New York City Wants You To Call the Cops on People Who Fail Social Distancing

It's authoritarian—and unnecessary.


New York City is asking its citizens to report other people to the authorities for failing to abide by social distancing orders. This is an unnecessary—and authoritarian—escalation of the city's coronavirus response.

"The City has enacted public health social distancing restrictions to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus," states the government's non-emergency services website. "You can report a violation in progress for the City to enforce as appropriate." As examples of the kinds of things that people should report, the city lists non-essential businesses remaining open, and overcrowding in general.

Social distancing is one of the most important tools for reducing the disease's spread, and it's a hopeful sign that compliance with recommended guidelines has been so overwhelming. (For instance, despite the negative framing of this New York Times article, the actual story is that people are traveling far, far, far less than normal.) But at some point, trying to force every last person to stand six feet away has diminishing returns. This is especially true when punitive means become involved—and when civilians are expected to participate in the policing. See-something-say-something directives make people suspicious of each other, and they invite people to demand police intervention in situations that don't merit it. A bystander could, for example, report a group of people without realizing that they're a family. (Household are not expected to distance from each other.) Expecting people to understand the rules as they apply to themselves is one matter. Where other people are concerned, it's usually best for us to mind our own business.

New York City is currently reeling from COVID-19. That seems like a good reason to avoid bogging down police and city officials with reports that someone, somewhere, might be technically violating orders. Overzealous enforcement can breed contempt for the rules: Look no further than the U.K., where the spectacle of officials hassling dog-walkers led a former Supreme Court judge to lament that "this is what a police state looks like."