On Sunday night, the city suspended a short-lived pilot program that closed select streets to traffic, an attempt to create more public space for cooped-up New Yorkers to stretch their legs outside while still practicing social distancing during the coronavirus crisis.
The city instituted the “Safe Streets” pilot just eleven days earlier, on March 27. Under the plan, several-block stretches of four streets — Grand Concourse in the Bronx, 34th Avenue in Queens, Park Avenue in Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Bushwick Avenue — were shuttered to cars for the last two weekends. The initiative answered prior calls from advocates for more public spaces where residents can take solo walks or exercise. While parks remain open, the city shuttered its playgrounds last week to prevent unsafe crowds from congregating.
In a statement, Mayor de Blasio’s office said the four traffic-closed streets were not utilized by enough residents during the pilot period to justify the resources being used to keep the program going. The city had allocated 80 NYPD members to enforcing the street closures, according to a spokeswoman.
“The brave men and women of the NYPD never back away from a challenge when the safety of New Yorkers is at stake. We are suspending this pilot because we must protect them like they are protecting us, and not enough New Yorkers are utilizing this program to justify its continuation at this point in time,” Jane Meyer, de Blasio’s deputy press secretary, said in a statement.
In a briefing with reporters Sunday night, the mayor said the NYPD’s “first and foremost concern” is on enforcing social distancing practices at places like supermarkets, pharmacies and parks, and that the streets pilot was using personnel “that we don’t have to spare right now,” according to Streetsblog. Nearly 7,000 police officers were out sick last week, Chief of Department Terence Monahan tweeted on Thursday.
Advocates blasted the decision to cut the program short. Danny Harris, director at Transportation Alternatives, criticized the mayor on Twitter for using a “heavy handed police presence” in enforcing the street closures.
“Our city has a long history of BIDs, block associations, crossing guards, transit advocacy groups, and volunteers who can step forward to support” with enforcement, he wrote, adding that the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo “should lead by example to ensure that New Yorkers who must be out have safe space for social distancing by opening, not closing more of our 6,000 miles of streets to people.”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson also tweeted his support for more street space for pedestrians.
“I have every confidence that we can open streets in a way that protects the brave women and men of the NYPD who are on the front lines in this crisis. We should focus less on police enforcement and more on good design and planning,” he said.
The mayor’s office says they are reviewing other ways to open up more spaces for social distancing, a spokeswoman said.