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NYC Makes Masks Optional at Welfare Offices After Clients Defy Rule

The Crotona Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Center in The Bronx.
The Crotona Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Center in The Bronx
Photo: Google Maps

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To help contain the spread of COVID-19, the city social service agency had plastered bluntly worded signs at the entrances of welfare offices across the five boroughs: “In order to enter this building, you must wear a face-covering or a mask.”

On Friday, the Human Resources Administration reversed course after a pair of clashes at a Bronx facility — ordering the signs to be taken down and declaring that clients who refuse to wear a mask would be allowed in.

The sudden flip seemingly clashes with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s repeated admonition that all New Yorkers entering grocery stores and pharmacies must wear a mask — and that owners “have the right” to keep them out if they don’t. “We will back them up a hundred percent,” the mayor said Thursday.

On Sunday, a day after this story was published, de Blasio said he wasn’t familiar with HRA’s new policy, but didn’t seem to agree with it.

“I think it’s abundantly clear that people need to be wearing face coverings and particularly in an enclosed space,” he said.

A sign was posted at a Bronx HRA office asking clients to take safety precautions during the coronavirus outbreak.
A sign was posted at a Bronx HRA office asking clients to take safety precautions during the coronavirus outbreak.
Obtained by THE CITY

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order mandating that people must wear masks in public went into effect April 17. On Saturday, he announced that seven million cloth masks would be delivered to nursing homes, NYCHA residents and people in “poorer communities.”

On Friday Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents HRA peace officers, questioned the logic of the city’s new policy at welfare offices.

“As New York City moves to enforce social distancing, the New York City HRA moves to disregard enforcing the wearing of face shields in their facilities,” Floyd stated.

The change apparently stems from two incidents within the last 10 days at a Bronx welfare office where clients refused HRA workers’ instructions to cover their faces or accept free masks that were offered.

Both were ejected after HRA peace officers intervened. One was issued a summons after allegedly threatening to kill the officers.

‘Take Me to Rikers!’

At around 8:30 a.m. Monday, client Jermaine Gaddy, 43, walked past the “face-covering” sign, written in English and Spanish, at the entrance to the Crotona Jobs Center and HRA office on Monterey Avenue, according to an internal HRA report obtained by THE CITY.

The report offered this account: Workers at the entrance offered Gaddy a free mask. He refused to take it and proceeded to the second-floor reception area. Workers there told him he had to wear a face covering or they could not help him.

He became “irate,” and HRA peace officers were summoned, the report reads. When he refused to leave the building, he was handcuffed.

Gaddy then became “non-compliant,” and made “repeated verbal threat(s)” to the officers, stating, “When I see you I’m going to beat the s—t out of you and then kill you.”

According to the report, Gaddy was not arrested, but was instead issued a summons for trespassing, harassment and disorderly conduct. He refused to take the summons and hollered “Take me to Rikers!”

NYPD officers were summoned. When the cops arrived, Gaddy took his summons and departed with a return-to-court date of August, the report said. A call Friday to a number listed for Gaddy was not returned.

A second incident occurred late last week, when another client showed up to the same Crotona office and refused to wear any face covering. This time, the client was not issued a summons but was instead transported to a nearby hospital as a “person in distress,” according to a source familiar with what happened.

‘Remove the Sign’

Early Friday morning, the call of a new open-door policy went out from Joseph A. Sitro Jr., chief of HRA’s Office of Patrol Operations, to all HRA police borough commands across the city.

“Effective immediately and prior to tomorrow’s opening at the client-facing locations, please remove the sign telling clients that they must wear a face-covering or mask,” the memo states.

Peace officers “should continue to offer masks to clients who enter the locations but should not bar further access to the building if they refuse to accept or wear a mask or face covering.”

The memo notes that officers should keep enforcing social distancing rules — and that a client’s refusal to comply would still justify ejection from the premises.

Sitro said the instruction to remove the “no mask” signs was per an unspecified “state directive.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Javits Center about New York reaching its peak of coronavirus cases.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Javits Center about New York reaching its peak of coronavirus cases, March 30, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Cuomo’s press secretary, Richard Azzopardi, said the state did not issue any directives to the city in this regard, although the governor does require that all “essential workers” be provided with face-coverings.

But, he noted: “While our directive didn’t contain a penalty associated with non-compliance, they are free to exclude if they choose, provided they make sure that they still have a means to provide government services to those who need them.”

‘Really Clear Rules’

HRA’s reversal appears to undermine de Blasio’s statements — including on Sunday, when he said in response to a question by THE CITY: “If you do go into (a city social services) office, you need to be wearing a face covering.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray visit Bellevue Hospital workers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray visit Bellevue Hospital workers, April 10, 2020.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

He sounded in sync with his sometime nemesis, Cuomo, who was asked Friday how he felt about requiring shoppers to don face coverings inside supermarkets.

“I would deny admission to a person who is not wearing a mask,” the governor responded.

Arianna Fishman, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, which oversees HRA, did not directly respond to THE CITY’s questions about why the agency changed its policy and waived the mask requirement at its offices.

Instead, she noted that the number of clients showing up to offices has dropped off significantly since the pandemic arrived. She said that DSS has created new ways clients can resolve issues with their benefits on-line without an office visit.

“As an essential agency responsible for providing essential services, we remain committed to serving New Yorkers in need no matter what,” Fishman said, “offering face-coverings and mask options to clients seeking our assistance in this crisis and distributing (personal protective equipment) to frontline staff as they perform their essential duties during these extraordinary times.”

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