As the pandemic rages on, city and state government officials are brainstorming plans to reopen indoor dining in New York City. While restaurants outside of the five boroughs have been allowed to reopen at half capacity, indoor dining in the city remains a faint memory of a safer and happier time. Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a reopening plan for the city’s struggling restaurants, on the condition that 4,000 NYPD officers would be present in dining facilities on the day that it will take effect to enforce social-distancing guidelines. While it is admirable that the New York State government will not bow to voices that would have him authorize a rushed reopening plan, deploying the city’s police force to address this solution is irresponsible especially when taking the NYPD’s history of police brutality into consideration.
Rather than bringing police into dining establishments, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should be tasked with ensuring that indoor dining facilities are compliant with social distancing regulations. The city’s 100 inspectors could perform checks on restaurants and temporarily shut down those who fail to adhere to regulations. This would not only create an incentive for restaurants to self-regulate, because there will be a steep penalty if their customers are not social distancing, but it will allow customers who might be subject to police brutality or overpoliced to feel more comfortable and safe while eating. This department already has the power to shut down restaurants by assigning them failing grades, so why not use it to keep the city safe from establishments that pose threats to public health?
The NYPD’s track record of enforcing social distancing is already troubling. The police broke up a group of people in predominantly-POC East New York by punching a man in the face. Groups of predominantly white people at Manhattan parks were given masks instead. NYPD data further demonstrates the racial disparities of social distancing enforcement; 81% of people who received social distance related summonses during the height of the pandemic were Black or Hispanic. In fact, most violations were given out in low-income communities that are predominantly occupied by people of color, such as Brownsville. The presence of police in indoor dining facilities is also worrying because of recent friction between the NYPD and the communities it has pledged to protect. While it is true that the police force’s intended role in American society is to guard against violence and lawlessness, it’s clear that many of their interactions with city residents have not been in adherence to this standard.
To be clear, the NYPD’s record of police brutality is not limited to a singular event. Too often, the NYPD’s first response to civil or criminal infractions is violence, and this instinct could jeopardize people of color who decide to dine indoors.
There are many NYPD officers who have honorably served their community, putting themselves in front of danger that innocent New Yorkers would have otherwise faced alone. But the NYPD ought to only concern itself with situations that are direct threats to public safety, like violent crime. In fact, it seems inadvisable to devote 4,000 officers to standing in dining establishments when the city is seeing a stratospheric rise in violent crime that these officers could be policing instead.
More than anything, our country has to stop viewing policing as the only solution to deal with behaviors harmful to society at large. The city and state governments’ collective overreliance on punitive law enforcement has caused them to ignore an elegant solution to this problem, that balances a scarcity of resources with the need to protect Black and indigenous peoples of color. There is no need for the NYPD to enforce social distancing protocols in restaurants, and inviting police officers into dining establishments only makes them more unsafe for people of color dining there. Governor Cuomo can leverage the power of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to enforce social distancing, placing patrons of color’s safety first by not choosing an organization with a history of racially-targeted brutality. This is one step we must collectively take to make New York into a more peaceful and equal city.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 print edition. Email Kevin Kurian at [email protected]