ALBANY (TNS) — On the second floor of the state Capitol Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivered his daily coronavirus briefing. New York is past the peak, he said, but reopening the economy too soon could be “reckless.”
Outside, as he spoke, hundreds of demonstrators stood in the streets or drove past the ornate building, protesting New York’s stay-at-home order that intends to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The demonstration, which lasted more than an hour, was part of a nationwide movement in which those frustrated with the continued closures of businesses, schools and social gatherings have flooded state capitals to demand their economies reopen immediately.
“We get the economic anxiety,” Cuomo said at Wednesday’s briefing, responding to a reporter’s question about the protest. “The question is: How do you respond to it, and do you respond to it in a way that jeopardizes public health and possibly causes more people to die?”
Some of the protesters wore face masks or stayed six feet from other attendees; many did not. They held up signs: “Facts Not Fear – FREE NY,” “Stop tyranny,” “End the status Cuomo,” “Poverty is more dangerous than a virus.”
There were people of all ages, all with different reasons for demonstrating. Some cited their own economic hardship, while others contrasted the coronavirus spread in New York City with that of the rest of the state. A man in a “Make America Great Again” hat held up a sign saying, “My small business is essential.” Nearby, a young woman implored Cuomo to “stop ruining my senior year.”
Hundreds of cars filled the streets outside the Capitol, at times causing traffic to grind to a halt. Many protesters hung signs out of their vehicles or drove trucks with American flags and Trump 2020 signs.
“We have a maximum of maybe 50 deaths in the whole 518 area,” said protester Serena Rizzo of Cohoes. “Why are we treated the exact same as New York City? We’re not the same at all.”
As of Tuesday, 54 residents of the four central Capital Region counties had died of the virus, and 80 have died in all 11 counties, according to the state Department of Health.
Rizzo added that she “can’t breathe with a mask on.”
A protester named Michael, who declined to give his last name, said the governor has “way overstepped his reach,” and the continued lockdown order is “destroying family businesses.”
“I want the governor to stand up, take notice, quickly start opening up businesses upstate especially,” he said. “There’s very minimal cases in different parts of upstate New York. There’s not one reason why businesses are still closed. There’s no excuse whatsoever.”
For others, it is a matter of personal liberty. Demonstrator Richard DeVito, who drove to Albany from New York City, said he owns a small business that has seen “no work” since officials enacted the “on PAUSE” order at the end of March. He walked up and down Washington Avenue yelling, “Freedom!” and held two signs – one saying “Live free or die,” while the other featured a collage of America-themed photos, including the U.S. Constitution and an American flag.
“[The government] is saying we can’t go to work, you have to wear a mask, you have to do this, you have to do that,” DeVito said. “This is America.”
Members of Cuomo’s administration have called the protesters a “death cult.” Cuomo’s “on PAUSE” order is scheduled to last at least until May 15, as he warned on Wednesday that, even as the state pursues a regional reopening plan, the shutdown is “not going to be over anytime soon.”
A Siena College Research Institute poll earlier this month showed that 95 percent of New Yorkers are quarantining themselves or social distancing as the state endures the highest number of COVID-19 cases across the country.
“Both our PAUSE and reopening initiatives are based on facts, science and metrics that a vast majority of New Yorkers have followed and because of that, the curve was bent and lives were saved in this pandemic,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said. “Horn honking is not a factor.”
The protest, coined online as “Operation Gridlock,” was co-hosted by the Facebook group “ReOpen New York State,” which listed nearly 3,000 members as of Wednesday. More than 300 people had marked themselves as interested in the demonstration ahead of time.
At an Albany County coronavirus briefing earlier Wednesday, county Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen pressed demonstrators to “consider the evidence” and think of those families who may be severely impacted by the disease.
“We’re doing our best with the evidence at hand,” Whalen said. “We’re learning rapidly about a disease we knew nothing about three months ago, and it takes time to be able to do that. And this time is needed. These people are unfortunately tempting fate. They’re not listening to the science. And I’d urge them to reconsider.”