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As New Yorkers Protest, Officials Fear New COVID-19 Spike


A man cleans up damage in the Soho shopping district in New York, June 1, 2020, after protests against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.

As New York City approaches the end of its nearly three-month lockdown to contain the coronavirus, large protests over the death of George Floyd threaten health gains, while instances of violence and looting have alarmed officials.

Three nights of protests had been largely peaceful, but late Sunday, luxury stores were looted in an area of lower Manhattan. The city's mayor and the state's governor jointly agreed to impose a curfew on the city of 8.6 million people from 11 p.m. Monday until 5 a.m. Tuesday. The police presence will be doubled across the city.

"We can't let violence undermine the message of this moment," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "It is too important, and the message must be heard. Tonight, to protect against violence and property damage, the governor and I have decided to implement a citywide curfew."

In addition to the looting, there have been instances of protesters clashing with police — throwing bottles, bricks and other objects at them — and setting police vehicles ablaze. Several hundred arrests were made between Friday and Sunday nights. There were also a few videotaped instances of police responding aggressively; on Saturday night, officers drove two vehicles into a crowd of demonstrators. The city is investigating.

The protesters, who took to the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn by the thousands, are protesting the death in police custody of an African American man, George Floyd, in the state of Minnesota, and calling for an end to decades of racial discrimination and injustice.

But unlike any previous mass protests, these demonstrations are taking place against the backdrop of a pandemic.

Protesters rally in Times Square in the Manhattan borough of New York City, June 1, 2020, against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.
Protesters rally in Times Square in the Manhattan borough of New York City, June 1, 2020, against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.

New York City has been the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus contagion. More than 200,000 of the state's confirmed 371,000 cases of COVID-19 have been in the city, and more than 20,000 city residents have died from the virus. African Americans and Latinos have some of the highest rates of infection in the city, as many are in front-line jobs or have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk.

Three months of lockdown measures, business closures and social distancing have helped to tame the virus's spread. On Saturday, the city registered a low of just 59 new cases, compared with more than 6,300 at the peak. Next Monday, the city is slated to enter Phase One of reopening. It is the last region in the state to meet criteria to do so.

Balancing protests and a pandemic

While local officials have been supportive of peaceful protests and not enforced bans on large gatherings during the pandemic, they are increasingly concerned that the gatherings could erase progress and cause a spike in COVID-19 cases, endangering public health and potentially delaying the city's reopening.

"For those who have made their presence felt, made their voices heard, the safest thing from this point is to stay home," the mayor said. "We don't want people in close proximity to each other. We don't want people out there where they might catch this disease or spread this disease."

He appealed to those who do demonstrate to try to observe social distancing and wear face coverings.

"There is no question there is a danger this could intensify the spread of the coronavirus just at a point when we were starting to beat it back profoundly," he added.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he shares the outrage over Floyd's death and stands with the protesters.

"We can end the injustice and the discrimination and the intolerance and the police abuse, but we have to be smart," Cuomo said at a news conference Monday in New York City.

"And we have to be smart right now — right now in this state. And we have to be smart tonight in this city. Because this is not advancing a reform agenda, this is not persuading government officials to change. This is not helping end coronavirus."

Cuomo condemned the violence and looting, saying it "obscures the righteousness of the message."

"Use this moment to galvanize public support; use that outrage to actually make the change and have the intelligence to say what changes you actually want," he said. "Otherwise it is just screaming into the wind if you don't know exactly what changes we need to make."