Organizers of a New Year’s Eve event in Ronkonkoma protesting New York's COVID-19 regulations predicted a crowd in the hundreds — perhaps even 1,000 — to pressure Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to lift restrictions on bars and restaurants.
But the event held at the Long Island Rail Road parking lot in Ronkonkoma drew just a few dozen people, organizers said.
Jennifer Harrison of Mastic, one of the organizers of the event, blamed the lower-than-expected turnout on a change in venue. The event was planned for the parking lot of Suffolk’s H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, Harrison said, but Suffolk police told organizers that they would not be permitted to hold their event on the property.
The event, Harrison said, was organized in part by the Setauket Patriots, which held several car rallies across Long Island earlier this year to support President Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid. Thursday’s New Year’s Eve celebration and protest had nothing to do with presidential politics, according to Harrison.
"This isn’t about Trump. It’s not about Black Lives Matter, even though we support Trump and the Setauket Patriots," Harrison said. "This is about supporting restaurant workers who are struggling right now."
Harrison is one of those restaurant workers — she lost her restaurant job because of the lockdowns. Although the large crowds did not turn out, Harrison said the message remained the same: Restrictions Cuomo has placed on restaurants are financially crippling the food service industry while having little impact on combating the pandemic that has killed nearly 2,400 Long Island residents.
Harrison said state data showed that bars and restaurants have been linked to just 1.4% of all COVID-19 transmissions. The coronavirus restrictions, she said, would push more New Year’s Eve gatherings into private homes, where transmission rates are significantly higher.
"People are tired of the lockdown and they are tired of being treated like children," Harrison said. "Last time I checked, this was still America."
Organizers hoped the New Year's Eve protest and celebration would also serve as a fundraiser for out-of-work restaurant and bar workers.
"In the spirit of the holidays, for the sake of your neighbor, your friends and your relatives that are hanging on by a thread right now — both financially and emotionally — support what is right for your community," organizer Dave Lotito, a bar manager who also owns an events services company, said at a news conference in Hauppauge earlier Thursday.
Event organizers cited what they contend is "hypocrisy" with the state's guidelines, which they said made exceptions for Black Lives Matters protests over the summer and will permit attendees at the Buffalo Bill home playoff game in early January.
"This is not about whether you are red or blue or whether you are a Republican or a Democrat," Lotito said. "This is about protesting a governor that we feel is being unfair. And this is about creating a fundraiser out of it to help people."
The governor has said the state may allow 6,700 fans to attend the Bills game by using rapid testing for COVID-19 beforehand. The plan would also require fans to wear masks and physically distance inside the stadium and have contact tracing after the game.
"Patriots are supposed to put their fellow countrymen before themselves — but these impostors are doing the exact opposite. We understand not everyone is happy with the rules, but following public health guidance until we can all be vaccinated is how we beat this virus. Better unhappy than sick or worse," said Jack Sterne, a Cuomo administration spokesperson.
Suffolk County officials were aware of the Ronkonkoma event and urged residents to continue to use caution during the pandemic.
"We will be responding to anything that is a violation that we become aware of," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said at a news conference Thursday in Hauppauge.
Suffolk police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said that with infections rates in the county near 13%, "now is not the time to have any mass gatherings."