Estimated reading time: 6 minute(s)

In response to ongoing protests and riots, New York City implemented a curfew to help the besieged Police Department maintain order.  The curfew, like social distancing policies that remain in effect for some, but not others, does not appear to apply to either protesters in large groups or rioters.  Attending a memorial in some cases is encouraged by authorities while Hasidic Jews who gather for funerals are threatened with arrest.  Many of the 40 million newly unemployed Americans would similarly be threatened with citations for returning to work, but not for gathering for certain mass demonstrations. 

Through it all, those who are defined as essential workers and who have night shifts must continue to commute to and from work during the curfew.  Sadly, both New York State and New York City have forgotten that, in demanding much of essential workers in trying times, they should contemplate which services are essential to essential workers.

A Brief Statement on the Protests and Other Matters

I do not write to weigh in extensively on the protests, the deeply troubling incident that preceded them, or the riots.  As most people agree, there is no excuse for law enforcement using excessive force against subdued persons.  There is similarly no excuse or justification for violence or property damage.  Disturbingly, the second point seems to be up for debate with too many who dominate the opinion sections of news media.

Those who condone rioting and looting, regardless of the professed justification, do grave damage to this country.  The victims of rioting are myriad.  Buildings and businesses are destroyed and often never rebuilt.  Essential services become inaccessible.  Individuals fall victims to violence.  Law-abiding individuals huddle at home or walk through the streets with trepidation, fearing they may fall victim too.  It is the very idea that some law-abiding people live in fear that motivates many of the legitimate protesters of good will to peaceably assemble.

Symbolism and Action

As I previewed, I will comment on New York’s lack of consideration for those it deems to be essential workers.  Every day since the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in New York City, politicians have rushed to the airwaves to express their love and appreciation for essential workers.  Well-meaning citizens put up signs and other tributes to essential workers.  Others make quite a bit of noise every evening at 7:00 PM.  Unfortunately, all these statements of support do not necessarily translate to action on the part of New York authorities.

Transportation in Trying Times

Many essential workers in New York City do not have their own cars.  This was, not long ago, the professed justification for New York State allowing the subways in New York City to operate with no restrictions and insufficient sanitation, notwithstanding the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.  This policy led to many MTA workers – who were themselves deemed “essential” – becoming ill with the virus.  More broadly, it is difficult to not see a line between New York City’s subway system and its’ being an outlier in the severity of the outbreak.

The virus was not the only risk posed by trains.  The NYPD was hit hard by the virus itself, and it had to appeal to the Federal Government to obtain the PPE supplies that were denied to it by the New York City Department of Health.  As part of its efforts to stop the spread of the virus, New York City proceeded to release many persons deemed to be at high risk from jails, all while encouraging hospitals to send confirmed and probable cases to nursing homes

Thus, the trains posed, and still pose, to riders not only a heightened risk of contracting the illness, but also a heightened risk of being victimized by criminals.  All the while, New York-based media generally focused their condemnation on the policies and people of other states with far less severe infection numbers, such as Florida and Georgia, while ignoring some peculiar policies right under their nose.

Transport Options for Essential Workers

Because of the myriad risks associated with public transportation, many essential workers without cars spent their own money on ride-sharing services to get to and from work.  Here, it is important to remember that most essential workers are not highly paid doctors who can more readily absorb these additional costs.  Many were medical residents, nurses, grocery store employees, laundromat workers, and others in more modestly compensated positions.  They incurred the expense to best ensure the safety of themselves and their families, despite the hardship.  Those who were able to incur the extra cost may have reasonably concluded that taking an Uber or Lyft in lieu of the subway was well worth the cost, even if it was not an easy cost to swallow.  Those who could not incur the costs covered their faces and joined the beleaguered men and women of the MTA in braving the trains.

Considering what is essential for essential workers under the NYC curfew.

A Poorly Thought-Out Policy on Ride-Sharing During Curfew Hours

With this backdrop, the Mayor of New York City announced that ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Revel, will not be allowed to operate during key hours of the curfew.  What is a beloved essential worker with an evening shift to do?  According to the New York Post, the City stated that they can hail a taxi – at great expense – or take public transportation.  While it is nice that taxis remain looked after, this is a limited solution for those who need to commute.  Good luck finding a taxi, much less one willing to travel to the far reaches of the outer boroughs. Furthermore, limiting the amount of transportation options available will make transportation more scarce for all who need it. The taxis being driven by undercover NYPD officers likely not be able to offer service either.

As for the trains and buses, I am sure the looting and lawlessness in New York City will reassure essential workers that public transportation is safer than ever.  For those who remain concerned about the virus, New York’s de facto abandonment of social distancing provisions, at least as applied to crowds gathered for protests, will do little to reassure people that the public transportation system is no longer a major virus vector.

The New York Post explains that City Hall justified the restrictions on ride-sharing services and public bike services by saying that looters were taking advantage of them to escape authorities.  Surely, it would be impossible for a looter to do something like hail a taxi or hop on an inadequately policed train or bus.  Unsurprisingly, the New York Post observed that City Hall did not make available any statistics supporting its assertions about ride-sharing services and lawlessness.

A Call for Reassessment

Notwithstanding the letter of the curfew policy, it applies in practice to some non-essential workers, but not to others.  Otherwise law-abiding protesters are mostly exempt, provided that they gather in large enough groups, while smaller groups of protesters and people who are not protesting at all are subject to the rules.  That these distinctions in the application of the curfew are illogical as a matter of fairness does not mean that the curfew is meritless on pragmatic grounds.  One can reasonably argue that it has made the law enforcement situation in New York City more manageable.

However, in light of the inherent contradictions in the curfew policy and its enforcement, it is absurd of the both Albany and City Hall to take away some of the safest transportation options for essential workers commuting to and from work during the early hours of the curfew.  While the entire concept of essential vs non-essential workers is debatable, it would seem that, upon determining that a class of workers is “essential,” the Government ought to consider which services are “essential” to those workers.  In these times, the safest ways of commuting to and from work are expensive, and the cheapest ways present dangers.  To take away the former as an option, when the latter is more dangerous due to conditions of lawlessness and the NYPD’s being besieged and overstretched, is policy malpractice.

Final Thoughts

I hope that order returns to New York City immediately.  But since that is unlikely, I hope that New York State and New York City reassess their policy choices that make life more difficult for people who are not only permitted to go to and from work in the evening, but also required to do so.  No essential worker has anything to do with the protests and riots that caused New York to implement a curfew unless he or she chooses to join the protests of his or her own free will.  Having largely created the situation with inconsistent social distancing and curfew mandates, it is the least New York authorities can do.