Judge refuses to block New York COVID-19 restrictions

A federal judge has upheld Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting worship to 10 congregants in communities seeking spikes in coronavirus infections

Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in an order Friday that even though the rules clearly harmed religious groups, it is not in the public interest to block the restrictions right now if they might be helping prevent a wave of new infections.

“In fact, if the court issues an injunction and the state is correct about the acuteness of the threat currently posed by hotspot neighborhoods, the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the spring,” Garaufis wrote.

The ruling doesn’t end the lawsuit, but denies the church’s request for a temporary injunction.

The judge said if the diocese ends up ultimately winning, the worst that would happen to the diocese’s churches is that 26 of them “will have experienced extra weeks with severely curtailed in-person ceremonies.”

“That is not meant, in any way, to downplay the seriousness of that constitutional harm,” the judge said. But he said the restrictions’ potential to save lives outweighed that temporary damage.

The diocese argued that the state’s decision last week to limit attendance at houses of worship in six areas where COVID-19 infections have spiked was arbitrary and unfair. The governor’s order also shut down nonessential businesses and schools in the hot spots.

Church officials said they implemented social-distancing measures for religious services that had largely protected congregations, including placing communion wafers in congregants’ hands rather than on their tongues.

Despite that, the governor “continues to run roughshod over the diocese’s right to worship, without any basis—not a rational one, not a narrowly tailored one, simply none,” the plaintiff lawyers said in court papers filed Friday.

Similar lawsuits have been filed by Jewish religious groups.

In their filings, state lawyers said that within the state’s so-called “red zones,” just under 5% of all people who took a COVID-19 test were testing positive, down from nearly 8% in late September. They said that shows the restrictions are working, but said things had not improved enough to lift restrictions.

State lawyers have also argued that houses of worship can open up in the “red zone” center of hot spots unlike nonessential businesses.

“This response respects the rights of worshipers while curtailing the spread of the virus and protecting the public health from this deadly disease,” Assistant Attorney General Seth Farber said in a Friday filing.

“The restrictions in the cluster zones should not be reconsidered unless and until there has been a decrease in rates for a sustained period of time,” the papers said. They added: “This response respects the rights of worshipers while curtailing the spread of the virus and protecting the public health from this deadly disease.”

The new measures were announced Oct. 6. The Cuomo administration hasn’t said exactly when they will be lifted, but the initial plan was to have them in place for at least two weeks.

A group of priests and Orthodox congregants sued in federal court in June over Cuomo’s previous limits impacting religious gatherings, and a judge ruled that New York can’t have stricter limits for houses of worship than nonessential businesses.

The group is now in court arguing Cuomo’s new cluster zone plan violates that court order. A federal judge Friday gave Cuomo and New York City until Oct. 20 to respond.