TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—In reaction to several instances of cluster outbreaks of the coronavirus around New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Cluster Action Initiative earlier this week, which institutes restrictions in areas that are experiencing a cluster of infections.

The initiative takes a different approach than the state has previously used during the coronavirus era, using actual case numbers in a specific area instead of regions or zip codes to compartmentalize locations where actions need to be taken to stop outbreaks. Depending on the severity of the outbreak, the state will lay out different measures to attempt to stem further infections, using a yellow-orange-red sliding scale.

“We have what I call a COVID ‘Cluster’ problem,” Cuomo said. “A cluster problem is serious, because a cluster problem can grow.”

During his speech, Cuomo seemed to state that “cluster” classifications would not be based solely on a number of cases in a specific area, but also the density and infection rate of said areas. The Tompkins County Health Department has been classifying a cluster as three cases among people that are not housed together.

If somewhere is placed in a red zone, it means places of worship will be limited to 25 percent capacity or a 10 person maximum, mass gatherings will be prohibited, only essential businesses will be allowed to open, dining will be limited to takeout only options and schools will be forced to close and utilize remote learning. If classified as orange, the restrictions would include places of worship at 33 percent capacity and 25 person maximums, 10 people maximum on indoor or outdoor mass gatherings, high-risk non-essential businesses would be closed (like gyms or personal care locations), outdoor dining only would be allowed with four people maximum per table and schools would have to employ remote learning.

Yellow zones would include 50 percent capacity for places of worship, a 25 people cap on mass gatherings, businesses would be allowed to remain open, indoor and outdoor dining would be allowed but still with the four person maximum and schools could remain open, but with mandatory weekly testing of students and teachers who are learning and instructing in-person.

The state will be presenting maps of clusters and restriction areas starting on Friday, Oct. 8.

Cuomo specifically pointed to south Brooklyn, which has been classified as “red.” The surrounding area is classified as the “second ring” or “warning area,” marked as orange by the state, and is meant to identify locations where people who don’t live inside the cluster may frequent, potentially interacting with people who do live inside the cluster, raising the possibility of infection and spread. There is then a precautionary area, “yellow” on the state’s maps, which lines the perimeter of the cluster and the warning area. Cuomo also named two areas in Queens that are experiencing cluster outbreaks. Orange County and Rockland County are also having clusters.

As for the Southern Tier, Cuomo identified Binghamton as experiencing a cluster.

“Binghamton we’re declaring a yellow zone, which is a precautionary area, which is a less intense action plan then in a red zone,” Cuomo said. “Why? Because there’s just fewer number of cases in Binghamton, the density is less, the cluster is less. But it still requires precautions.”

Tompkins County’s numbers have risen recently, but remain fairly low. The county has 41 active cases of coronavirus as of Wednesday, Oct. 7. Clusters have previously been identified among Cornell and Tompkins Cortland Community College, although college student cases have seemed to calm over the last several weeks. Nearby counties such as Broome, Tioga and Chemung have all seen cases rise significantly recently, leading Tompkins County officials to issue an announcement urging people who live in Tompkins County to remain vigilant and asking those who live elsewhere to take precautions when commuting in.

“We have seen outbreaks in other counties related to the virus spreading at bars and restaurants,” said Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa in a press release Thursday. “I want to take this opportunity to thank our over 830 local businesses that have submitted plans and attested to the State guidance. Our local businesses and patrons are taking necessary precautions to protect each other and prevent the spread of the virus. I want to remind businesses to review their screening protocols and encourage everyone to be doing a self-check at home before they go to work, school, or any other public location.”

Kruppa continued, “many people who work or live in Tompkins County also work or live in those neighboring counties that are experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com