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Governor warns of coronavirus spread during protests

Joseph Spector New York State Team
USA TODAY Network
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for "positive change" out of the protests in New York during his daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, June 1.

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ALBANY — The thousands of protesters in close proximity in New York, which has been the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, could fuel another surge of the virus' spread, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned Monday. 

The protests to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has led to massive protests across New York in recent days, particularly in New York City, and comes as the state has successfully lowered the infection rate from COVID-19.

But the density of people has Cuomo worried that as the coronavirus death toll drops to its lowest point since the pandemic struck in late March, it could see a resurgence due to the protests.

"We don’t even know the consequence for the COVID virus of those mass gatherings," Cuomo said at his daily coronavirus briefing Monday.

"We don’t even know. We won’t know, possibly for weeks, the nature of the virus. How many super spreaders were in the crowd?"

The Democratic governor again urged against the violence, looting and clashing with police that has marred the peaceful protests across New York and the nation.

He knocked some of the police's actions as "disturbing," but also criticized the criminal actions by some of those in the crowd.

"The people who are exploiting the situation — the looting, that’s not protesting," Cuomo said.

"That’s not righteous indignation. That’s criminality, and it plays into the hands of the people and the forces that don’t want to make the changes in the first place. Because they get to dismiss the entire effort."

New York has been the national epicenter for COVID-19, with 24,000 deaths and 372,000 positive cases, mainly in New York City and its suburbs.

But the rate of infection has slowed to its lowest point in more than two months, the result of social distancing and a shut down of all non-essential businesses since March 22.

The number of daily deaths Sunday fell to 54 after hitting as many as 800 deaths a day in early April.

The economy started to reopen May 15, when five upstate regions entered Phase 1 of a four-phase reopening plan.

Now those regions, including the Southern Tier, Finger Lakes and central New York, are in Phase 2 and the Hudson Valley is in Phase 1.

New York City is expected to enter Phase 1 on June 8, but Cuomo said he's concerned about the reopening of the city after the violent nature of the protests.

"It reduces the credibility of the protests in the first place," he said. "It will allow the critics to now say they are all criminals and try to color the whole protest with the looting, to change the image from the real issue, which was Mr. Floyd’s death."

Cuomo said the protests are at least happening when the COVID-19 infection rate is at its lowest level since the pandemic struck, as well as the protesters being fairly young and many wearing masks, which he called "a cruel irony."

Only about 1,000 of the 50,000 coronavirus tests administered Sunday came back positive, he said. 

"If that happened 60 days ago, forget it – because more people would have been infected," Cuomo said.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker encouraged protesters to wear masks, bring hand sanitizer and social distance as much as possible. 

The governor urged protesters to push for positive change.

He laid out his own agenda: a national ban on excessive police force and chokeholds; independent investigations of police abuse; disclosure of disciplinary records of police officers under investigation; and a national plan on poverty, education funding equity and affordable housing.

Releasing disciplinary records of police has long been a debate in New York, but has been successfully fought by police unions.

Patrick Lynch, president of the city's Police Benevolent Association, criticized Cuomo's position, saying there have been "terrorists" burning and looting the city for three nights in a row.

“Governor Cuomo has joined the mob in trampling police officers’ rights," Lynch said in a statement. "He is the governor of New York State. He cannot prejudge an incident on live TV and then claim that there will be due process for that police officer."