Just one week before New York City, the epicenter of the country's coronavirus outbreak, is set to ease restrictions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the George Floyd protests that rocked the city over the weekend threaten to spread infection.
"We're talking about reopening in one week in New York City and now we're seeing these mass gatherings over the past several nights that could in fact exacerbate the Covid-19 spread," Cuomo said at a news briefing Monday.
New York City has endured the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world with the virus infecting more than 203,300 people in the city and killing at least 29,784 people so far. Nonessential businesses have been shuttered, and the government has been encouraging people to remain home as much as possible since March 20.
The city and state have made considerable progress, bringing daily new deaths caused by Covid-19 down to dozens across the state, compared with the nearly 800 daily deaths the state was grappling with at the outbreak's peak in April.
"We spent all this time closed down, locked down, masked, socially distanced and then you turn on the TV and you see these mass gatherings that could potentially be infecting hundreds and hundreds of people after everything that we have done," he added.
The protests were sparked after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd, an unarmed black man, a week ago by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest.
The coronavirus has disproportionately hit minorities harder than white people, leading to higher infection and death rates in communities of color, due to a lack of resources and scarcity of quality health care. Cuomo said it's just another example of institutionalized discrimination in the country that fueled outrage after Floyd's death.
"Look at what happened with this Covid infection rate, nationwide," he said. "More African Americans infected. More African Americans dead proportionately than white Americans."
Cuomo said he supports the spirit of the protests but said they are "counterproductive" for the city as it's trying to rebuild following two months of lockdowns that shuttered businesses and put millions of New Yorkers out of work.
"This is not helping end coronavirus," he said. "I think this has been counterproductive for New York City in many ways."
Cuomo announced last week that New York City was on track to meet the state's requirements to ease restrictions and reopen some businesses on June 8. He did not say whether that timeline has changed.
"We don't even know the consequence for the Covid virus of those mass gatherings. We don't even know. We won't know possibly for weeks," he said. "It's the nature of the virus. How many super spreaders were in that crowd?"
Cuomo assured reporters that people can continue to protest, but he urged the public to do so safely, wearing masks, physically distancing where possible and using hand sanitizer. Cuomo also criticized the New York Police Department for some instances in which officers appeared to "exacerbate" violence at the protests.
Earlier Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed similar concerns about the potential for the protests to set the city back in its fight to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
"I am very worried about the health impact," he told reporters. "There is a danger that it will cause some real impact on the resurgence of this disease."
Most of the protesters have been young, de Blasio said, which is a silver lining as the virus is less likely to kill or severely harm young people. He added that the protests have been mostly outside, where some studies have shown the virus doesn't spread as easily as indoors.
However, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Monday the virus is more likely to spread at the protest than at other outdoor events where people are perhaps more willing to practice precautions.
"This isn't a day at the beach or going out to a picnic where you're outside and you might be in larger groups but there's some social distancing and you're able to take some precautions," he said. "In these kinds of gatherings, in these kinds of crowds, many of which lost control of the crowds, you're not going to be able to take those kinds of precautions."