NEW YORK – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dropped the state’s absolute ban on gatherings of any size Friday, issuing an executive order saying up to 10 people are now allowed to be together as long as they abide by other social distancing guidelines adopted during the coronavirus pandemic.
The order, issued on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, represents one of the biggest steps yet the state has taken to loosen rules adopted in March that have barred anyone but essential workers from getting together unless they live in the same household.
It doesn't necessarily pave the way for the backyard barbecues and group picnics that are a staple of the holiday. The order still requires people assembling to follow “social distancing protocols and cleaning and disinfection protocols required by the Department of Health.”
That means people still need to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, or wear a face covering when they cannot maintain that distance in public.
New Jersey has adopted similar rules, allowing groups of up to 25 outdoors and indoor gatherings of up to 10 people. Connecticut has allowed restaurants with outdoor seating to reopen.
Cuomo had earlier in the week signed an order allowing gatherings of as many as 10 people only for religious services and Memorial Day commemorations.
That restriction drew a lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Union, which said if it was safe to gather for the purpose of honoring veterans and practicing religion, the Constitution requires the same right be extended to people gathering for other reasons.
The NYCLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of New York City resident Linda Bouferguen, who the group says was twice arrested outside City Hall for protesting the state’s shutdown. She wants to organize another protest Saturday.
NYCLU Legal Director Christopher Dunn said in a statement that the organization was “glad to see the governor reverse course.”
“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.”
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the new order is in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which says that gatherings of up to 10 people are safe if people socially distance.
“Please be safe and wear a mask,” he added on Twitter.
The coronavirus killed another 109 people in the state Thursday. The daily death toll is down dramatically from early April, when nearly 800 New Yorkers were dying each day, but the drop has been very slow. Around 5,000 people remain hospitalized.
Another 1,700 people in the state tested positive for the virus Thursday. Some medical experts have warned that loosening restrictions on gatherings too quickly could lead to a new surge in infections.
The pandemic has killed at least 23,200 people in the state, not counting another 4,800 people in New York City who died before their COVID-19 diagnosis could be confirmed by a lab test.
Here are other coronavirus developments in New York:
New York City Myor Bill de Blasio unveiled a new set of data thresholds Friday to help determine when to loosen restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, but Cuomo, the mayor's frequent political sparring partner, later said it will be up to the state — not the city — to make those decisions.
“No local official can open or close,” Cuomo said, noting that the state has established its own set of metrics intended to measure the safety of reopening.
“We said at the beginning it’s going to be one standard that is data-driven. There’s no politics here. What’s safe is safe," the governor said.
The offices of both Democrats have been saying that the city is on target to begin reopening its economy in the first half of June.
De Blasio said Friday that in order to enter the first phase of the reopening, including manufacturing and retail with curbside pickup, the city must stay below thresholds for three things: the daily number of people admitted to hospitals for suspected COVID-19, the total number of patients in intensive care at public hospitals and the citywide percentage of people testing positive for the virus.
Cuomo's standards, which apply to the entire state, are based on measures that include whether a region has seen an overall decline in the number of hospitalizations and the availability of hospital beds.
The indicators used by the city and the state, while not exactly the same, “are in line with one another," and the two administrations are in constant communication, said Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa.
“We are aligned in our approach — nothing will reopen until it is safe to do so," de Blasio spokeswoman Jane Meyer said in an interview.
Regional economic reopenings began a week ago in upstate areas, with different industries opening in phases.
Long Island and the mid-Hudson Valley region, including the city’s northern suburbs, are poised to phase economic activity back next week if COVID-19-related deaths continue to decline and they meet state standards for contact tracing, Cuomo said.
A Hasidic Jewish school in the Hudson Valley was ordered to close after officials said it violated a state mandate by remaining open with “hundreds” of boys in the building.
The school in Kiryas Joel was served with a cease-and-desist order Thursday after officials discovered it operating in defiance of a nearly two-month-old order by the governor closing all public and private schools in the state.
Chris Ericson, a deputy county health commissioner who visited the school, told the Times Herald Record on Friday that the classrooms were filled with students and that very few people wore masks.
The school is part of the United Talmudical Academy, the largest of three ultra-Orthodox Jewish school systems that serve around 14,500 children in the community about 50 miles north of New York City.
Ron Coleman, an attorney for the school system, said that “the school was not operating as a school” but that administrators were allowing the boys to study on their own in the building.
School officials believed that independent study did not count as schooling and that it was allowed under the state’s order, he added.
Gatherings of all types have been banned, except for essential workers, since late March.
Associated Press writers Marina Villeneuve and Michael Hill in Albany contributed to this report.