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"Detention camp" bill misinformation spreads on social media

Conservative political commentator Laura Ingraham at the Republican

Conservative political commentator Laura Ingraham at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 20, 2016. Credit: AP

Daily Point

The power of rumors

A social media frenzy of misinformation, whipped up in part by state Republicans, involves a bill that doesn’t even have a chance of becoming law.

And on Thursday, that frenzy reached national levels, when Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham highlighted the legislation, giving Republican State Sen. George Borrello a huge platform to criticize it without any reality check.

The Assembly bill, A416, which was first introduced by Assemb. Nick Perry in 2015 and has been reintroduced each year since, would allow state officials to detain individuals who are ill from or carriers of a contagious disease. Originally related to Ebola, it was meant to act as a way to quarantine individuals during a pandemic — but it long predated COVID-19.

The quarantine concept alone was enough to scare people, but in social media circles, the bill quickly turned into legislation that would create "detention camps." And the opposition went beyond Facebook and Twitter, leading some unmasked protesters to confront the assemblyman outside his office in Brooklyn Wednesday.

And then there was Ingraham.

"Democrats are using this crisis as a way, clearly, to try to control the movement and behavior of Americans," Ingraham said.

Said Borrello: "This is a very serious infringement on our constitutional rights."

Borrello compared the bill to the state’s bail reform and criminal justice reform efforts, suggesting that criminals can’t be held.

"If this thing became law, we’d have a situation where violent criminals, in some cases, or criminals, can go free and people who they deemed who may be a COVID or some other health threat can be detained for three days," Ingraham said. "Where’s the ACLU?"

The true story? The bill doesn’t even have a State Senate sponsor and likely isn’t going anywhere, even as it was referred to the Assembly health committee Wednesday. And it doesn’t set up detention "camps."

But none of that stopped it from spreading through social media groups and beyond. A Facebook group called New Yorkers Against Bill A416 gathered more than 1,000 members, and people posted about their worries about concentration camps and a COVID-19 "virus identification badge."

Adding fuel to the fire, Rep. Lee Zeldin put out a statement last weekend, calling the bill "a direct assault on our Constitutional guarantee of due process." And separately, state GOP Chair Nick Langworthy issued a statement saying the bill should be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, local lawmakers are hearing from constituents. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky received about a hundred emails about the bill, with some suggesting it would "detain and forcibly vaccinate New Yorkers without proper due process." State Sen. Kevin Thomas received calls and emails, too, his spokeswoman said.

"Most of the calls we got have been from older folks who seemed genuinely terrified and had no idea that the bill was old," Thomas’ spokeswoman added. "It was upsetting."

She added that the calls and emails began to die down once people understood the reality of the situation.

But many individuals assumed the bill was heading for a vote — or even to become law. Zeldin’s statement had noted that the bill would be referred to the Assembly’s health committee come Wednesday, Jan. 6. He was right on the specifics. But some assumed that meant a vote was coming, too.

The bill, said one post on a Facebook page for the New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights this week, "gives the Governor sweeping power to arrest and imprison people thought to be infected with a communicable disease, or even for the possibility of coming into contact with someone who might have a communicable disease. There are rumors that there will be a vote on the bill on January 6, and some people are terrified."

In its post, the Alliance later dispelled those rumors, saying the bill was "not an imminent threat," but added:

"Does that all mean we have nothing to worry about? No…"

And then the Alliance advocated that people email their representatives — and donate to its related organization, the Autism Action Network, an advocacy group focused on vaccine injury and other issues.

—Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall

Talking Point

Why are Suffolk's COVID-19 numbers so high?

Suffolk County’s COVID-19 numbers have been alarmingly high for days now, even more noteworthy given that various metrics show more trouble in Suffolk than neighboring Nassau. Suffolk led all of New York’s counties with 22 new COVID-19 deaths reported on Thursday, more than three times as many as Nassau.

Test positivity rates for Long Island overall have been high this week, with Nassau at 8.6% and Suffolk at 10.4%.

Here’s another telling stat: the 3-day average of COVID-19 hospital admissions for the Northwell Health system showed both Nassau and Suffolk hovering around 23 at the end of December. As of the middle of this week, Suffolk’s had jumped to nearly 37, while Nassau’s was just over 26.

For further comparison, those admissions for Suffolk were even higher than those for Queens, once the hotspot of the pandemic.

The county doesn’t have a firm explanation for the divergence.

"It just seems almost like an anomaly right now," said a county spokeswoman about the fatality numbers specifically.

As of Thursday, the county health department wasn’t aware of any recent superspreader events, and the county police department hasn’t seen a need for massive additional mask enforcement. Since Oct. 1, the department has received 1,250 calls regarding noncompliance, only 12 of which have been "founded violations," according to the county.

The Point reached out to Stephen Bello, who oversees the Suffolk and eastern Nassau County region for Northwell for his take on the numbers.

He called it a moderate increase but not "earth shattering," reflective of the post-holiday numbers experts have been expecting.

He said the numbers are still "nowhere near what it was in the spring" and that small county variations are hard to explain, and he "wouldn’t put my nickel" to explanations like a particular superspreader event or culture of non-mask usage in Suffolk vs. Nassau.

He said the geographic trends Northwell is seeing have in fact been "very consistent" for months, with high rates in places including Riverhead, Huntington Station and the south Huntington area, and parts of the South Shore.

Explanations for those trends might include population density, and larger uninsured or immigrant populations including those living in multigenerational and smaller homes where social distancing is difficult.

—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

Pencil Point

Fighting fire with fire

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Final Point

Breaking records in Congress

With all the focus on members of Congress under threat and voting or not voting to overturn election results this week, a smaller milestone about the 117th Congress’ identity went little noticed recently as members were sworn in: that body includes a record number of women.

The exact number will change as some members migrate (including Sen. Kamala Harris to the vice presidency and Reps. Marcia Fudge and Deb Haaland to the cabinet, if confirmed). New Yorker Claudia Tenney would increase the House numbers by one if she pulls out a victory in her upstate race.

But Congress is projected to be approximately 27% female and will certainly exceed the previous 2019 record of 127 women, according to a count by the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

There also will be a record 29 Republican women in the House alone, by the Rutgers center’s provisional count (not including Tenney). That gain came entirely in suburban- or rural-leaning districts. All but one of the women in question were from districts that are some level of suburban, rural, or urban-suburban mix, using CityLab’s 2018 density analysis of congressional districts. The lone semi-exception is freshman Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, who is from NYC but whose Staten Island-and-Brooklyn district features some very culturally suburban areas.

The trend of GOP success in running and winning with women in districts outside cities was not, however, replicated on Long Island, where the region’s two Republican members of Congress are men, including newcomer Andrew Garbarino. And both he and Lee Zeldin defeated women in 2020.

—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano