As a jazz band played outside the bars on St. Marks Place, there were more frosty beverages than covered faces to be seen.
“Don’t make me come down there …” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) wrote on Twitter on Saturday, responding to a video of the maskless masses.
As the country’s hardest-hit city eased some of its coronavirus restrictions last week, the weekend scene suggested that, even after more than 20,000 of their neighbors have died, many lockdown-weary residents have entirely forgotten about social distancing.
But not Cuomo, who issued a stern message for Mayor Bill de Blasio (D): Cut down on the crowding, the governor told his longtime rival, or the city will have to shut down again entirely.
“I understand it’s not popular. Nobody wants to go to a sidewalk with people drinking and say, ‘You people can’t drink on the sidewalk,'” Cuomo said at a news conference Sunday. “You know what’s more unpopular? If that region closes because that local government did not do their job.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Cuomo’s office has received an “alarming” 25,000 complaints about health-safety violations, he said, the bulk of them calling out restaurants and bars in Manhattan and the Hamptons on Long Island.
With establishments in Austin, Phoenix, and St. Petersburg, Fla., all shutting down in recent days after bartenders tested positive for the virus, the governor, now famous for his tough-guy approach, appears to be taking no chances.
In a statement to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for New York’s City Hall said local bars and eateries — whose bottom lines have already been ravaged by the pandemic — are allowed to be open under the governor’s guidelines.
“We must balance safety with people’s need to reopen their businesses,” the spokesperson said. “We don’t believe imprisoning people or taking away their livelihood is the answer.”
Whether they were coaxed outside by the sunny June weather, encouraged by the mass gatherings of people at racial justice protests, or merely sick of quarantining themselves in small apartments, the crowds seemed to think it was time to return to a pre-pandemic normal.
“It feels great to have some fresh air and to have some social interactions and see some old friends,” one woman told WPIX television.
Another patron said he was acting on the advice of a phone app that sends him a daily message: “You are going to die one day.”
“So I get that text and I think, well, what’s it matter, now or in 50 years?” Brooklyn resident Tom James told KCBS.
New cases and fatalities across New York state have steadily fallen since the middle of April, when more than 1,000 people were dying each day. Virus-related hospitalizations were at 1,700 on Sunday, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, the lowest they have been since March 22.
New York City became the last of 10 regions in the state to enter Phase 1 last week, allowing construction and manufacturing as well as curbside pickup at many retail stores. Although groups of up to 10 people can gather in public while staying six feet apart, any sort of outdoor dining remains closed until Phase 2.
The city hall spokesperson said that “social distancing ambassadors” from local law enforcement agencies had been passing out face coverings and dispersing crowds over the weekend. Posters they gave out to local businesses around the city reinforced the message, telling patrons: “Take out, don’t hang out."
On Saturday, police “flooded” St. Marks Place and the surrounding neighborhood, helping bar managers with crowd control and chalking sidewalks to indicate where customers should stand in line.
Down the block that day, a group of local elected officials urged New Yorkers to continue practicing social distancing and cover their faces in public. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (D) said she was “tremendously concerned about any spread.”
“All it takes is one person,” Brewer added.
Earlier this spring, de Blasio had insisted the city would shut down mass gatherings, though he later said police would focus on only the largest violations following criticism that authorities were disproportionately targeting black and Latino neighborhoods.
On Sunday, the governor said he had personally phoned several bars and restaurants after seeing pictures of crowds outside their storefronts with takeout food and drinks. If people kept congregating, Cuomo warned they could lose their liquor licenses.
“We are not kidding around with this,” he said. “You’re talking about jeopardizing people’s lives.”