The congregation that hosted an indoor wedding where more than 1,000 maskless guests celebrated in cramped quarters is being hit with a $15,000 fine for the “amazingly irresponsible” event, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Inside City Hall Monday night.
The city’s health department also sent the congregation, Yetev Lev D’Satmar in Williamsburg, a written warning about future indoor gatherings.
“There are clear rules in place to save lives across the city. This gathering was not only illegal, it was deeply immoral as lives were put at risk in a blatant disregard of the law and public health,” mayoral spokesperson Bill Neidhardt told POLITICO. “There must be consequences for that.”
The wedding drew condemnations from several people running for the City Council seat representing the Satmar sect in Williamsburg. But one high-profile candidate declined to blame the community, which has been repeatedly cited in the media for Covid-19 violations and also comprises an influential voting bloc in that district.
City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi sent the congregation’s leader a cease-and-desist letter condemning the Nov. 8 wedding, which was reported in the New York Post over the weekend.
The article included video of attendants singing and dancing side by side, with nary a mask in sight. It also pointed out that next door to the Hooper Street building is a city firehouse. The FDNY, tasked with checking buildings for pandemic violations, told the Post it was not notified to conduct an inspection.
The wedding was held “in violation of numerical limitations of attendees and without adhering to required physical distancing of six feet and the requirement of wearing face coverings if individuals are closer than six feet,” Chokshi wrote.
He further described the wedding as “an act that is dangerous to human life or detrimental to health,” in accordance with the city’s nuisance law.
The letter cited orders put forth by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, including one issued on June 6 limiting indoor gatherings to 50 people, as long as the site’s maximum capacity is double that.
Chokshi slapped the synagogue with a $15,000 fine, citing the mayor’s Oct. 10 executive order regulating nonessential gatherings, and warned congregants to avoid similar events.
The wedding became an issue in the crowded race for the 33rd Council district, which includes Williamsburg.
“They knew it wouldn’t be allowed because they arranged it surreptitiously. A flagrant disregard for safety,” Council candidate Ben Solotaire told POLITICO. “Everyone has sacrificed in the pandemic and the Hasidic community should do no less.”
He recommended the city consider further charges if any future cases of Covid-19 are traced to this wedding, and suggested mask giveaways in the neighborhood.
“My concern is that people from outside the Satmar community are seen to not have a legitimate opinion as to what happens in the Satmar community,” Victoria Cambranes, another Council candidate, said. “Are we one community, or are we micro-communities within communities?”
“This fine is a good start, but where have we been from the beginning? Why is it coming in November when the pandemic started in March?” she added.
Stu Sherman, another candidate, called it “shocking & sad” on Twitter.
“Mayor, gov need to do more to educate the community; city council can help provide that leadership and build the trust we need,” he added. “If we can’t convince folks to wear masks now, how will we convince them to get a vaccine in a few months? This isn’t abstract – it’s a test run.”
Another candidate, Lincoln Restler, who is widely considered a leading contender for the seat, was much more measured in his response. Restler, who worked in the de Blasio administration, has a close relationship with the Satmar community and is likely to receive its political support.
“I strongly support all the public health guidance, including the limitation on gatherings. After nine months people are understandably tired of restrictions, but we cannot ease up,” Restler told POLITICO. “We’re all in this together and the only way we stop the spread is if every one of us does our part in following the health experts, as difficult as it may be.”
He said he chose his words carefully “because I do not think shaming or blaming people actually changes behavior.”
“Every community has been letting their guard down and taking more risks and now we have community spread of the virus citywide,” Restler said. “It is time for each of us to acknowledge where we went wrong and tighten up. These mistakes must be a reminder to do better.”
A board member of the congregation wrote a letter protesting coverage of the wedding in the Yiddish-language newspaper, Der Blatt, which first reported on the gathering.
“In fact, the event that you covered was not planned. It was the religious ceremony and not a party, where a crowd spontaneously and unexpected[ly] appeared. Our only fault was to not have anticipated the crowd and been ready to close the doors when the appropriate attendance was reached,” Joel Freidman, the board member, wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided to POLITICO.
Freidman said the publication “owes the Satmar community … a complete apology.”
Satmar weddings are typically large affairs with hundreds of guests, and this particular event celebrated the nuptials of the grandson of the Satmar sect’s Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum. Meanwhile his brother and rival, Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, was forced to cancel the wedding of his grandson last month.