Mayor Bill de Blasio personally helped disperse a crowded Hasidic funeral in Williamsburg on Tuesday night, sending thousands of mourners scattering on Bedford Avenue before issuing a stern warning on Twitter to "the Jewish community, and all communities."
“Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite [sic]: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic,” de Blasio wrote. “What I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”
Twelve summonses were issued to those violating social distancing restrictions, according to Police Commissioner Dermott Shea. There were no arrests. "We cannot have what we had last night," Shea told reporters on Wednesday. "We will not tolerate it."
But according to Hasidic community leaders, the police department actually approved and helped coordinate the procession, which was held for local rabbi Chaim Mertz. Hours before the intervention, the NYPD's Community Affairs Unit erected barricades in the area and worked with Shomrim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood patrol group, to ensure the funeral could take place.
"We had an understanding with the police department that the Shomrim patrol would have 50 members and make sure everyone is wearing masks," Rabbi Abe Friedman, a Williamsburg community leader, told Gothamist. "We can't cancel a funeral of a very prominent rabbi, it's not realistic."
"It was supposed to be a very organized, safe, very short final goodbye," he added. "Unfortunately, some people overacted and saw tons of people on the street and started dispersing the crowd and that caused a very big issue."
Since the pandemic began, the NYPD has repeatedly broken up well-attended funeral gatherings in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, which have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths. A police spokesperson would not say why the funeral was allowed to take place, or how the department decides to enforce social distancing laws.
Earlier this month, three people were arrested in Bed Stuy for allegedly "hanging out" with a group of roughly 25 people and refusing multiple orders to disperse. One of the women arrested said she spent 36 hours in a crowded cell with no protective equipment to guard against the virus.
Cuomo has since increased the fines for flouting social distancing rules from $500 to $1,000. The NYPD has not responded to repeated inquiries about the total number of summonses and arrests issued for the violations, including breakdowns by race and neighborhood.
"The next gathering will be met with summonses and arrests, period. That’s true in every community," de Blasio said on Wednesday. "If you have a large gathering — hundreds of people, thousands of people — we’re not even going to have a warning."
Some local officials questioned the NYPD's handling of Tuesday's incident — asking why the department had condoned an event, only to have de Blasio swoop in and break it up.
"Approving a crowded funeral during the pandemic was the first mistake, but lumping together and singling out the Jewish community for criticism and then threatening arrests is a terrible response," Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander told Gothamist. "Threatening to lock up people in a crowded cell in order to prevent them from attending a crowded funeral (or congregating in a crowded park) is a cruel and counterproductive policy."
"Leading with policing to address a public health crisis is just not the answer," he continued. "What's needed for physical distancing is social solidarity, not threats of incarceration."