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Cuomo to New Yorkers ignoring social distancing rules: 'Knock it off'

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo addressed young people Monday about avoiding social distancing rules and endangering the lives of others during the pandemic. Credit: NYS Governor's Office

This story was reported by Alfonso A. Castillo, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones, Michael O'Keeffe, David Reich-Hale and John Valenti. It was written by Jones.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had a blunt, all-capital-letters message for partyers gathering in large crowds as he warned of a double threat to New York's progress in the coronavirus fight: "KNOCK IT OFF. DON'T BE STUPID!" read one of the slides at his press briefing.

The other threat is coming from outside the state, as travelers arrive here from a growing number of states with high levels of infection, amid what Cuomo on Monday described as a chaotic and disastrous federal response to the pandemic.

In New York, some people — especially young, New York City residents — have been failing to observe social distancing directives, he said. He flashed slides of large crowds of partyers on the streets of Astoria and the Lower East Side.

And he said Long Island was part of the problem, too. On Saturday night, police had to break up a crowd of 800 mainly young people in Long Beach, who gathered on the beach and boardwalk for a “sunset watching” event, an activity they learn about through social media, according to police. The gathering prompted officials to place beach and boardwalk restrictions.

Speaking from Kennedy Airport — on his way to deliver help to Savannah, Georgia — Cuomo addressed young people, law enforcement, and restaurant and bar owners in no uncertain terms to tell them social gatherings that attract unmasked crowds and don't observe social distancing need to stop.

"I'm telling you in plain, New York speak, as a born and bred New Yorker, it's stupid, what you're doing, it's stupid … Don't be stupid. What they're doing is stupid and reckless for themselves and other people."

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He added: "Young people as a general rule believe they are superheroes. You can get sick in your 20s, you can get sick, you can die … you will take the virus and you will give it to someone else … You will go home and you will transfer [it] to someone else who will transfer it to someone else, and you could kill someone."

Cuomo chided local governments and police departments, naming the New York City Police Department, for not strictly enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing rules.

"This is not a point of sending out the police department to inform young people to wear a mask. They’ve heard that message," Cuomo said. "Police departments have to enforce the law. They have to enforce the law. That is the only line between anarchy and civilization. They have to enforce the law, and they are not." 

Cuomo warned that bars and restaurants that are not abiding by the rules may force them all to shut if the state has "to roll back" its reopening.

Long Island police seeking cooperation

In Suffolk County, Chief of Police Stuart Cameron said people generally are adhering to coronavirus mitigation rules. "We've seen good compliance," he said.

He said educating people and asking them to comply with social distancing and mask guidelines is the department’s main approach. He added that the police fear a backlash if they are too heavy handed and people stop following the rules.

"That strategy has worked well for us. If we find people are not complying, then enforcement is an option, but we have been doing a good job convincing people it is in their best interests to follow social distancing guidelines."

Suffolk police officers have masks they can distribute to people. “People have to be really defiant if they won't put a mask on after being offered one by an officer," Cameron said. "Most people will comply if you explain to them that their lack of caution could put the lives of other people at risk. Nobody wants to hurt anybody else." 

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said his department is also trying to gain compliance before trying the stricter approach.

"The residents of Nassau County have been extremely diligent when either wearing a mask or complying with social distancing guidelines and we are extremely grateful for their efforts," Ryder said. "When we observe individuals or groups not complying with the governor’s order, we either advise them to comply or have assisting county agencies issue the appropriate summons if necessary."

Close eye on the numbers

Cuomo said Sunday's numbers were generally good for the state, with 519 of 49,342 people tested found to have the virus, for a 1.05% level of new infections. Long Island registered 1% new cases of people tested Sunday, and New York City had 1.3% positives. Eight people died of coronavirus-related causes.

The number of new confirmed cases of the virus registered Sunday was 56 in Nassau, 30 in Suffolk, and 284 in New York City.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the positive level in that county was 1.4%, "a bit higher than the past few days. While our COVID-19 positive test rate continues to stay around 1%, we are keeping a close eye on the numbers and taking any spikes in cases seriously." 

Cuomo said he traveled to Savannah to meet with Mayor Van R. Johnson and his team, and offer assistance in both material supplies and advice on how to handle the pandemic. 

In a joint afternoon briefing, Cuomo said just like a virus ravages a weak body, the coronavirus crisis has exposed fissures in political life.

"The American body is in many ways weak right now. The body politic is weakened," Cuomo said.

Earlier, he described the national approach toward controlling the virus as chaotic, and with no end in sight. He noted that deep into the crisis, many states still have no coherent strategy to curtail spread of COVID-19.

“Five months later, this country is still unprepared to deal with this," Cuomo said. Many states “still don’t have testing, they still don’t have tracing programs, they still don’t have [personal protective equipment]. It’s like we were on Day One of COVID.”

He said the number of cases is rising in 40 states and Washington, D.C. That represents a threat to New York and its progress, since it is virtually impossible to keep travelers from those states from bringing the virus here, despite a self-quarantine order Cuomo has ordered for 22 states with high levels of infection, he said.

Encouraging riders to wear masks

MTA officials on Monday outlined new measures to get transit riders to cover their faces, but reiterated they would not enforce the mask requirement.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new “Operation Respect” campaign includes hundreds of workers and volunteers on trains, buses and stations encouraging customers to wear masks. Members of the “Mask Force” — wearing bright yellow T-shirts with the message “Stop the spread. Wear a mask” — will provide masks to those who need them.

Free mask dispensers are being installed on city buses, where 160 MTA Bridge and Tunnel officers are being deployed to monitor compliance.

“They’re there to remind people of the law, of the requirement that people wear masks. Bus operators have enough to do,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit. “I think we always want voluntary compliance. We always want to give New Yorkers every ability to do the right thing.”

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