While other countries have gone inside and fully locked down to help curb the spread of COVID-19, even going so far as banning bicycling and jogging, the United States has been pretty lax. And New York, the epicenter in the U.S., has been comparatively slow to take the strict measures necessary.
Before we even shut down our bars, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had recommended a 14-day national shutdown; other health experts have agreed—in a recent NY Times piece, it was spelled out simply: if Americans just "freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart... the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt." Instead of taking these measures, creating strict rules for a shutdown, the public has been trusted to do the right thing. Look no further than the city's parks to see how that's going.
For weeks, it's been clear that New Yorkers will congregate in these public spaces if they remain open, yet Mayor Bill de Blasio has balked on shutting them down, which could be giving a mixed message to New Yorkers who aren't paying enough attention — if the parks are open, then there must be no danger there. This is incorrect, there are plenty of risks at parks—namely, surfaces and other people. As epidemiologist Stephen Morse told Gothamist, "we think most infections are spread by the respiratory route, hence the recommendation for social distancing... to get out of inhalation range of infected droplets."
Last weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo emphasized that New Yorkers had not been doing a good job of keeping their distance from one another outside, specifically at NYC parks, playgrounds and courts. Still, as we saw this week, even Carl Schurz Park, right outside the mayor's front door, remained packed, with plenty of New Yorkers not practicing social distancing.
This week, we checked out the situation in parks around Williamsburg in Brooklyn. These photos were taken between 3 and 5 p.m. on Friday, March 27th. Photographer Scott Lynch reported back, "When two NYPD vehicles showed up at Domino I thought there was going to be some action, but the officers just sat in their cars and blasted a taped warning about being six feet apart. Then left."
A tipster also reached out to us, saying that on Friday afternoon in McCarren Park they "saw droves of people picnicking... I usually mind my business but this is a matter of life and death.. [the NYPD] aren't breaking up groups and as the weather gets nicer more people will go out."
At a press briefing on Friday, de Blasio brought up the parks again, this time noting that "in the last day or so, we have seen some noncompliance that is really a concern. We obviously have to think about the warmer weather coming ahead and we need to make sure that people understand this is really, really serious. So, the NYPD has been instructed, of course, to educate people, warn people, move along if people need to be moved along, break up groups and make sure there's no gatherings."
Instead of shutting parks down, however, de Blasio said he would consider fines. "We're going to make a decision on whether we need to start instituting fines for anyone who is noncompliant," he said. "We have not made that decision yet. We'll make it this weekend. Fines of up to $500 per incident are being discussed right now. This means if any of our officers – NYPD or Parks or any other agency tells you, you need to move along, you need to move along. If they tell you to break up your gathering, you need to break up your gathering. It does not mean you can break it up for a few minutes and then come back. It doesn't mean you can tell the officer you're not going to do it. We're going to start to bring heavier enforcement to bear if people don't pay attention to the nonstop guidance that we've all been giving."
He added, "I don't want people to be penalized who are trying to make sense of a new painful reality, but I need people to listen and understand this about protecting yourself, your family, and all the rest of us."