NYC Mayor Apologizes to Jewish Community Over Social Distancing Warning

Since the outbreak of coronavirus, de Blasio has repeatedly aimed enforcement warnings at faith communities.

Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Mayor Bill de Blasio. (photo: Shutterstock)

NEW YORK, N.Y. — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio apologized on Wednesday afternoon, hours after sending a tweet that singled out “the Jewish community” while warning of consequences for groups if they violate social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"I regret if the way I say it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way — it was not my intention," said de Blasio on Wednesday, referring to the past evening’s controversial tweet. De Blasio characterized his comments as “tough love.”

The previous evening, the mayor tweeted that he had instructed the city’s police force to issue summons to or arrest people who congregate in large groups. De Blasio specifically singled out the Jewish population of the city in his warning. 

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.” de Blasio said just after 9:30 p.m. on April 28. 

De Blasio’s tweet was in response to a funeral held earlier in the evening for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, who died from COVID-19. The funeral service drew a large crowd of members of the Hasidic community to the streets of Williamsburg. The group was dispersed by NYPD officers. No one attending the funeral was arrested. 

The mayor said that when he heard about the funeral, he “went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed.”

“And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus,” he tweeted. 

De Blasio’s tweet drew criticism, with many noting the mayor’s own apparent violations of social distancing, as well as instances of large crowds of non-Hasidic people who were not wearing masks in public. On the day of the funeral in Williamsburg, many people congregated outdoors to watch a flyover tribute by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds. The mayor did not comment on this activity. 

Bataya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor at the Jewish publication The Forward, pointed out that de Blasio continued to go to the gym despite stay-at-home and social distancing recommendations. 

“Bill de Blasio went to the gym six days after Purim, three days after Lakewood’s rabbinic authorities banned public gatherings,” she said on Twitter. “And he’s out here talking about rounding up Jews.” 

The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League also condemned de Blasio’s tweet, noting that it was not sound policy for the mayor to generalize about 13% of the city’s population. 

“There are 1 million plus Jewish people in NYC. The few who don’t social distance should be called out--but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews,” said Greenblatt. “This erodes the very unity our city needs now more than ever.” 

Since the outbreak of coronavirus, de Blasio has repeatedly aimed enforcement warnings at faith communities. In March, the mayor threatened to “permanently” close houses of worship that continued to hold services. 

De Blasio’s threat to shut down religious buildings provoked criticism from religious liberty experts, as well as questions about his legal authority to do so given the protections of the First Amendment.

"Mayor de Blasio surely didn’t mean what he said, because there’s no way he or any other government official would ever have the power to shut down a church, synagogue, or mosque permanently,” said Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in March.

Rienzi said that, given the context, the mayor “appears to be talking about the temporary need to ensure proper social distancing in a time of crisis,” which Rienzi said was a “valid governmental interest.” 

Rienzi called the phrasing of de Blasio’s comments “unfortunate,” and said they were not helping to soothe the fears of religious groups, particularly as those same religious groups are providing emergency relief work to those impacted by COVID-19. 

“Right now, we need religious groups and the government to continue working together to keep everyone as safe as possible,” said Rienzi. “The First Amendment will protect against any needless targeting of religious groups in a time of crisis.”

Last year, the number of hate crimes against Jewish people in New York City reached the highest number since 1992, the year following the Crown Heights riot.