As the sun set over south Brooklyn Tuesday is night, most polling sites were quiet. In contrast to the lines that plagued early voting sites, voting locations like PS160 and PS105 were empty, blue and red stickers on the sidewalk urging non-existent waiting voters to socially distance. But at the Borough Park YMHA, a crowded line stretched down the block. Waiting voters, primarily members of the Orthodox Jewish community, wore few masks and stood inches apart, despite poll workers and signs reminding them to distance.
Borough Park, which voted for Trump in 2016, is home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel. In this election, more than 95% of voters in the election districts surrounding the Borough Park YMHA voted for Trump. It also was the center of a spike in coronavirus cases this summer, which led Governor Andrew Cuomo to designate it a “red zone” and impose a lockdown on the neighborhood. Those restrictions sparked mass protests in the area, some turning violent.
Even as coronavirus cases continue to rise, mask-wearing and social distancing are rare in Borough Park. The voting line Tuesday was no exception, despite the average daily case rate for the past two weeks hovering around 800. Neighboring Sunset Park has had less than 400 cases a day.
“People are gathering together and not wearing masks, and it just feels very unsafe,” said one voter named Nusra, who wore a blue medical mask, “especially as someone who wants to vote and feel safe.”
Nusra, who is not a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, voted for Biden. However, most of the voters exiting the YMHA polling site said that they voted for Trump, and cars flying “Trump 2020 (Keep America Great)” flags intermittently drove up and down the block. One woman named Zoya, who is 67, said she felt like she had little choice.
“Of course I voted for Trump, who else,” she said.
Trump won the presidential vote in the Hasidic and Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn in 2016, likely due to his support for Israel and for conservative social and religious policy. But now, with conspiracy theories about the coronavirus spreading through the community on social media and prominent members of religious leadership espousing Trump’s views on the virus, that support has become more vocal. At protests like the one where a Hasidic journalist, Jacob Kornbluh, was violently attacked, demonstrators waved Trump signs and refused to wear masks, which the President has also dismissed. Fueled by online content, many say that the President’s rhetoric has particularly emboldened young, conservative men within the community who have grown tired of coronavirus restrictions.
Poll workers and volunteers at the Borough Park site wore face shields and masks, and some handed out hand sanitizer and masks. Two volunteers named Elijah and Jordan stood on the sidewalk with yellow surgical masks, encouraging voters to take them.
“Social distancing was okay at the beginning of the day,” said Elijah, “But now, well, it’s not. People are coming up to us and asking us why people aren’t standing six feet away from them, and we don’t know what to tell them.”
A young man who exited the polling site unmasked leaned close as he answered questions. He fidgeted with his “I Voted!” sticker, then tucked it in his pocket. He said he felt perfectly safe during his half an hour in line, and that voting had been easier than he expected. When asked who he voted for, he paused for a few seconds and looked around.
“I mean Trump, obviously,” he said as he walked away.