Staten Island Republicans are calling a New York Times story “reckless” and “offensive” for tying rising coronavirus cases in their borough to the community’s conservative politics and culture.
The Times’ story, published Wednesday under the headline “How N.Y.C.’s Conservative Bastion Became a Virus Hot Spot,” reports that Staten Islanders have “bristled at coronavirus restrictions” implemented by Democrats who control the city.
Coronavirus cases are on the rise nationwide and in New York. Staten Island, the sole Republican stronghold in liberal New York City, has the city’s highest positive test rate.
Despite the headline, the Times’ story doesn’t actually offer any conclusions about how, exactly, Staten Island became a virus hot spot. In fact, according to the article, “health officials have not said why specifically Staten Island is seeing more cases” and “they largely do not know how people are getting infected.”
But the paper strongly points to the borough’s conservatism as an explanation.
The Times reports that Staten Island’s Republican leaders have fought restrictions pursued by Democrats, and that the borough was a stronghold for President Donald Trump, “who has downplayed the importance of masks and the seriousness of the virus.”
The paper relies on generalities and anecdotes to make its case, including reporting that “some say” they’ve seen Staten Islanders let their guard down, and that people without masks “have been spotted mingling in barbershops and family gatherings.” It also fails to mention that deep-blue parts of Queens, such as Ditmars Steinway and Richmond Hill, trail the case numbers in the worst-hit parts of Staten Island by mere tenths of a percentage.
“To draw such a reckless and offensive conclusion, just simply because we’re a conservative-minded people, we are flagrantly disregarding any safety protocols whatsoever, it’s just inappropriate,” said Brendan Lantry, chair of the Staten Island GOP.
If the community’s conservative politics and culture were to blame, then Staten Island should have been a virus hot spot all year, Lantry said. But it wasn’t. Rather, he said, the largely suburban borough had lower rates of spread than other places in the city earlier in the year.
“Suddenly, out of nowhere, we have this spike and it’s because of our conservative principles? It doesn’t make any sense,” Lantry said. “These conservative principles didn’t get thrust upon us in the past month.”
Staten Island is a decidedly suburban community, the kind of place where people live in detached, single-family homes with yards and get around in cars. There are no mass-transit hubs or large pedestrian plazas for the virus to spread, said Republican City Councilman Joseph Borelli, who represents Staten Island.
“It’s hard for them to pinpoint why people would be getting this,” Borelli said of the Times. “They were hoping to find mask-less Republicans just wandering the streets, and that just doesn’t exist anywhere on Staten Island to begin with.”
Borelli said it appears to him “there is a bit of fatigue” regarding the city’s virus regulations, especially those that appear arbitrary and hypocritical in light of Democratic officials’ indulgence of street protests and celebrations for favored causes. Borelli has, for example, objected to the state’s imposition of a ten-person limit on private gatherings and criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for celebrating in the streets shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of New Yorkers after Biden’s victory was announced on Saturday.
But Lantry said he believes Staten Islanders are still wearing masks and social distancing.
“I can only speak from what I see, and what I see is when I go into a store, everybody is wearing a mask,” he said.
Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican leading in her race for Congress, told the Times that she believes Republicans are generally more averse to mandates than Democrats. But in an interview with National Review, she said conservatives also “understand it’s important to preserve public health.” The people she sees on the streets generally wear masks, she said.
“I did a lot of campaigning over the last couple of months, and I saw that people were responsible wearing their masks,” Malliotakis said.
The Republicans also complained of double standards in the press.
The Times’ story leads with a reference to a Trump rally in early October where “many left their masks at home.” However, New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was unable to link the rally to a rise in coronavirus cases, according to an article in the local Staten Island Advance newspaper.
Malliotakis said the press gives little scrutiny to liberal gatherings where the virus could spread.
“There are thousands of people that were just dancing in the street celebrating what they perceive to be a (Joe) Biden victory. And no one has anything to say about that,” she said. “Same thing with protests that we’ve had over the course of the summer.”
Bortelli pointed at the large number of front-line workers – police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers – who live in Staten Island and have continued interacting with the public throughout the pandemic as one possible reason for the uptick in the borough’s coronavirus cases. He also pointed to Staten Island’s close ties with New Jersey, where the virus is surging.
“Every single weekend, thousands upon thousands of Staten Islanders are visiting family and restaurants in New Jersey, and vice versa,” he said. “I think when you see a rise in Jersey, you’re just inevitably going to see a rise in Staten Island.”
De Blasio targeted Staten Island for a “Day of Action” on Tuesday, sending in health workers and volunteers to fan out across the community and offer residents personal protective equipment, information, and tests.
When asked about a possible connection between Staten Island’s politics and the rise in coronavirus cases, health department commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi danced around the topic during a press conference on Tuesday.
“We know this virus doesn’t respect any boundaries, whether they’re geographic or you know, with respect to political ideology,” he said according to a transcript.
Health officials estimate about 5 percent of the coronavirus cases in the community are coming from congregate settings, like nursing homes, and about 10 percent of cases are linked to travel, Jay Varma, a senior adviser for public health, said during the press conference.
But they can’t trace the source of the vast majority of cases.
“Probably around 50 percent or more we don’t have a way to directly attribute their source of infection,” he said. “And that’s a concern.”