Ann Northrop has not left her home often during the coronavirus epidemic. “I’m old,” the 72-year-old from Manhattan said. “I don’t want to get sick.”
But Ms. Northrop still showed up to a small protest on Sunday to criticize New York officials for allowing a religious organization that opposes gay rights to treat coronavirus patients. She felt safe, she said, because her fellow protesters wore face coverings and stood several feet apart.
The police, however, did not see it that way. Officers ordered the protesters at First Avenue and 16th Street to disband and gave Ms. Northrop a summons, saying the demonstrators had violated social distancing rules laid out in executive orders from the mayor and the governor.
“They are trying to shut down this message,” Ms. Northrop said into a microphone after the police arrived.
The episode highlighted a challenge for activists participating in traditional protests: how to gather, and draw attention, while keeping a safe distance from one another and onlookers?
Some civil rights lawyers fear that social distancing rules could also be used as an excuse to curtail free speech.
Similar issues have been raised with other recent protests across the country, many involving demonstrators who refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing.
In New York, enforcement has not been uniform. In early April, a handful of nurses gathered outside Harlem Hospital to protest a lack of personal protective equipment, standing six apart. In Albany, protesters have routinely gathered outside the capital to protest Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s refusal to open up New York’s economy without being told to disperse.
Dermot F. Shea, the police commissioner, defended his officers’ actions on Sunday, saying they had been enforcing executive orders intended to “keep people alive.”
“So while we greatly, greatly respect the right of people to protest, there should not be protests taking place in the middle of a pandemic by gathering outside and putting people at risk,” he said on Monday.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also said on Monday that dispersing the protesters was necessary to protect lives.
“People who want to make their voices heard, there’s plenty of ways to do it without gathering in person,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters the following day. He encouraged people to “use all the other tools you have to get your point across but avoid anything that might put other people in harm’s way.”
The news conference and demonstration on Sunday took place near Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital and lasted 15 minutes. It was organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition, and members of a second group, Rise and Resist, also participated. About a dozen people took part.
Video from the event shows a New York police official, in a white shirt and a mask, using a bullhorn. “This gathering is unlawful and you are ordered to disperse,” he told the group. “Gatherings of any kind have been prohibited by the governor and by the mayor.”
Ms. Northrop, who only minutes earlier had warned another person at the gathering to keep his distance, was the only one to receive a summons for “violating an emergency measure by the mayor.”
The coronavirus outbreak has sickened more than 171,000 people in New York City and has killed at least 13,000 of them. To limit the spread of the disease, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio have taken draconian steps, closing schools and “non-essential” businesses.
The governor also has ordered New York City’s subway system be closed for several hours each night for cleaning and to offer help to homeless people who have taken refuge in the transit system.
For activists like Bill Dobbs, an attorney and member of Reclaim Pride, the order to disperse was unconstitutional because people were allowed to be in the street as long as they remained six feet apart. “If people can move around on the sidewalk, the First Amendment in still intact,” he said.
Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March in Washington, said even during a pandemic “the mayor and governor do not have the authority to violate our constitutional rights — there are still laws they need to follow, too.”
Norman Siegel, a veteran civil rights lawyer, sent a letter Tuesday to Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio urging them to rescind parts of their executive orders that curtail news conferences and protests where participants wear face coverings and maintain appropriate distances.
In the letter, Mr. Siegel wrote that government officials “have a strong interest in protecting the health and safety of New Yorkers” but cannot constitutionally ban or suspend freedom of speech and assembly.
“This could set a very alarming trend around the country,” he said in an interview.
A spokeswoman for the mayor, Olivia Lapeyrolerie, however, said the police would continue to break up large gatherings, whether in parks or on street corners. “This pandemic has killed at least 13,000 New Yorkers, and will not be treated as business as usual,” she said in a statement. “That is our responsibility to New Yorkers and we take it incredibly seriously.”