How NYC could increase social distancing to combat coronavirus

Andrew Cuomo Corey Johnson
Andrew Cuomo Corey Johnson
Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo shaking hands with New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in March 2019.

How NYC could increase social distancing to combat coronavirus

Responding to the governor’s criticism of people gathering in parks, council members offer solutions.
March 22, 2020

On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that he had tasked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson with developing strategies to ensure their constituents maintain safe distances in order to slow the spread of coronavirus – and that he wanted a plan to address the problem within 24 hours. 

“There is a density level in New York City that is wholly inappropriate,” Cuomo said at a press briefing, while expressing dismay at the crowded conditions in the city’s parks over the weekend. “You would think there was nothing going on in parts of New York City. You would think it was just a bright, sunny Saturday.”

Cuomo suggested opening streets to pedestrians to reduce density, given that traffic is much lower, while cracking down on group activity in parks – but left it to the top city officials to quickly submit a plan for him to review. 

Johnson, the council speaker, said he supported the governor’s call to reduce density in city parks, tweeting that the city “must #StopTheSpread” and should “get creative, including closing streets to maximize pedestrian space.” Johnson, who is working on a plan with input from his members, also tweeted that “playgrounds, volleyball courts, basketball courts, handball courts and other similar spaces should be closed” and that the city must “identify streets to close to cars ASAP to reduce density and use for exercise like we do for Summer Streets Program.”

Meanwhile, de Blasio applauded New Yorkers on Sunday for complying with new rules, although a spokesperson noted that the city had taken steps to enforce the ban on non-essential activity. 

City & State reached out to individual members of the New York City Council to see how they’re responding. Here are their responses.

New York City Councilwoman Adrienne Adams: Increase the number of buses and trains in an effort to reduce the number of riders per bus or subway car. Control the flow of people entering supermarkets, limiting limiting the number of shoppers in grocery stores at any given time. 

New York City Councilman Justin Brannan: New Yorkers are famously tough. We pride ourselves on taking just about everything in stride so taking this virus seriously goes against those instincts. We need to be smart. This is a matter of life or death for many of our neighbors. And in order to get through this, going about our regularly scheduled lives is just not going to work. Social distancing and self-isolating is not a crazy plea from your paranoid friends. It's not just a precaution public health officials suggest you take. Social distancing is an effective method to stem the tide of this deadly virus. And just like you don’t need to be black to support Black Lives Matter and you don't need to be a woman or victim of sexual violence to support the Me Too movement, you don't need to be at high risk of dying from this virus to understand why flattening the curve is so goddamn important. Because that's the point: this may not be about YOU. As we battle this outbreak, let's remember we are all only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk. It shouldn’t take a goddamn global pandemic to remind us that we are all connected but here we are.

New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides: We must expand the emergency bike infrastructure in western Queens so that those essential workers who can cycle are able to avoid mass transit. I believe we should also immediate look at which streets can be closed, so that people who do have to venture out to stores have more space to social distance on the sidewalk. The Governor and Speaker have both expressed support of this concept. We must also enforce social distancing at our parks, because there have been too many instances of people getting too close at our public spaces.

New York City Councilman Mathieu Eugene: As the City of New York continues its efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, it is important for each of us to continue the practice of social distancing in our daily routines, especially in our parks. While this change is inconvenient and challenging, residents must understand that now is not the time for group sports or congregating in large numbers. These gatherings constitute a public health risk and must cease immediately. We must utilize members of the Parks Department and other city workers to convey this message and ensure that residents refrain from these activities until further notice. The use of video chat, telephones, or text messaging is recommended to maintain social connections with friends and family while avoiding in-person contact. By utilizing these practices, we can contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and limit the number of people in need of hospitalization.

New York City Councilman Robert Holden suggests the following rules for NYC parks during this emergency to reinforce social distancing and overall safety: No team sports allowed in the parks. Parks should only be open from dawn to dusk. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult age 18 or older. Observe the 6ft rule at all times unless with a family member. No permits of any kind should be issued other than for tennis. Close all playgrounds and play/exercise equipment by using signs, caution tape and/or temporary fencing. NYPD and PEP reserve the right to suspend hours or clear a particular park if too crowded, and to enforce all emergency rules.

New York City Councilman Brad Lander has been focused on calling for releasing at risk people in the city's jails, reducing low level arrests that endanger both those charged and the officers who detain them, halting non-essential construction, and supports the call for closing streets to cars, among other things.

