Social distancing is the answer, according to Cuomo (D), but overcrowding remains a problem. About 30 percent of the social distancing complaints to the city’s 311 service, a non-emergency version of 911, require action like police intervention, said Jeff Thamkittikasem, the city’s director of operations.
The state had set up a task force that was supposed to be collecting data and flagging for city authorities those locations that are of primary concern. But Thamkittikasem said the state hadn’t begun conversations with his group until this past weekend. “We just started talking to them,” he said
The police, along with city and state officials, are frustrated. There were swarms of food couriers and impatient customers with to-go orders outside Carbone, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant that had just begun selling its $69 veal Parmesan by delivery in Greenwich Village. “Everything but kissing” trysts citywide. A 15-person house party in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where a masked gunman shot the host to death. And a Catholic wedding in Staten Island with 20 to 25 people in attendance, which was criticized by the Archdiocese of New York. For starters.
Some are serial aggravators. Hasidic Jews — who battled the city last year over vaccinations and, before that, over a circumcision ritual that left some babies infected with herpes — are defying police and city officials by conducting funerals attended by hundreds of mourners. A Muslim firefighter was placed on medical leave for testing positive for coronavirus after three Hasidic teens allegedly spat on him. These tensions are exacerbated by the high rate of infection in Hasidic enclaves citywide.
Frequenters of Washington Square Park, too, are often serial aggravators. Patrol officers told the New York Post that parkgoers have threatened to spit or cough on them if asked to move. “They will say, ‘Screw you, I hope you get coronavirus,’ ” one told the Post. (The city has closed skate parks.)
Solutions are urgent, officials said. Cuomo warned Wednesday that, although the alarming rise in new cases is leveling off and a few hospitals are discharging more patients than they are admitting, the potential remains for a ferocious resurgence if the “pause” that’s been in place for several weeks is rolled back prematurely.
“I am more worried about the people saying, ‘the number of cases is coming down. It’s now safer,’ ” the governor said during a news conference. “It’s not. I am more afraid of the curve changing because people read into it something that is not there.”
Of the nearly 1.5 million covid-19 cases reported worldwide, nearly a tenth are New Yorkers. And New York City’s police department is itself infected, with 7,000 officers — nearly 20 percent of the force — calling out sick, almost 2,000 testing positive for the virus, and 12 having died of covid-19 complications.
As recently as mid-March, the NYPD’s Chief of Patrol Fausto Pichardo told officers in an internal video that they, along with health-care workers, should “keep working” even if they came in “close contact” with someone who had tested positive for covid-19. This was based on recommendations for essential workers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Health at the time. “They just need to take extra precautions,” said Pichardo.
Typically, enforcing social distancing is telling crowds to move along. But sometimes it requires close contact — a risk not just for police but also for those gathering as well.
The police department did not respond to questions about the number of fines it has levied. Thamkittikasem, the city’s director of operations, said that several arrests have been made for “repeated resistance to certain orders” — including for illegal gambling in bars.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) office has locked handball courts, removed tennis nets and basketball hoops from public parks, and closed dog parks citywide. Initially, the mayor had said that depriving cooped-up children of the chance to run around in playgrounds was a last resort, but crowding required those to be shut, too.
Everyday New Yorkers have also taken matters into their own hands. From his perch above McCarren Park in Williamsburg, the hipster heart of Brooklyn, bartender Eri Kurshan takes photos and videos of distancing violations.
“They’re all huffing and puffing,” said Kurshan of the sweaty young men climbing over outdoor gym equipment. “That whole park could be a cloud of their exhaled breath. Either they don’t care or are ignorant, but I have a wife who is five months pregnant, and even if I don’t go to the park, these people are all going to our local grocery store.”
He has informed the police of violators, but is dismayed by what he sees as their inability to bring a stop to it: Yellow tape gets put up cordoning off the workout area, only to be torn down moments later.
Many of New York City’s 8.6 million residents, though, don’t have a balcony. Commanding them to stay indoors is fraught with risks.
“Many who usually rely on human connection, being around nature, or being physically active as coping strategies don’t have other ways of regulating the intense emotions evoked by the crisis — especially in large cities,” said Chloe Mura, a Manhattan psychologist. She added that seeing strangers in the same predicament can be “a deeply validating experience. It confirms reality and acknowledges our stress is real.” In essence, New Yorkers are neither mentally nor emotionally equipped to be strangers to one another.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority is struggling with the virus, too. As of Wednesday, 5,604 of their 74,000 employees were under quarantine, in addition to about 1,500 who have tested covid-positive. Forty-one have died.
And the trains themselves, on limited service, are disproportionately overcrowding health care workers and grocery store employees, “many of whom come from communities where there aren’t other transportation options for them,” said MTA senior adviser Ken Lovett. As a result, the MTA brought the No. 2 train back online to alleviate crowding in the Bronx.
Crowding may just be the nature of New York City, and one that’s hard to fight. “We’re living on top of each other,” said April Simpson, president of the tenants’ association at Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing complex with over 10,000 residents in 3,142 units. “It’s crowded even on a normal day,” said Simpson. “I’ve seen cops try to break up groups on benches or in playgrounds, but not really. The city says they’re sending more people to disinfect doorknobs and elevators, but nobody has seen them.”
The science of contagion means that even two can be a crowd. Eric de Lemos, 31, a project manager at Teach For America, moved into his Washington Heights apartment in December with a friend he had known since 2016. De Lemos had asked for strict adherence to the lockdown because he has asthma, but his roommate flouted the request, overnighting at friends’ places and posting Instagram stories of himself walking arm-in-arm with friends on the street.
De Lemos reminded his roommate of the social distancing fines and a clause in their lease: “Tenants shall comply with all the health and sanitary laws, ordinances, rules, and orders of appropriate governmental authorities and home associations.” When that didn’t work, he reported his roommate to the health department, which sent police to the apartment and lectured the roommate. “Look at my mask,” an officer told the roommate, de Lemos recalled. “I wear this so I can go home to my family at the end of every day.”
The roommate, who could not be reached for comment, was warned not to repeat the infraction, de Lemos said.
Meanwhile, Kurshan, Williamsburg’s resident pandemic spy, has his own Plan B: a bullhorn his friends bought him as a joke several months ago. “We thought it’d be hilarious to be on the balcony in a bathrobe, holding the bullhorn in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other, just telling people they were doing their workouts wrong,” he laughed. “The bullhorn is still in the box. But maybe not for long.”
Tim Craig in Washington contributed to this report.