Should protests be allowed during COVID-19?

Protesters urge New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Reopen New York during a rally at the New York state Capitol on May 1, 2020.
Protesters urge New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Reopen New York during a rally at the New York state Capitol on May 1, 2020.
Hans Pennink/Shutterstock
Protesters urge New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Reopen New York during a rally at the New York state Capitol on May 1, 2020.

Should protests be allowed during COVID-19?

Outrage over social distancing arrests could loosen restrictions on organizing protests.
May 6, 2020

The expression of free speech has been largely confined to social media posts, press releases and video conferences ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York two months ago, but that is beginning to change as public attention shifts to how the NYPD is handling protests.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea have asserted that public protests should not be allowed, but civil rights activists are pushing back. “Although you, as government officials, have a strong interest in protecting the health and safety of New Yorkers,” Norman Siegel, a former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a Tuesday letter to de Blasio and Shea. “You cannot constitutionally nor legally ban/suspend protected fundamental First Amendment rights of all New Yorkers.”

There are limited options for asserting such rights through the legal system, given how many courtrooms have closed due to the pandemic. However, the court of public opinion remains open, and political leaders appear to have a weakening hand in limiting public protests.

With the pandemic subsiding in New York City, people across the state are also making it increasingly clear (if not in word, then in deed) that 6 feet of space and a face mask is all you need to hang out in public. This has extended to protests in recent weeks as people on both the political left and right are trying to get access to key political leaders like the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo any way they can.

Nurses have protested poor working conditions throughout the pandemic. Activists have donned masks and other personal protective equipment to push for the release of inmates from state prisons. Upstaters have protested social distancing by honking their car horns during the governor’s daily press conference.

Viral online videos meanwhile are stoking longtime resentments over how the NYPD treats people of color. “The difference between enforcement of social distancing in New York’s black and white communities is night and day,” Hawk Newsome, the president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, told Gothamist.

Like with other alleged violations of social distancing, police have issued summons in some situations, including on May 5 when the Reclaim Pride Coalition rallied outside a Manhattan hospital against a controversial religious organization. Data on exactly who police are targeting for social distancing violations has yet to be released by the NYPD.

Social media has become even more powerful during the pandemic, as many people spend much of their days in front of their computers and smartphones. This in turn could push political leaders to rein in the police to some extent, especially if more and more people begin to feel that it is simply no big deal to be outside, whatever the reason.

That does not mean that the mayor will stop backing a department that has bent him to its will over the years, but high-profile incidents have already hurt the mayor politically in recent weeks. Chances are that they will not become more appealing to the public moving forward. “I want to caution that anytime an officer asks someone to observe social distancing or put on a mask, the response should be to follow the instruction of the officer,” de Blasio told reporters on Tuesday. “Respect goes both ways.”

Those comments have sparked further outrage, which has in turn has solidified the cause shared among a broad range of people across the political spectrum – from Black Lives Matters activists to Trump supporters looking to get back to work. While the dangers of a second wave of infections remains very real, New Yorkers are heading outside as the spring weather improves. Some of them will inevitably want to voice their public opinions and that could shift political power in the activists’ favor.

Zach Williams
is senior state politics reporter at City & State.