NYPD court officers must mask up for COVID despite end of mandates
Court Section officers are caught up in a lawsuit over conditions at borough courthouses and remain under a federal judge’s order to wear masks
By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — Mask mandates are a thing of the past for nearly all New Yorkers outside the health care industry — but a group of New York City Police Department officers caught up in a class action lawsuit over conditions at borough courthouses remain under a federal judge’s order to cover their noses and mouths.
Many of the 500 cops in the NYPD Court Section who process and transport defendants from jail cells to arraignments are not happy about following rules that have been dropped for everyone else.
“No one in the entire building has to wear masks,” a Court Section officer told the Daily News. “Everyone has access to the defendants, but we’re the ones being punished after the mayor and the governor said we don’t have to wear it anymore.”
Court Section cops were recently threatened with command disciplines or suspension if they were caught not wearing masks, even though the order flies in the face of common sense, one of the officers said.
“The court officers, the correction officers, the probation officers, the attorneys — they all have face-to-face interaction with the prisoner. But none of them have to wear masks,” the officer said. “So the NYPD is the ones with the germs?
“This makes us look like we’re sick,” the officer said. “Everyone wants to know why we’re wearing masks, but no one wants to help. I’m sure if [Police Benevolent Association president] Pat Lynch had to still wear a mask, he’d be raising hell.”
When reached, Lynch said the “order is out of touch with the current reality,” and that there is “no rational reason it should remain for certain NYPD facilities.”
The class action lawsuit was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court in November 2021 on behalf of detainees held at the city’s state courthouses during the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The detainees’ suit complained that a lack of masks and filthy, cramped conditions in central booking facilities that serve the courthouses made the holding cells a petri dish for deadly viruses.
“The (city) did not follow any of the established guidance on how jails and correctional institutions should mitigate the risks of transmitting COVID-19,” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit was filed months after then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s July 2021 order requiring the city’s 300,000 city workers to either get the COVID-19 vaccine or wear masks indoors and take COVID-19 tests weekly.
The rule varied among city agencies and was challenged by city employee unions. It acquired some teeth in October 2021, when de Blasio imposed an Oct. 29 deadline for workers to get shots. Those who complied were offered a $500 bonus, and those who did not faced possible punishment.
Amid the varying imposition of the rule, nearly 40 detainees who spent time in the city’s different central booking facilities signed on to the class action lawsuit. Not all of them came down with COVID-19, said their lawyer, Richard Cardinale.
“These were good people — no one with criminal records,” Cardinale said of his clients. “They were jammed into unsanitary cells with no screenings, no rapid COVID tests and no masks. The city had put on this persona that they cared about stopping COVID, but nothing was being done.”
On Jan. 26, 2022, the city hammered out a “consent order” with Cardinale’s clients, vowing to do a better job at social distancing and providing masks to detainees, as well as routinely sanitizing the cells as the case wended its way through federal court.
“The city shall continue to require that all central booking facility staff wear a CDC-recommended mask when interacting with detainees, other staff, and visitors within the facility,” the consent order mandated, not specifically identifying who exactly should be wearing a mask.
In February 2022 — about two weeks after the city’s consent order was filed — Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the end of the statewide masking requirement, marking a turning point for New York’s COVID-19 response.
Masking requirements lingered on for some government workers. The requirement for public transit workers stayed in effect until September. Mask mandates in city hospitals continued until last month.
The requirements also eased for state employees in the court system and employees of the city Department of Correction, who work in the courthouses and their associated jails but are not considered central booking facility staff.
“Our court officers and staff are not required to wear masks but may do so on a voluntary basis,” a spokesman for the state court system said.
Only NYPD Court Section officers are officially considered central booking staff under the court order — so only those officers are required to continue wearing masks.
“The NYPD is currently subject to a court order which requires all NYPD personnel to wear masks in the central booking facilities when interacting with detainees, other staff, and visitors within these facilities,” an NYPD spokesman said. “The department has taken the necessary steps to ensure that its personnel are in compliance with the requirements of the court order.”
The agreement allows the city to seek changes to the order — but so far, the city has not taken steps to do so. A city Law Department spokesman said lawyers were “looking into” asking for changes to the rules.
“In the meantime, we are complying with the court order,” the spokesman said.
Lynch said that instead of punishing members of his union who do not comply with the rule, the city “needs to go back to the court and have the order updated. This kind of nonsense is yet another reason cops are quitting in droves.”
The consent order also guarantees that detainees are given masks which they must wear in the cells and as they are being brought up to court. Many inmates decline the masks, or take them off in the cells, a court source said.
COVID-19 is still a problem in the city with about two people dying per day, 32 people hospitalized and more than 540 diagnosed with the virus, according to city Department of Health statistics.
Cardinale thinks that the mask mandate should still be in affect. In his view, one of city government’s jobs is to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, be they another COVID-19 variant or the common cold.
“The situation is so in flux with COVID,” he said. “There are so many issues in these facilities and Central Booking has such a filthy atmosphere that everything in the consent order should continue. There’s no way to predict what will happen next.”
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