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Society

NYC to Use More Non-Police “Ambassadors” to Urge Distancing

NEW YORK — After an outcry over racial disparities in New York City's enforcement of social distancing, the mayor planned Sunday to double the ranks of non-police workers trying to persuade people to comply with the policy. 

The number of city workers deployed as "social distancing ambassadors" will grow by next weekend from around 1,000 to 2,300, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. 

"More and more, the emphasis will be on a communicative, encouraging approach," the Democrat said, while noting that enforcement through ticketing "will still be there when needed." 

"The last thing we want to see is enforcement if there's any other way to get the job done." 

The city didn't immediately have information on social distancing arrests or summonses, if any, over the weekend. De Blasio reiterated there have been relatively few — under 10 summonses a day citywide — but that enforcement needs to be done "fairly and consistently in all communities."

Criticism has arisen along with videos of violent arrests — including scenes of a police officer running at a black man and throwing him to the ground for mouthing off and an officer punching a man in the head as he lay pinned to a sidewalk — and statistics on the racial breakdown of police action taken in the name of curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

New York City police department data released Friday  showed that of the 374 summonses issued through May 5 for violating distancing orders, 52% were given to black people and 30% to Hispanic people.

The mayor on Friday called those statistics "an indicator that something's wrong we need to fix." He pledged more training and clearer protocols for officers.

Citing such numbers, police reform advocates have pressed the city to stop using police to enforce rules that require people to wear masks and stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart from anyone who doesn't live in their own household.

De Blasio said Friday that police officers would start limiting access to three New York City parks where passers-by have captured — and shared — images of predominantly white, young people gathering without masks. 

The city's social distancing enforcement has also brought complaints from some Hasidic Jews after police broke up large public funerals in Brooklyn. And civil rights advocates raised questions after police issued at least one social distancing summons at a small protest organized by an LGBT group outside a Manhattan hospital last weekend. 

De Blasio — who in the past has attended a number of demonstrations himself — said Sunday "it's just idiotic" for protesters to gather in person during a pandemic, saying people should take their causes online instead.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has argued that the government doesn't have unfettered authority to ban protests because of a public health emergency. 

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death. 

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