Home featured Who’s Coming to Thanksgiving? N.Y. Sheriffs Say It’s Not Their Business

Who’s Coming to Thanksgiving? N.Y. Sheriffs Say It’s Not Their Business


Hours before New York State’s order limiting private gatherings took effect on Friday, effectively barring large holiday parties, an upstate sheriff said that he would not enforce it. His office, he said, would never interfere with “the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner.”

Days later, a sheriff in the Southern Tier region vowed that his deputies would not go “peeking in your window” to count the faces around a table. A third New York sheriff said that entering residents’ homes “to see how many Turkey or Tofu eaters are present is not a priority.”

Even as the daily numbers of new coronavirus cases climb and threaten the state’s progress toward tamping down the spread of infection, a growing number of local sheriffs and other officials say they will not enforce the state’s 10-person cap on gatherings at family homes.

Much of the opposition has come from conservative regions outside New York City, but the reluctance to police Thanksgiving feasts has not been limited to upstate areas or to Republicans. In New York City, officials said they did not anticipate strict enforcement, citing other priorities. And at least one Democratic sheriff upstate said he would not have the resources necessary to do the job.

But conservative local officials and sheriffs have so far issued the fiercest rebukes of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s order, which was announced last week. Their open refusals to enforce the ban reflect a national pattern of conservative officials criticizing restrictions meant to keep the virus at bay, orders that opponents denounce as violations of civil liberties.

“It is unenforceable,” said Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who is the Rensselaer County executive and a frequent critic of Mr. Cuomo. The county’s sheriff has said he would not enforce the order. “And I believe it’s unconstitutional as does pretty much every sheriff I’ve spoken to.”

Since the pandemic first swept across the United States in the spring, President Trump has encouraged protests against social distancing regulations and mask requirements. Influential conservative groups have also taken up the cause, and last week, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. told a prominent conservative legal group that the pandemic had brought “previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.”

The backlash against such regulations has intensified in recent weeks as cases soar across the country, setting off a wave of new restrictions that are meant to stem the virus’s spread. The United States is now reporting more than 150,000 new cases a day on average.

New York, which was among the hardest hit places in America in the spring, has seen infections and hospitalizations rise, although the increases have been slighter than those in many other states.

On Tuesday, New York officials said the seven-day average rate of positive test results was 2.88 percent, and that 2,124 people were hospitalized, well below the 18,000 figure the state reached during several days in April.

Even so, Mr. Cuomo has said for weeks that New York could only forestall the national trend and fend off a much-feared second wave of the virus if residents continued to adhere to social distancing restrictions.

Under an executive order that took effect late Friday, indoor and outdoor gatherings at private homes were limited to 10 people aside from residents. Mr. Cuomo said the rule was intended to target house parties, which the state’s contact tracers have found to be a significant source of new infections.

New York is not the only state to impose such a restriction leading up to Thanksgiving. New Jersey and Connecticut have issued similar rules; Michigan has banned indoor gatherings of more than two households; and Vermont and Washington State barred indoor gatherings outside of immediate households. Several cities and towns, including Philadelphia and Chicago, have also enacted gathering limits.

New York’s rule is also in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says the safest way to have a Thanksgiving gathering is to keep it limited to one’s household.

Mr. Cuomo’s order drew criticism almost immediately from New York residents who worried officers would be counting cars in driveways or otherwise disrupting holiday plans. In his announcement, the governor said only that local governments would be responsible for enforcing the rule.

On Friday morning, it became clear that Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, would not have the statewide cooperation he sought when the sheriff of Erie County, which includes Buffalo and its suburbs, said he would not enforce the gathering limit.

“This national holiday has created longstanding family traditions that are at the heart of America, and these traditions should not be stopped or interrupted by Governor Cuomo’s mandates,” the sheriff, Timothy B. Howard, a Republican, said.

The next day, he was joined by Sheriff Richard Giardino of Fulton County, which is northwest of Albany. In a forceful denunciation that he posted on Facebook, Sheriff Giardino, a Republican, questioned the constitutionality of Mr. Cuomo’s order, adding that he could not “in good faith” defend it.

“Don’t feel a need to hide cars, cover with leaves or walk 3 blocks so your house doesn’t become a target of the Governors EO,” he said.

The sheriffs in Rensselaer, Steuben and Saratoga counties also released statements saying they would not enforce the limit. In Rensselaer County, Sheriff Patrick Russo, a Republican, said his office did not have the resources needed to check on Thanksgiving gatherings or to wait for the search warrants that would be required to enter homes.

Sheriff Craig Apple of Albany County, a Democrat, shared that concern. He said that his office would enforce the order if a complaint were called in, but he added that he did not anticipate having enough deputies to strictly or effectively enforce the rule.

“I’m actually kind of hopeful that most people will just do the right thing and keep the gatherings below 10,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Mr. Cuomo’s office dismissed the sheriffs’ criticism as politically motivated.

“Politicians acting like politicians and ignoring what the actual experts say has been fueling the spread of this virus,” Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, said on Tuesday.

Mr. Azzopardi added that the governor’s office expected most New Yorkers to comply with the order, as they had with previous restrictions. Widespread compliance rather than enforcement was the key to any of the state’s rules being effective, he said.

“I think New Yorkers get the message,” he said. “It’s common sense.”

Still, Sheriff Apple of Albany County said he worried that the mounting backlash among the state’s sheriffs might encourage residents to further flout pandemic rules and regulations.

“I would have much preferred they said nothing,” he said of other sheriffs. “Because there’s nothing wrong with people fearful of the police coming to your house if that’s what’s going to keep you from having 30 people over at a super-spreader event.”

In New York City, officials also said they were counting on residents to comply with the cap on private gatherings. “When it comes down to individual families, we’re not going to enforce on family gatherings,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference. “We will on bigger gatherings.”

The police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, said in a television interview that the Police Department was “not planning on breaking up Thanksgiving celebrations.” (The department has not taken the lead in enforcing virus-related restrictions in the city since May after accusations of racial bias in enforcement.)

Joseph Fucito, the city’s sheriff, said his office would be more focused on large-scale events and businesses.

On Long Island, the Suffolk County Police Department said in a statement that it would enforce the governor’s restrictions. The county executive, Steve Bellone, said there would be extra police patrols on the holiday.

“The public, they do alert the police to places where there are large gatherings happening,” Mr. Bellone, a Democrat, said. “And we will be responding.”

Jeffery C. Mays contributed reporting.



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