New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dropped the state’s absolute ban on gatherings of any size on Friday, allowing up to 10 people to group together as long as they still abide by social distancing regulations.
The order, issued on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, represents one of the biggest steps yet the state has taken to loosen rules adopted in March that have barred anyone but essential workers from gathering unless they live in the same household.
However the order still requires people assembling to follow “social distancing protocols and cleaning and disinfection protocols required by the Department of Health”.
That means people still need to stay at least six feet away from other people, or wear a mask or face covering when they cannot maintain that distance in public.
New Jersey has adopted similar rules, allowing groups of up to 25 outdoors and indoor gatherings of up to 10 people.
Mr Cuomo had earlier in the week signed an order allowing gatherings of as many as 10 people only for religious services and Memorial Day commemorations.
That restriction drew a lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which said if it was safe to gather for the purpose of honouring veterans and holding religious ceremonies, the Constitution requires the same right be extended to people gathering for other reasons.
The NYCLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of New York City resident Linda Bouferguen, who the group says was twice arrested outside City Hall for protesting the state’s shutdown.
She wants to organise another protest on Saturday.
NYCLU Legal Director Christopher Dunn said in a statement that the organisation was “glad to see the governor reverse course.”
“The right to protest and exercise free speech is the foundation of all our other liberties, and during a crisis is exactly when we need to be most vigilant about protecting it.
“Health experts, elected officials and police officers all agree that people can be outside safely while practising social distancing, and it’s critical that lawmakers create guidelines and direct law enforcement uniformly.”
Mr Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the new order is in line with Centres for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which says that gatherings of up to 10 people are safe if people socially distance.
“Please be safe and wear a mask,” he added on Twitter.
The coronavirus killed another 109 people in the state on Thursday.
The daily death toll is down dramatically from early April but has stubbornly remained at just above 100 for five consecutive days.
Around 5,000 people remain hospitalised.