Police on Long Island are hitting the streets on foot and horseback to enforce social distancing to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as authorities prepare for the summer months and a gradual reopening.
The Suffolk County Police Department has put its newly graduated police recruits on foot patrol on a coronavirus compliance detail. The Nassau police have intensified patrols, including from highly specialized units such as horse-mounted officers, at the county’s parks and recreation areas to protect public health.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in March began issuing a series of executive orders that closed all non-essential businesses, mandated that people wear facemasks or coverings and stay at least six feet away from one another in public as cases of the global pandemic exploded across Long Island, Westchester and New York City. As of this week, the state has recorded more than 300,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
“We’re trying to be respectful,” Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said. “But also, it’s tough. You’re telling people you can’t pray together and you can’t go to a park together. I understand the frustration. But you can’t. And we have to enforce that.”
Ryder said authorities have received 1,703 complaints from the public alleging businesses staying open in violation of the governor’s order and people not social distancing. Of those, 1,279 were directed to the fire marshal’s office to investigate and 424 were probed by the police. Some 640 of those were deemed to be compliant and 413 people received a warning, Ryder said. The county has issued just 22 summons in violation of public health law, including for a wedding in Cedarhurst.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said the 60 recruits from the department’s March graduating class, dubbed “Together Enforcing Compliance” teams, have done nearly 6,000 proactive compliance checks, visiting businesses, walking around downtowns and checking parks to ensure residents are staying safe during the coronavirus crisis. Hart said most business owners and residents have complied with the governor’s orders.
The TEC teams, which consist of the recruits and patrol officers, have led the department’s proactive stance, conducting 5,987 compliance checks since March 30, Hart said.
Additionally, the department has responded to 878 calls through the non-emergency lines 311 and 631-852-COPS, reporting the perception of a business open that shouldn’t be, or a large gathering. In those instances, there were 75 instances of non-compliance, but the alleged violators were simply given a warning.
“We really want to use education,” Hart said of officers enforcing the measures. “Don’t forget to social distance, don’t forget to wear facial covering. The vast majority of people have been in compliance.”
Hart said the department’s internal patrol order instructs officers that a first offense should be given as a verbal warning. A second offense could be met with a summons in violation of the public health law. The violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $2,000. If the behavior warrants, according to police, officers can use the penal law and charge someone criminally with disorderly conduct, which is a violation; or criminal nuisance or obstructing governmental administration, both misdemeanors.
Suffolk police have issued just one summons — to an individual at a downtown park in Port Jefferson last month.
“It was a nice day, there were a lot of people congregating ... they were a little obstinate about not complying,” the commissioner said, adding that weather often plays a key role.
“Usually when it’s a beautiful sunny day, it’s great," Hart said. "But now we’re thinking, ‘oh god, this is going to be another day of people being outside and we’re going to have to enforce compliance.' ”
Ryder, anticipating sunny skies and warm weather this first weekend in May, said his officers – including those from the Criminal Intelligence Rapid Response Team and the Bureau of Special Operations, would be patrolling in high numbers to prevent crowds.
“People are just about done," Ryder said. "They want to go back outside.”
Neither large Long Island police department so far has used drones flying overhead to enforce social distancing, though police in New Jersey, Florida, Georgia and Delaware have employed the technology.
Conflicts arise when some people want to continue to work or engage in life’s rituals, officials said.
Andrew Goldsmith, the village justice in Cedarhurst, was issued a summons by the fire marshal’s office on April 22 after he hosted his daughter’s wedding on his front lawn – and a combined crowd of about 100 guests and onlookers gathered, police have said.
Ryder said police also gave tickets to several jewelers who continued to work at an office, selling diamonds and other jewelry to lines of customers, on Cutter Mill Road in Great Neck even after receiving a warning from police.
“I got an email from a local politician," Ryder said. "That’s the part that kinda gets you upset. We went there and warned them and then they went back and did the same thing.”
Ryder said police received two complaints about bikers and other customers congregating at the outside tables at Peter’s Clam Bar in Island Park – but both times found the restaurant, which is open for take-out, to be in compliance with the law.
Butch Yamali, owner of the clam bar, said in a statement: “Peter’s Clam Bar and our fantastic, front-line employees place the highest emphasis on safety during this period of social distancing. We have proudly stayed open to serve, kept people employed, and we know that we are nothing without healthy patrons, employees, and the Island Park community.”
In Suffolk, the recruits went right from the academy in late March, graduating a week early, to coronavirus patrols. The recruits skipped the normal “field training” that all officers embark on after graduating from the police academy, placing a rookie cop fresh out of the academy on patrol with a seasoned officer for several weeks. Once the department’s current class of 67 recruits graduates from the academy on May 8, those rookies will take on coronavirus patrols, while the officers from the March graduating class will start field training, Hart said.
“Their mission is to enforce the governor’s order of social distancing," Hart said.
On a recent foot patrol through downtown Bay Shore, a pair of recruits – wearing aqua blue N95 masks -- were greeted by the very few people out and about on walks. One pickup truck driving down Main Street beeped in support of the officers, who waved back.
Dylan Perro, who graduated from the police academy in late March, is part of the TEC teams and has been walking the beat in Huntington Village and talking to essential business owners and members of the public.
“We just kind of explain to them and educate them about keeping six feet apart,” Perro said. “I haven’t encountered any problems. Everyone’s been very positive.”
Perro said he’s also been assigned to COVID-19 testing sites at Huntington High School and St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church in Huntington. He and his fellow officers have also helped distribute food to the needy at a food bank at Manor Field Park in Huntington Station. “People are grateful,” he said. “It’s really amazing in their time of need we’re able to help them out.”
Perro, who before becoming a Suffolk police officer was an FDNY EMT, said he’s not personally worried for his safety amid the global pandemic. His mother is a nurse, his father is a volunteer firefighter and his brother is an FDNY firefighter, he said.
“I’m pretty confident because we are given the proper PPE,” he said. “As long as we’re wearing that, we’re washing our hands."
Perro, assigned to the Second Precinct, said he and his classmates weren’t expecting to be thrust on the front lines of a global pandemic when they entered the police academy seven months ago, but he has no regrets.
“It definitely wasn’t what we expected, but with the pandemic going on, it’s what the community needs,” Perro said. “We all signed up to help the community and right now this is what needs to be done.”
Hart said COVID-19 put on hold the typical graduation ceremony for the newly minted officers, which typically features speeches from Hart and County Executive Steve Bellone as the families of the officers look on proudly.
“It’s really too bad," Hart said. "Some people waited their whole lives for this. It’s a huge accomplishment. It’s a lot of pomp and circumstance and we’re also so proud to hold the graduation. Maybe down the road we can bring them back and do something.”