More than 12,000 New York City residents have died from COVID-19, and that number increases by several hundred every day. Funeral homes and temporary morgues are overwhelmed. Last week the city was burying its unclaimed and anonymous dead at a rate of almost five times more than usual on Hart Island, which has been used as a potter's field since the 19th century. Since the pandemic, Hart Island has been completely shut off to the press, but even under normal circumstances, access is limited to outlets who can fly their own helicopters over the island or hire one for $1,000 an hour.
At dawn on Wednesday morning, aerial photographer George Steinmetz tried to document the mass burials by flying a drone from a City Island parking lot, a half mile across the Long Island Sound. Steinmetz has an FAA license to fly a drone, and has spent his 35-year career shooting photo essays for National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. "These are humans, and they’re basically being treated like they’re toxic waste, like they’re radioactive," Steinmetz told Gothamist, explaining the news value of the photos. "I think it’s important."
A few minutes after he launched a small drone to survey what was happening on Hart Island, Steinmetz said that a group of plainclothes NYPD officers emerged from an unmarked van, and asked him to bring the drone back. He said they initially tried to confiscate the few photos he took, along with his phone, which acts as the drone's remote control. Instead, they confiscated his $1,500 drone and issued him a misdemeanor summons for "avigation," a law that dates back to 1948 that prohibits aircraft—including drones—from taking off or landing anywhere in New York City that isn't an airport.
"It makes sense to have a regulation like that for drones if you’re flying in Manhattan, where it's not a safe environment," Steinmetz said. "But I was taking off from the shore of City Island, over the water, to an unpopulated, deserted cemetery."
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Preparing for burials of what appear to be more COVID-19 victims this morning on Hart Island, New York City. For over 150 years this island with no public access has been used to bury over a million souls who’s bodies were not claimed for private burial. With the morgues of NYC strained, the pace of burials on Hart Island has increased dramatically. I was cited by NYPD while taking this photo, and my drone was confiscated as evidence, for a court date tentatively scheduled for mid-August. #keepthememorycard
Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said Steinmetz is the second journalist whose drone was seized trying to photograph Hart Island since the pandemic began. (AP photographer John Minchillo was apparently able to take a few drone pictures of mass burials on Hart Island last week without getting caught.)
"While public safety is certainly part of any reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions imposed on traditionally First Amendment protected activities, we are very concerned that this antiquated 'avigation' law is being used in an arbitrary and capricious manner to chill newsgathering efforts to report on a matter of grave public concern, especially when the drone flight appear to be in compliance with current FAA airspace regulations," Osterreicher said in a statement.
"I believe reporting on and images of mass burials anywhere in the U.S. is a newsworthy event but especially during the pandemic it is certainly a matter of public concern. The fact that those being buried are the city’s poorest residents only adds to the tragedy," Osterreicher said, noting that news outlets also reported on Iran's mass graves used to bury people who have died of the novel coronavirus. "It is truly unfortunate that we can use satellite imagery to report this type of news elsewhere but seek to penalize journalists for similar reporting in NYC using drones."
Jason Kersten, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction, which oversees Hart Island and conducts the burials, said in a statement, "Out of respect to the families and friends of those buried on Hart Island, we have a longstanding policy of not permitting photography of an active burial site from Hart Island. It is disrespectful."
Kersten said that between 6 and 47 people have been buried on Hart Island every day this week, the number is "trending downwards" compared to last week. The NYPD did not respond to our request for comment.
In late 2019, the City Council passed legislation to make Hart Island part of the Parks Department's jurisdiction, which would open up the 131 acre island to the public. The transfer is scheduled for July 1, 2021.
"It is illegal to fly drones over most of New York City, including Hart Island," Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote in an email.
Steinmetz said he tried to shoot Hart Island on Tuesday, while he was flying above the city in a helicopter, on assignment for CBS News.
"We called the LaGuardia tower and we asked them for permission, and they wouldn't less us go under 1,000 feet," Steinmetz said. "To me, I start wondering if the word is out: 'Hey, keep people out of Hart Island, because it makes us look bad.'"
[UPDATE / 5:24 p.m.] After this story was published, mayoral spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie responded to our question about whether the de Blasio administration would begin giving the press access to Hart Island burials: "We are exploring ways to do this safely."