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Cuomo: Mass protests could lead to new coronavirus outbreak


Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the mass protests in New York City and in upstate cities over the past few nights have been "counterproductive" to the cause of racial justice and may even reignite the spread of the coronavirus.

Cuomo said he supports the curfew set Monday night for New York City, saying the looting, acts of violence and alleged misconduct by the police in some instances are "unacceptable."

He said New York enacted policies beginning in early March that included the statewide shutdown that succeeded in bringing the rate of COVID-19 deaths down from nearly 800 a day in April to 54 on May 31. The majority of New Yorkers backed the closures and complied by staying home.

But the governor said the past several days of mass protests could reignite the spread of the virus and cause a new outbreak. 

"People lost their jobs, people wiped out their savings, and now, mass gatherings with thousands of people in close proximity?" Cuomo asked. "What sense does this make?" 

The demonstrators have largely been younger people, most of them wearing masks, in outdoor spaces, and the rate of infection in New York is down significantly. The governor said of 50,000 coronavirus tests conducted Sunday, fewer than 1,000 were positive.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said we might not know the consequences of the mass gatherings for weeks since the virus can have a long incubation period while an asymptomatic person spreads the disease. 

"I'm concerned about it, and we are going to track those numbers," Zucker said. 

Cuomo said he "stands with" the majority of the protesters, who are peaceful, but he condemned the looting that has taken place, including the destruction and damage to dozens of retail stores around the state.

He blames the criminality on "infiltrators" trying to exploit the situation, and he said it plays into the hands of opponents of the social justice cause. 

"This is not advancing a reform agenda," Cuomo said. "This is not persuading government officials to change." 

The governor said he continues to be concerned about videos showing alleged police misconduct, including an NYPD cruiser driving into a crowd of protesters, an officer pulling down the mask of an African American demonstrator to pepper-spray him in the face, and the alleged assault of a female protester, which led to her having a seizure.

Cuomo has asked the state's attorney general to look into the instances. He also said a curfew could help defuse the situation.

"I know something has to be done," said Cuomo, adding that the past two nights are "not acceptable, on any level." 

Several upstate cities have already imposed evening curfews.

Cuomo stopped short of saying there should not be protests, saying that people have the right to demonstrate, but they need to "be smart" about it and do it safely.  

Meanwhile, the state continues its phased-in reopening. Western New York was to begin phase two on Monday, meaning that retail stores, hairdressers and professional offices can reopen, with density limitations and other safety provisions.

The Capital Region is on track to begin phase two on Wednesday. And, despite the recent demonstrations, Cuomo said New York City is still scheduled to begin phase one of reopening on June 8.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.