restrictions, but now has the highest positive test rate in the city.

A mobile testing station arrived in Conference House Park in the Tottenville neighborhood in Staten Island on Tuesday.
A mobile testing station arrived in Conference House Park in the Tottenville neighborhood in Staten Island on Tuesday.Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

When supporters flocked to a rally for President Trump on Staten Island last month, many left their masks at home. Others have been spotted mingling in barbershops and at family gatherings — signs of a dwindling vigilance that has given some neighbors pause. By Tuesday, the coronavirus outbreak here had gotten so bad that public health officials descended on the borough’s strip malls and street corners, hoping to slow the virus’s spread.

As New York City faces the prospect of a second wave of infections, Staten Island finds itself at the leading edge of the virus’s resurgence. The borough’s seven-day positive test rate is the highest in the city — a full point higher than the citywide rate.

Two Staten Island ZIP codes have risen above 5 percent, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to target the borough for a “Day of Action” on Tuesday, sending a flood of volunteers to raise awareness about the problem and to combat growing fatigue with the limitations that have become a daily part of life for millions of New Yorkers.

On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared most of the borough a “yellow zone,” limiting outdoor gatherings to 25 people — private indoor gatherings are now limited to 10 people statewide — and capping attendance at places of worship at 50 percent capacity, along with other restrictions.

Staten Island has long diverged from the rest of the city both culturally and politically, and some borough residents bristle at restrictions in a way that can at times more closely resemble the backlash in Republican strongholds in other parts of the nation — places that are now grappling with their own rise in cases.

Many here take coronavirus precautions seriously, pulling masks over their faces as they emerge from their cars. But some say they have seen other Staten Islanders begin to let their guard down. Whether the borough can beat back this latest surge is a question that could help determine whether the city at large can keep the pandemic at bay.

After months of largely successful efforts to rein in the virus, New York City has seen daily cases climb, surpassing 1,000 positive tests five days in a row last week — a level that last occurred in May. As city health officials continued to discuss new restrictions on Monday, Mr. de Blasio warned that New Yorkers have “one last chance” to stop a second wave that could force the closing of schools.

For a city that has already suffered through severe shutdowns of its economy, losing the slow but steady gains of recent months, such as a limited return to indoor dining at restaurants, is a chilling prospect.

Mr. Cuomo announced on Wednesday that New York State’s daily rate of positive test results was 2.9 percent, with more than 1,600 hospitalizations, in another troubling sign that the virus was spreading in the region. The state’s seven-day positivity rate stood at 2.4 percent.

Staten Island will test the city and state’s strategy of tamping down clusters of cases as they emerge, as officials did in Orthodox Jewish sections of Brooklyn and Queens recently and in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Soundview in the Bronx.

But even as cases surge across the city, officials say tracing the origin of clusters has become nearly impossible. It remains to be seen whether Staten Island is a temporary hot spot, or a harbinger.

ImageThe Tottenville neighborhood of Staten Island has one of the highest positive test rates in the city.
The Tottenville neighborhood of Staten Island has one of the highest positive test rates in the city.Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Health officials have not said why specifically Staten Island is seeing more cases, but encouraged residents to follow the same precautions officials are pushing across the city, from wearing a mask to avoiding large gatherings. While some cases are linked to travel or nursing homes, health officials say they largely do not know how people are getting infected.

The uptick in Staten Island is happening in a swath of New York where Republican leaders have fought restrictions by Democrats who control the city. Residents have strong social ties to New Jersey, and the borough is home to many police officers and firefighters. Staten Island is a solitary stronghold in the city for Mr. Trump, who has downplayed the importance of masks and the seriousness of the virus.

Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who is leading in her bid to oust the Democrat who represents Staten Island in Congress, rejected the idea that Mr. Trump had anything to do with how residents of the borough viewed masks.

“I think it’s probably that Republicans don’t like mandates as much — that could be some of the reluctance,” she said.

Joseph Borelli, a Republican city councilman who represents Staten Island, said he could not explain the increase in cases. But he has seen it himself.

“A friend of mine tested positive — a firefighter who likely got it at his firehouse working. I was in contact with him, so I got a test yesterday,” said Mr. Borelli, who said the test came back negative.

Mr. Borelli, an ally of Mr. Trump, said he hoped that Mr. de Blasio did not “rush” to shut the city down again. He said that two factors might have contributed to new cases on Staten Island — police officers and firefighters who never stopped working could get the virus at work and bring it home, and his borough’s closeness with New Jersey, which was seeing a huge rise in cases and a test positivity rate above 7 percent.

“Staten Island is more similar in density and lifestyle to New Jersey than the rest of the city,” Mr. Borelli said. “Most of my constituents on the South Shore regularly shop and visit family in New Jersey.”

On Monday, Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat in his second term, announced Staten Island as the city’s next target for combating the virus.

“We’re having some challenges in Staten Island, so we’re going to focus a lot of resources there to protect the people on Staten Island and to stop this second wave,” the mayor said.

The news added to what had already been a tough week for Staten Island, a borough that often feels neglected and misunderstood. Within a few days, residents learned that the Yankees were pulling their minor league team out of the borough and that Mr. Trump had lost his re-election bid, despite support in their Republican oasis.

More than 60 percent of Staten Island voters supported Mr. Trump this year, compared with about 27 percent citywide, though mail-in ballots have not yet been counted. Mr. Trump got about 56 percent of the vote on Staten Island in 2016. Nearly three-quarters of Staten Island residents are white, compared with less than 50 percent of residents citywide.

At a shopping center in the borough on Tuesday, Kathy Melka, who lives in Eltingville, said she was taking the virus seriously. She wears a mask outdoors and avoids social gatherings, except for her trips to church. But she said some Staten Islanders seemed to be less cautious.

“I think people are getting careless now and congregating in groups without masks on,” Ms. Melka, 70, said. “I saw it in the park the other day.”

The Great Kills and Tottenville neighborhoods on the southern edge of Staten Island have the highest seven-day positive test rates in the city, at 5.44 percent and 5.3 percent, according to city data. The overall seven-day rate for the borough is 3.59 percent, compared with the citywide average of 2.42 percent. Only one of the island’s dozen ZIP codes has a positivity rate below the citywide average.

At Tottenville Bagels, Doug Hopkins, 36, who lives in Woodrow and works in Tottenville, said he only wore a mask indoors.

“When I’m outside, I don’t wear a mask,” he said. “I need to breathe air. Out of respect, I wear it in the store.”

Nearly 20 people waited outside a free testing tent at the Conference House Park visitors center in Tottenville on Tuesday afternoon, including two police officers who work on the island. Paul Christman, a Tottenville resident, was one of few people wearing a mask at the park nearby. Mr. Christman, a 60-year-old retired court officer who has underlying conditions, was out for his daily exercise.

“I’m doing what I need to do for myself and those around me,” he said.

Mr. Christman said health officials had always predicted there will be a spike in the colder months, but Mr. Trump could have set a better example.

“If the president had worn masks, maybe you’d get 10 percent more of the population wearing them and not have the spread you have,” he said. “If you get one more person wearing a mask, it’s a win.”