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Partyers who ignore COVID-19 measures face big fines already on books

Police respond to reports of a large gathering

Police respond to reports of a large gathering in Long Beach in June. Credit: Jim Staubitser

ALBANY — Partyers on beaches, crowds hanging in and outside taverns, and drinkers at pop-up bars who ignore COVID-19 social distancing measures each face fines of up to $1,000 — if government leaders choose to use the laws already on the books.

The fines can be assessed against those who “encourage or promote any nonessential gathering on any public property including, but not limited to, streets, sidewalks, parking lots, parks, playgrounds, or beaches,” according to state Department of Health rules and regulations dated July 9 and based on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive orders. The directive notes that “state and local government are authorized to enforce civil and criminal penalties related to the violation of these regulations.”

In addition, open-container violations could be assessed at these outdoor gatherings. The violation carries fines of $150 to $450, state officials said. Other measures already on the books include telling business operators they “shall deny admittance to any person who fails to comply” with virus mandates “and shall require or compel such persons’ removal.”

Despite an increase in these gatherings that ignore social distancing, Cuomo and county executives as well as police departments have so far mostly issued warnings, distributed protective masks and, sometimes, dispersed crowds such as the estimated 800 people in Long Beach a week ago.

Cuomo said Thursday that “we are going to be aggressive about enforcement,” but announced only one new measure — a video for TV and social media warning young people that failing to adhere to virus precautions can kill them, or someone close to them. He then blamed local police for failing to disperse crowds, but hasn’t called for citations and fines.

“I understand it’s not politically popular,” Cuomo said. But “we need the NYPD, we need the Nassau police, we need the Suffolk police in the Hamptons … to do their job.”

Cuomo, however, won’t say when or if he will direct state and local officials to enforce the measures he drew up in his executive orders. His aides haven’t responded to several requests for comment on why the governor isn’t pushing for citations and fines, or what could trigger that action.

As for the state, most actions have focused on tavern and restaurant owners. Since the pandemic began, the state Liquor Authority and state police cited 443 bars and licenses, including more than 30 on Long Island, for coronavirus-related violations, including suspensions of licenses and fines of up to $10,000, Cuomo announced Friday. But the number is dwarfed by the volume of complaints made over social media.

Cuomo said his frustration is growing. He fears the infection rate will rise as voluntary compliance is being more openly defied and because he worries that vacationers and visitors from other states will increase infection rates.

“It is a problem in New York City, it’s a problem in places on Long Island, it’s a problem in places upstate,” Cuomo said. On Monday, he called the mask-less partyers “stupid.”

Cuomo, however, won’t say when or if he will direct state and local officials to enforce the measures he drew up in his executive orders. His aides haven’t responded to several requests for comment on why the governor isn’t pushing for citations and fines, or what could trigger that action.

Now, some say Cuomo, county executives and local law enforcement must go beyond scolding and limited enforcement.

“Violations of the COVID-19 rules are a more serious public health threat than many things long-prohibited by laws that we enforce," said Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard N. Gottfried (D-Manhattan). “Police should enforce these laws, carefully and fairly, as they always should.”

Supporters of more serious enforcement say it could also avoid re-shuttering parts of the economy.

“We think something more must be done,” said Scott Wexler, the longtime spokesman for the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association. He said he’s seen pop-up bars out of cars and street parties with hundreds of young people. “If these kids get tickets, then they and their parents may take it seriously … they should be issuing the tickets now.”

“It is a slippery slope,” Wexler said of the strain that the closed economy had on business this spring. “None of us want to go up that mountain again.”

Historians said police action has been an important tool in past pandemics to control infections. During the 1918 flu, police enforced universal use of face masks, dispersed crowds, made arrests for violations of a ban on spitting on sidewalks, and enforced other measures backed by stiff fines in part to send messages.

But, today, levying big fines on masses of individuals comes with serious political risk and a potentially counterproductive downside in a polarized world, experts said.

Kemp Hannon, the former state Senate Health Committee chairman from Garden City, said other unpopular public health measures, such as mandatory use of seat belts and car seats for children, had required cajoling and ultimately police enforcement.

“It takes acceptance of the public health reason, social pressure, mild governmental enforcement and sometimes direct enforcement,” Hannon said. “The enforcement needs to be measured so as not to lose confidence and support of the governing body.”

“I don’t envy the decision makers at all,” said Peter Jacobson, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, a national authority on the intersection of health care and government.

“My public health response is, ‘Of course, you fine them if they are violating; if they are threatening the health of others, you fine them.’ But I see that as encouraging the backlash and I am very concerned about the backlash and the further decrease of trust … public health works only when the public trusts what the public officials say.”

“We live in this horrible, polarized atmosphere,” Jacobson said, noting that some health care workers have been threatened for trying to enforce measures. “You have some people who believe the virus is a hoax, others think wearing a mask is a loss of freedom … it’s not tyranny. It’s the government trying to keep us all safe.”

He said that unfortunately, more draconian measures such as tickets and $1,000 fines would be easier for public officials to order and police to serve if the virus surges again and forces another shutdown of the economy.

“If we don’t do the simple things such as masks and social distancing, we will have no choice but to lock down,” Jacobson said. “Everyone is tired of being inside, everyone wants the pandemic to end, everyone wants a quick-fix solution. It’s pretty clear there isn’t one.”

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