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Gov. Cuomo threatens school funding over COVID-19 ‘red zone’ violations

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to yank state funding for New York City public and private religious schools on Wednesday after television cameras busted yeshivas operating in the southern Brooklyn coronavirus “red zone” in violation of new shutdown orders.

“If these schools are operating, it’s easy enough to find out — N.J. Burkett [of WABC-TV, Channel 7] did it, Gothamist did it,” Cuomo told reporters during a telephone press briefing. “You’d think the local government would have the capacity to do it. If they do not, we will withhold funding from the local government.”

Cuomo also threatened to withhold state funding for the private schools caught operating in the red zones, adding that the state would be “commencing with withholding funding against those schools.”

His staff did not immediately respond to questions about which programs he was threatening to withhold state funding from or to provide a list of the religious schools caught flouting new state rules aimed at containing the borough’s COVID-19 outbreak.

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A top Democrat in the state Senate quickly slammed the suggestion.

“If this threat is implemented and desperately needed funds are withheld, the legislature should reconvene immediately and revoke emergency powers,” tweeted the lawmaker, Mike Gianaris (D-Queens).

City Hall also fired back in with a tweet from de Blasio Press Secretary Bill Neidhardt.

“Let’s be clear: What drives NYC’s COVID response and enforcement is the threat of a second wave, not threats of federal or state funding cuts,” he wrote.

The latest funding threats from Cuomo came just hours after reporters from Channel 7 and the WNYC-owned news website busted yeshivas operating in the heavily Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood, despite all public and private schools being ordered closed last week.

Shutting down schools was part of a slew of new restrictions that Cuomo imposed on neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn, central Queens and in the Far Rockaways to contain a spike in coronavirus cases that threatened to build into a second wave of the pandemic.

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Non-essential businesses were also closed in the neighborhoods, restaurants were forced to cut service to just takeout, mass gatherings were prohibited and — most controversially — Cuomo limited houses of worship to a maximum of 25 percent capacity or 10 people.

Closed stores in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn
Closed stores in the Borough Park section of BrooklynGetty Images

The restrictions on prayers and other religious gatherings sparked a fierce backlash in the city’s Orthodox neighborhoods in recent days, including street protests where participants turned violent and attacked at least two journalists.

After an outcry, police arrested Heshy Jacob, a City Council wannabe and local gadfly captured on tape instigating a crowd to attack one of the reporters — Jacob Kornbluh, a scribe for Jewish Insider.

Cuomo’s ultimatum Wednesday is the latest example of the governor’s long-standing frustration with the light touch that city officials took on enforcing mask and social distancing restrictions imposed after the spring COVID-19 outbreak left more than 23,000 city residents dead.

City Hall countered that its approach — which focused on encouraging compliance and handing out masks, rather than issuing summonses — mirrored the tactics used by the Cuomo-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s buses, subways and commuter rails.

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However, Big Apple officials have acknowledged that their efforts struggled to make a dent in many of the city’s insular Orthodox communities, where misinformation about the coronavirus and testing runs rampant on popular group chats hosted by messaging service WhatsApp.

Further complicating matters, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s much-touted coronavirus testing and tracing program revealed to the City Council last month that it has fewer than half a dozen Yiddish speakers on staff.

City officials said they have hit 281 businesses — predominately in the COVID hot zones — with summonses for failing to properly implement Cuomo’s new regulations rolled out last week as of Tuesday at 3pm, according to the most recent stats.

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