NEW YORK — The nation’s largest police department is stockpiling masks and gloves, dusting off old emergency plans and taking to social media to dispel rumors, such as one that New York City will essentially be locked down because of the coronavirus.
Spokesman Richard Esposito, pushing back against gripes from the city’s largest police union, said Friday that the department has already given out 67,550 pairs of gloves and 26,440 masks to officers, along with disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. About 500,000 additional masks are in storage, with more on the way, Esposito said.
The department issued revised guidance Friday on how officers should handle encounters with people showing signs of having the disease, known as COVID-19, including keeping a distance of six feet if possible and when to don a mask. The department is also hiring an additional 100 cleaners to enhance workplace cleanliness.
In a video message, Commissioner Dermot Shea told officers to keep themselves healthy by exercising, ensuring vaccinations are up to date, staying home when they feel ill and following the department's protocols on dealing with potential coronavirus carriers.
“It is not a lights and sirens event, it is a silent event,” Shea said. “It is a different kind of crisis.”
The union, the Police Benevolent Association, filed a complaint with a state labor agency this week, alleging the police department failed to provide adequate protective equipment, including masks and gloves, to all police officers amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The complaint to the New York State Public Employee Safety & Health Bureau states that the NYPD has also failed give officers appropriate training, including on what to do in the event of exposure or infection.
The union said the department’s guidance in place before Friday’s update was from early February and had impractical instructions like “if possible, remain outside.”
“No matter how this pandemic progresses, New York City police officers will remain on the front lines and will continue to carry out our duties protecting New Yorkers,” union president Pat Lynch said in a statement. “But we shouldn’t be forced to do so without adequate protection.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared incensed by the statement, telling reporters that the union was spreading “misinformation” that the NYPD “was somehow being deprived of masks.”
“We would never allow that,” de Blasio said.
So far, no NYPD officers have tested positive for the virus, but more than a dozen remain in self-quarantine for various reasons.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
If the disease starts to affect manpower, police say they could switch to 12-hour rotations or platoon officers from various precincts to fill gaps, steps that have been necessitated by other crises such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The police department is also looking to past emergencies as it plans for potential scenarios stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.
One involved looking at a plan to deal with a 2005 transit strike as a template for a potential subway shutdown, though officials say that is not being considered.
Rumors of transit stoppages, road closures and even a lock down of the city ran rampant on social media on Thursday, prompting the police department to use its own official accounts to fight back.
"If we have facts, put those facts out,” Esposito said. “That's what we did yesterday. We just said, that's just not true. And we issued a pretty firm tweet saying that.”