(Adds details, quotes from New Rochelle mayor’s news conference)
By Gabriella Borter
NEW YORK, March 10 (Reuters) - Schools, houses of worship and large gathering venues in part of the New York City suburb of New Rochelle will shut down for two weeks in an effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak at its local epicenter, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday.
The shutdown, which begins on Thursday and is due to last until at least March 25, affects an area of New Rochelle in Westchester County that measures 1 mile (1.61 km) in diameter. The county accounts for more than 100 of the state’s 173 confirmed cases, the governor said.
“This will be a period of disruption for the local community,” Cuomo said at a news conference. “It is a dramatic action, but it is the largest cluster in the country. And this is literally a matter of life and death.”
Cuomo said he was calling in the National Guard to the containment area to assist with cleaning public spaces and to deliver food to homes.
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson said the National Guard would ensure that students who rely on school meals would receive food but would “not have a military or policing function.”
“It is very important to clarify that this is not an exclusion or quarantine zone. No one is prohibited from entering or leaving the area,” the mayor said at a news conference after the governor’s announcement.
The number of cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus has risen steadily to more than 800 in the United States. There have been 28 deaths, most of them in Washington state, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. New Jersey on Tuesday reported the state’s first death.
The containment measure will close three public schools and several parochial and private schools, in addition to houses of worship, country clubs, and possibly other public places, Bramson said.
New Rochelle’s senior center, which is outside the containment zone, will also be closed until further notice to prevent spread of the disease among one of the most vulnerable groups, the mayor said.
Coronavirus deaths have disproportionately hit the elderly with the largest U.S. cluster at a nursing home near Seattle.
Bramson said his office was still consulting with state authorities to create a comprehensive list of businesses and facilities that would be affected.
The group of cases in Westchester County emerged after an attorney who lives in New Rochelle and works in Manhattan became the second person in New York to be diagnosed with the virus last week.
Some cases in the town have been traced to the Young Israel Synagogue of New Rochelle, where the attorney attended services last month. The synagogue, which public health officials closed last week, is at the center of the containment zone.
“The heaviest burdens have fallen upon the members of Young Israel,” Bramson said. “Many are quarantined, which is enormously disruptive to their daily lives, and yet there has been a sense of commitment to the common good.”
New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement on Tuesday that he believed the risk generally to people in New York remained low, and Cuomo urged New Yorkers not to panic.
“If you are not a member of the vulnerable population then there is no reason for excess anxiety,” Cuomo said. (Reporting by Gabriella Borter; additional reporting by Maria Caspani Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bill Berkrot)