Maybe instead of a punishment moment, Gov. Andrew Cuomo should use it as a teaching moment — about the dangerous spread of the coronavirus and about democracy.
The governor — upset with protesters to his social distancing policies gathering without masks and without staying a safe distance apart — is encouraging police to enforce his executive order requiring that people wear masks when in close proximity to others in public.
The governor’s message is deadly serious.
The more people gather together, the more likely they are to spread the virus, and the more likely we are to see a return to increased sickness and death. New federal projections predict the virus will ramp up sharply in the country this month, with 200,000 new cases each day and 3,000 daily deaths.
Make no mistake about it. Anyone who gathers in protest without proper distance and without wearing a mask is no First Amendment hero. They’re selfishly and foolishly putting themselves and other people in danger.
It’s not a hoax. It’s not fake news. Scientists are in almost universal agreement that wearing masks, washing hands frequently and social distancing are about the only actions that have proven to limit the spread of this virus.
By protesting without practicing these basic safety precautions, these individuals are not only putting lives at risk, they’re also undermining the very outcome they’re seeking — a quick reopening of the economy.
If the number of cases and deaths rise sharply, in part due to people ignoring isolation and not wearing masks, governors who are carefully trying to reopen the economy will be forced to retreat and order businesses closed again.
But Gov. Cuomo’s get-tough tactics might backfire on him, by spurring people to rebel even more. So the governor might want to consider a different tactic to reach scofflaws.
People are understandably frustrated at the many restrictions suddenly imposed on their lives in the last two months. And the governor can’t just say he understands their frustration and then punish them for demonstrating it.
He also can’t justify singling out protesters for enforcement while allowing other people to wander through stores and into crowded parks and buildings in the same irresponsible manner without punishing them as well.
A more effective approach might be to greet the protesters with information and free masks. Several states have initiated public-private partnerships to provide masks, and some communities in our area have hosted mask giveaways.
If after a reasonable period the public continues to flout the order, then begin to enforce it uniformly statewide — not just among people who are simply exercising their basic rights as American citizens to assemble.
Government can’t be allowed to use this pandemic as an excuse to trample our freedoms. Singling out legal protesters for enforcement of a law, even a good law, is a step in the wrong direction toward unfettered government control over our lives.
The governor is right. Put on your damn masks and spread out.
But maybe he needs a better way of getting his message across.