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Preliminary Injunction Halts Rockland Emergency Measles Order as Outbreak Fears Rise

A sign explaining the local state of emergency because of a measles outbreak at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

A state judge has temporarily halted officials in Rockland County from enforcing an emergency order that barred unvaccinated children from public places for 30 days, as fears of measles outbreaks in New York and surrounding counties continue to grow.

Acting Justice Rolf Thorsen of the Rockland County Supreme Court last week granted a request for a preliminary injunction by parents who said the March 28 emergency declaration from County Executive Edwin Day had improperly prevented their children from attending school and other places of public assembly.

In his ruling, Thorsen said the incidents of measles cases did not rise to the level of an epidemic in the county and would irreparably harm both the parents and their children if it were allowed to remain in place.

The decision came as Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday declared a public health emergency requiring unvaccinated residents of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to receive the measles vaccine, or else be subject to fines.

Day said this week that the Rockland County Department of Health was finalizing the criteria for new orders "to keep people who may have been exposed to the measles in their homes and away from public places."

"This is a slight pivot from our State of Emergency, but it is a step we can take very quickly while we wait on the legal appeal. Any violation would lead to significant fines," Day said in a statement.

Michael Sussman, who represents the petitioners in the Rockland County case, said the parents had obtained religious exemptions through their schools to laws requiring measles vaccinations. In an April 3 filing, he called the emergency declaration "arbitrary and capricious," saying that it went well beyond the five-day limits on states of emergency under New York state law.

Sussman said that there had been no reported cases of measles in the children's school and argued that they posed no immediate danger to their classmates.

Thorsen noted in his decision that Rockland County, a northern suburb of New York, has experienced 166 cases of measles in the six-month period dating back to October. For a county with a population of roughly 330,000 people, that did not meet the common definition of an "epidemic" under state law, he said.

"Petitioners have shown that without an injunction, their children will continue to miss school and petitioners will continue to incur monetary expenses as a result of the injunction," he wrote in a five-page ruling.

Day said this week that the confirmed number of measles cases in the county had risen to 168, as of April 8.

"Allow me to state unequivocally that I do not agree with the judge's opinion that this measles crisis does not rise to the level of an emergency. We in Rockland are facing the longest lasting current outbreak in the entire nation and the largest outbreak in New York State in 30 years," he said.

An appeal of the preliminary injunction ruling must be filed by April 19.

Meanwhile, Sussman said he planned to file more lawsuits in the coming days over other emergency orders, including the one affecting Williamsburg.

"The issue that I'm concerned about is rule of law," he said in a phone interview. "I felt this was a clear abrogation of that."

Day is represented by County Attorney Thomas Humbach.

The case is captioned W.D. v. County of Rockland.