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Reopen Long Island protest draws nearly 300 in East Meadow

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A crowd of nearly 300 assembled in a vacant lot on Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow on May 17 to call for the end of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s business shutdowns on Long Island.

The protest had been planned a week in advance on a Facebook group called Re-Open Nassau County, created by Debbie Zagaja, of Merrick. In the days leading up to the event, it sparked controversy when shared across a number of local community Facebook groups.

The previous week, President Donald Trump tweeted a video from another local protest in Commack at which a News 12 reporter was berated by a group of protesters who chanted, “fake news is not essential.”

Some of the protesters from Commack were at the East Meadow event and a group of people held a large sign with the same quote. While many of the group wore facemasks and held signs with specific pleas to reopen, others waved Trump 2020 flags and signs touting a variety of right-leaning opinions.

But Zagaja said that her intentions were never to polarize or take a stance on any issue other than lifting Gov. Cuomo’s restrictions on businesses.

“When you have a rally like this, you end up with people who have their own agenda,” she said. “They're there and have every right to be there like we do. But certain posters and signs are not representative of us . . . We feel that small businesses are the backbone of Long Island and there's no reason why these businesses can't open and open safely. That's really our only mission.”

Last Thursday, Gov. Cuomo extended the New York Pause stay-at-home order for the Long Island region and New York City through May 28. The reopening process will happen in four phases and five of the state’s 10 regions began Phase One on Friday.

Long Island will reach Phase One once the region sees a 14-day decline in hospital deaths and fewer than two new hospitalizations per every 100,000 people.

Zagaja said that the mandates are too “strict” and “hard to attain.” One of her signs at the rally illustrated her sentiment, reading “Stuck at Phase Zero.”  

Zagaja said she has worked protests on the other side as a 30-year officer of the Freeport Police Department, who is now retired. In organizing the rally, Zagaja reached out to local Nassau County police and a number of officers were monitoring the event.

She and her co-organizers chose the vacant lot in East Meadow because its space would allow protesters space to stay safe social distance. Although many in the crowd did not stand six feet apart. Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said it wouldn’t be safe for police to enforce social distancing guidelines among when such a large crowd had already formed.