Editorial: Decisions that lives depend on

The Island Now

Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported Tuesday that 3,920 people had tested positive statewide for COVID-19 the day before and 41 people had died. That brought the state’s death toll to 26,482.

Cuomo said Tuesday’s numbers were part of the “tremendous increases” that had raised New York’s infection rate to 3.62 percent.

Particularly worrisome were “focus zones” where the rate of infection was much higher than the state average and additional restrictions had been imposed.

In Nassau County, this included Great Neck, which had a 3.45 percent seven-day rolling average, and Massapequa Park, which had a rolling average of 3.78 percent.

As worrisome as these numbers were, New York’s infection rate was among the lowest in the country. Some states in the Upper Midwest showed more than four times New York’s infection rate.

And for the first time, the country added more than one million cases in each of the past two weeks. The total number of cases exceeded 4.5 million for the month of November, with 1,500 people dying each day. Total deaths in the country were 267,000 for the year.

So the timing could not have been worse when the U.S. Supreme Court late last Wednesday barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Cuomo had imposed to combat the coronavirus.

The court’s 5-4 ruling was at odds with earlier ones concerning churches in California and Nevada when Chief Justice John Roberts joined four liberal justices in deciding the cases.

In a concurring opinion in the case from California in May, Roberts wrote what would seem to be obvious: that government officials should not be “subject to second-guessing by an unelected federal judiciary, which lacks the background, competence and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable.”

We would add now particularly at a time when the result could be avoidable deaths on a massive scale.

But right-wing ideology appears to have replaced common sense on the court with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett taking the place of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Supreme Court’s order last week addressed two applications, one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the other by two synagogues, an Orthodox Jewish organization and two individuals.

The applications said Cuomo’s restrictions violated constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion. The one from the synagogue added that Cuomo had “singled out a particular religion for blame and retribution for an uptick in a society-wide pandemic.”

Cuomo had cited the rise in cases in Orthodox Jewish areas, but his restrictions covered all “houses of worship.”

The restrictions, based on infection rates, divide areas into color-coded zones. “Red zones,” where the coronavirus risk is highest, say no more than 10 people may attend religious services. In “orange zones,” attendance is capped at 25. This applies even to churches that can seat more than 1,000 people.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch gave a clear demonstration of why Roberts was right to be concerned about an unelected federal judiciary overriding the decisions of health experts.

“It is time – past time – to make plain that while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Gorsuch wrote.

Actually, there is a world in which the Constitution should allow governors to set different rules for liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques. It is one based on science and data. Some of us live in it.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor made short work in dispensing with Gorsuch’s argument in her dissent.

She pointed out that New York had imposed restrictions at least as strict on comparable institutions and gatherings such as “lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performance where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Gorsuch, she noted, “did not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID-19: large groups of people gathering, speaking and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time.”

Concerns about Orthodox synagogues in Great Neck not adhering to Health Department protocols have sparked angry denials and charges that the people complaining were anti-Semitic.

This makes little sense. There is no doubt that anti-Semitism exists, but if houses of worship are challenging COVID-19 restrictions based on freedom of religion, they can’t complain when people criticize their houses of worship.

The best argument on the issue of religious bias and government’s role in combating the virus came from Pope Francis.

In an op-ed article in The New York Times, the pope lauded governments that acted decisively to protect health and save lives by imposing “strict measures to contain the outbreak.”

“Yet some groups protested, refusing to keep their distance, marching against travel restrictions – as if measures that government must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!” the pope wrote. “Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.”

Who would have thought that the pope would show more respect for science and government’s role in protecting us than the majority of the Supreme Court?

So what to do?

We can start by understanding that there is a difference between complying with the law – especially as determined by the newly realigned Supreme Court – and doing what is right.

Houses of worship may not be held legally to the state’s restrictions, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t comply.

In fact, most religious institutions on the North Shore are already doing that, telling congregants to adhere to state protocols and holding virtual services.

Virtual events do not have the same sense of immediacy and belonging that in-person events have.

On the other hand, virtual events do not pose the threat of illness and death to people who attend in-person events. And those they come in contact with, including frontline workers in hospitals who have been putting their lives at risk since the beginning of the pandemic.

If a house of worship does not intend to comply with the state’s recommendations, it should at least inform the immediate community what its policy is – to allow people to decide how they choose to respond.

This should not be limited to houses of worship. We all have a responsibility in this fight.

There is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel with the discovery and production of vaccines. But the impact of vaccines may be months away and health experts predict that the rate of infections and death will get worse, perhaps far worse, until then.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, it is that much more important that we make sure to do the right thing in Nassau County and across the state.

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