Virus ‘Checkpoints’ in N.Y.C. to Enforce Travel Rules? Well, Not Exactly

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The announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday seemed to signal a new crackdown in the city’s efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus: “Traveler registration checkpoints” would be set up at bridges and tunnels, conjuring images of police officers stopping cars and detaining people from out of state.

The reality may be a lot less stark — and a lot more confusing.

The authorities will not be stopping every car. They will likely not be at every crossing on any given day. The Police Department won’t even be involved.

Instead of working to enforce the state’s mandatory quarantine for people coming from states with climbing coronavirus cases, the checkpoints, run by the city’s sheriff’s office, will focus on informing travelers about the rules.

Even so, Mayor de Blasio presented the program as a crucial step in fending off the resurgence of the virus in the city, which was once the center of the pandemic but has maintained a low rate of infection in recent weeks.

“If we’re going to hold at this level of health and safety in the city and get better, we have to deal with the fact that the quarantine must be applied consistently to anyone who has traveled,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference.

Hours after the mayor’s announcement, many details of the checkpoint program remained unclear — including to the region’s transit agencies, who oversee the city’s bridges and tunnels.

A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates crossings into the city, said that the mayor’s announcement surprised the agency. The spokesman did not know whether any of its bridges or tunnels would be targeted and had no details of the plan.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates bridges and tunnels within the city, said it was not involved with the checkpoints.

Laura Feyer, a spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio, said that the city would most likely not provide advance notice of where the checkpoints would be so that motorists did not try to route around them.

“Most checkpoints will be at roadways coming into the city after bridges and tunnels, not on Port Authority property themselves,” Ms. Feyer said.

State and city officials have been warning for weeks about a potential second wave of virus cases driven by travelers from the dozens of states where the outbreak has surged in recent weeks.

In late June, as cases began climbing around the country, New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, ordered people coming from states with a high percentage of positive coronavirus tests to quarantine for two weeks upon their arrival. As of Tuesday, travelers from 34 states and Puerto Rico are subject to the order.

From the day of its announcement, the measure was met with skepticism about how it could be enforced. Those who violate the quarantine can be subject to fines of up to $10,000 for subsequent violations, but state officials acknowledged that they would not be tracking every person who entered the state.

To boost compliance, the state last month began requiring people disembarking at New York’s airports to fill out a form with their personal information and recent whereabouts or face a $2,000 fine.

Though the state says all travelers should fill out the form, compliance has largely depended on the whims of the people entering the state. Those who entered New York using highways, train stations and buses had not been subject to the same level of scrutiny.

City officials said on Wednesday that the checkpoints will help them monitor potential new outbreaks. They had grown particularly concerned amid an uptick in cases in neighboring New Jersey and regional partners like Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Ted Long, the executive director of the city’s testing and contact-tracing program, said New York was moved to act after recent data suggested a fifth of the city’s new coronavirus cases were attributed to travelers entering New York City from other states.

The city’s sheriff, Joseph Fucito, said that deputies would stop cars on a random basis. The traffic stops will not target drivers with out-of-state license plates — as officials in Rhode Island did in March, much to the chagrin of New York officials.

The deputies will then ask drivers coming from designated states to fill out the required forms and provide them with details about the state’s quarantine rules, officials said. The sheriff’s office cannot force travelers to comply with the quarantine, and it is unclear if or how the city would track whether they comply.

The sheriff’s office has been increasingly involved in enforcing social-distancing guidelines, including at the city’s restaurants and bars.

The checkpoints arrive during a time of vociferous debate over the role of law enforcement in the city.

Albert Fox Cahn, a New York lawyer who runs the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy advocacy group, said in a statement that the plan created privacy risks with no clear benefit.

“The mayor is transforming this pandemic into a policing issue,” Mr. Cahn said.

Both the sheriff and the mayor said that travelers’ individual rights and civil liberties would be respected. Ms. Feyer said that sheriff’s deputies would not issue summons for other legal violations except “under extreme circumstances.”

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, also faced criticism from some Republican elected officials, including Councilman Joseph Borelli of Staten Island, who said the checkpoints were unlikely to be effective and amounted to “theatrics.”

In addition to the checkpoints at bridges and tunnels, the city will also set up similar efforts at Penn Station, starting on Thursday, and at the Port Authority Bus Terminal to inform out-of-state travelers about the mandatory quarantine.

Juliana Kim and Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.

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