New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, personally oversaw the dispersal of a large, tightly packed Hasidic Jewish funeral on Wednesday, lashing out at the conduct of mourners, sparking angry counter-criticism from community leaders.
In a tweet, the mayor called the large processional “absolutely unacceptable”, and vowed to bring social gatherings such as that event to an end while movements are still restricted by coronavirus measures.
“When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed,” De Blasio wrote. “What I saw will not be tolerated so long as we are fighting the coronavirus.”
A follow-up tweet from the mayor drew criticism:
The state of New York is under a mandatory stay-at-home order until at least 15 May to curb the outbreak and especially the city’s coronavirus crisis, which is currently the center of the world pandemic.
Images posted on social media appeared to show hundreds of people on the street for what was reportedly a funeral for a rabbi who had died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Some, but not all, of the mourners wore face coverings. A police spokesman said the crowd was dispersed without arrests.
Isaac Abraham, a representative for the Williamsburg Jewish community, countered assertions that the gathering was not in compliance, adding that police precincts assisted with crowd control. Hasidic community leaders also said the event had been approved and facilitated by the NYPD.
“[De Blasio’s] a lying SOB,” Abraham told radio station WNYC . “When you say don’t kick your friend when he’s down, he kicked us twice.”
But several witnesses reported the crowds lingered after the funeral’s end, blocking traffic and refusing to leave. De Blasio reportedly personally intervened, bringing officers to help break up the crowd.
On Wednesday morning De Blasio apologized at a press event for a heavy-handed response, saying: “If you saw anger and frustration, you’re right. I spoke out of real distress. People’s lives were in danger right before my eyes.”
However, as De Blasio later emphasized a “zero-tolerance” policy on breaking social distancing restrictions, for New York City’s protection, his strongly worded messages and tone were not well-received in some quarters, igniting a firestorm when he singled out Jewish residents with threats of arrest.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” De Blasio tweeted on Tuesday.
Chaim Deutsch, a city councilman who represents a large orthodox Jewish constituency, responded that De Blasio’s comment had “to be a joke”, before questioning the mayor’s intent.
“Did the mayor really just single out one specific ethnic community, a community that has been the target of increasing hate crimes in his city, [for] being non-compliant?” Deutsch asked.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted that generalizing New York’s Jewish population “is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews”.
Critics of the mayor portray an unequal application of stay-at-home orders, especially as other groups have also been violating restrictions.
Community advocates have observed that while images of wealthier, white residents in Manhattan disregarding stay-at-home orders have gone viral, so far, it is neighborhoods of ethnic and religious communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens that have been targeted for ticketing and arrests.
On the same day as the funeral, crowds gathered to watch a city flyover by the US navy’s Blue Angels and the air force’s Thunderbirds planes in honor of healthcare workers.
“Only bigots have a problem when a few 100 Hasidim do what thousands of people in the same city have done the same day: not social distance,” the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council tweeted.