New York City Councilman Mark Levine: As a city, we have to continue to find creative ways for people to spread out from each other. There is a lot the city has the power to do immediately including: Officially close the city park playgrounds and strictly enforcing the current ban on organized sports. Closing down streets to motor vehicle traffic and devote the space to pedestrians. (How can we expect people to observe social distancing rules on a narrow NYC sidewalk?) Order the essential business that are going to be allowed to remain open to strictly enforce social distancing and limit occupancy.

New York City Councilwoman Farah Louis: I would urge the Mayor to launch a city-wide and multilingual social distancing PSA campaign asking culturally diverse celebrities, influencers, credible messengers, clergy, and civic leaders to express the importance of staying home during this pandemic. In addition, this is an opportunity for the Mayor and the NYPD Commissioner to expedite the launch of the Youth Coordination Officer (YCO) program, in which they can work with local community-based organizations to dispatch to local parks and other public spaces where people congregate to ensure folks are aware of their closures - community residents would have preexisting relationships with these individuals and would be more likely to comply with social distancing mandates respectfully. Additional ideas include redirecting our youth to partner with service-oriented organizations and earn community service hours as part of the DOE curriculum. Having said this, we must be mindful of the delicate balance as we implement new measures without exacerbating tensions or emotions during an already challenging time in our city's and state's history.

New York City Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo has suggested (to the Speaker) that although parks should remain open, the city should limit the hours that playgrounds are open and clean the equipment regularly, or close them entirely for the time being. 

New York City Councilman Keith Powers has three suggestions relative to the use of parks: Consider a capacity and/or time limit for individuals spending time in the park. Prioritize park use for children with their caregivers. Consider closing playgrounds and high-congregation spots and compensate with street closures to allow families and New Yorkers to get outside without congregation or sharing equipment. 

New York City Councilman Antonio Reynoso is calling for the pedestrianization of the streets bordering McCarren, Sternberg, Maria Hernandez, and Grover Cleveland Parks. In addition, he is advocating for the pedestrianization of the following major commercial corridors: Bedford Avenue; Grand Street; Graham Avenue; Myrtle Avenue; Knickerbocker Avenue; and Wyckoff Avenue. The pedestrianization of these streets will enable people to maintain the recommended six feet of distance from one another while accessing green space and carrying out essential tasks.

New York City Councilman Donovan Richards: Not finding this an issue in any of my parks. I’ve been to several over the last few days in Southeast Queens and the Rockaways. (But) nice bright signage in every park with slogan “Keep Your Social Distance” would be a start.

New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez: During this time we must take this opportunity to dedicate more spaces of New York City to cyclists and pedestrians. I have been calling for the expansion of Citi Bike and protected bike lanes from the South Bronx to Washington Heights. We need to continue expanding that call and ensure that all areas throughout the 5 boroughs are covered with protected bike lanes and Citi Bikes. Additionally, we need to suspend all parking meters immediately. If we are requiring New Yorkers to remain indoors then we should at least temporarily cancel parking meters to ensure they aren’t being fined in the time being. Lastly, lets create temporary dedicated cyclist lanes throughout the major corridors in the City. One avenue in which this will help immensely during this pandemic is to make one of the lanes on Broadway, from Yonkers to Batter Park strictly cyclist only. Its all hands on deck at this moment and we need to make sure New Yorkers safety and well-being is our top priority.

New York City Councilwoman Debi Rose: In response to Governor Cuomo's call to reduce density in our public places, I want to voice my support for Speaker Johnson's call to close playgrounds, volleyball courts, basketball courts, tennis courts and other areas of parks that bring people together in ways that violate social distancing directives. These areas should be chained closed to prevent access. In addition, in open spaces where large populations are gathering closer than six feet to one another, Parks Police and Parks Rangers should be mobilized to enforce social distancing protocols and disperse crowds. Mass gatherings of people put all New Yorkers at risk, and we should use every tool at our disposal to protect our fellow residents, especially the most vulnerable.

New York City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal: Put up signage in NYC parks. 

New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres: Close parks and playgrounds.

New York City Councilman Mark Treyger: Organizing grocery shopping/running errands days according to last names with exception of obtaining medication and emergencies. (similar to what DOL is doing for UI or what folks did during the Arab Oil Embargo in the 70s.)

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s former editor-in-chief.