On Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo eased rules on gatherings, now allowing a maximum of 10 people to convene for non-essential reasons. The decision was prompted by a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the governor's executive orders had banned First Amendment activities, like protesting the state's lockdown.

Earlier this week, Cuomo had announced that religious gatherings, as well as Memorial Day services or commemorations of 10 people or fewer could resume on May 21st as long as participants wear masks and abide by social distancing guidelines. The NYCLU, on Friday, sued the state on behalf of Linda Bouferguen, who has been arrested twice for anti-lockdown protests outside of City Hall in lower Manhattan this month.

By late Friday afternoon, Cuomo signed the new order which "permit[s] any non-essential gathering of ten or fewer individuals, for any lawful purpose or reason, provided that social distancing protocols and cleaning and disinfection protocols required by the Department of Health are adhered to."

In announcing its lawsuit, the NYCLU said, "At each protest, one of which involved seven people and the other fewer than twenty, all participants were at least six feet apart and nearly all wore masks. Ms. Bouferguen wishes to organize another similar demonstration, abiding the crowd size and other gathering requirements in the orders. However, both the city and the governor’s office rebuffed requests for approval of her event."

Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU's Legal Director, explained, "We welcome the easing of restrictions on First Amendment events, but that easing has to apply to protests as well as to religious services and events honoring veterans. Having recognized that small events now can take place safely, the government does not get to pick who gets to exercise First Amendment rights."

A photograph from the May 8th protest shows a handful of protesters; the Post, which also has pictures, reported that nine people were arrested "for not obeying social distancing guidelines" and one witness said that some "were not wearing a mask or face covering":

Protesters and police outside City Hall on May 8, 2020

"We're glad to see the governor reverse course on his executive order from last night. The right to protest and exercise free speech is the foundation of all our other liberties, and during a crisis is exactly when we need to be most vigilant about protecting it. Health experts, elected officials, and police officers all agree that people can be outside safely while practicing social distancing, and it's critical that lawmakers create guidelines and direct law enforcement uniformly," Dunn said on Friday. "New Yorkers have met this crisis with solidarity and resilience, and placed immense trust in the government to exercise its authority and keep them safe. To maintain that trust, the government must take that responsibility seriously and treat all New Yorkers equally as we look to the months ahead."

The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the NYPD will be able to enforce the new order.

The city is still at least a couple weeks away, based on COVID-19 hospitalization data, from the prospect of reopening and moving into "Phase 1," and the Memorial Day weekend has raised concerns about sizes of gatherings, whether on sidewalks or at beaches and parks. Beaches will limit crowds; some city parks started monitoring crowd size last weekend.

"This decision was not made by health professionals. It was forced by a lawsuit. No one should mistake this as guidance to change their behavior," City Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the Council's Health Committee, said in a statement. "There remain real risks to group gatherings, especially indoors. This order doesn't change that."

When asked about socializing with people outside, epidemiologist Stephen Morse said, "I think it’s best to err on the side of caution. We can’t say with certainty about any individual, who just might be one of the unlucky ones."

Morse's colleague at Columbia University, Barun Mathema, added that in New York City, "We are very much still in this pandemic. Therefore, taking steps to prevent spread is vitally important. This includes preventing acquisition of infection and preventing dissemination of the virus to others unknowingly. At the moment, minimizing social activities or actions that lend itself to coming into close contact with others is really quite important."