Anti-mask protesters shut down health officials’ press conference on COVID uptick

Dr. Dave Chokshi speaks about an increase of COVID-19 cases in parts of the city, as local resident, Heshy Tischler heckles him.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

Anti-maskers heckled city health officials during a southern Brooklyn press conference meant to address a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases on Friday — forcing the medical professionals to cut the gathering short. 

Various officials leading the charge against the virus within the Five Boroughs met at Gravesend Park shortly before noon, ostensibly to alert community members about new measures in response to the spike of cases in Brooklyn and Queens — but shortly before things kicked off, local resident and amateur radio host Heshy Tischler showed up filming himself bombastically denying the continued existence of COVID-19 in the area.

Tischler argues with a city staffer while disrupting the press conference.Photo by Paul Frangipane

Tischler, who continuously disrupted the press conference, called doctors and city officials in attendance “liars” as they spoke about the troubling increase in positive test cases in the “Ocean Parkway Cluster”, which includes areas like Williamsburg, Midwood, Flatbush, and Borough Park. 

The conspiracy theorist was eventually joined by a handful of other maskless attendees who questioned the validity of the science, causing NYC Health + Hospitals head Michael Katz to launch stern warnings about the seriousness of the pandemic. 

“I witnessed as my 11 hospitals took care of thousands and thousands of people with COVID in March and April, and many of those people we lost. They died. Their families were left without them because of the tremendous infection,” he told the crowd. “We’re here because we care about health. This is the issue that matters the most, we don’t want people to lose members of their community.”

Katz also spoke of how his father-in-law died of coronavirus, but drew no sympathy from Tischler, who continued to antagonize the medical professional, social media video shows.  

“He’s lying. You do not lie. Get the hell out of my community, you filthy animal,” yelled the heckler. 

The commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also used the ruckus occasion to warn that the cluster of outbreaks in the six communities — which also includes Queens’ Kew Gardens and Edgemere-Far Rockaway — mark a tipping point for the city’s containment efforts. 

“What we worry about is that, if this growth continues, it will turn into more widespread community transmission, both in these neighborhoods as well as potentially citywide,” said Dr. Dave Chokshi.

Over the past few weeks, Chokshi said, his department has made hundreds of thousands of robocalls to people in these communities — representing just a small part of a larger outreach program that aims to encourage local residents to follow basic health guidelines.   

“Today I want to be very clear. This may be the most precarious moment that we’re facing since we have emerged from lockdown,” he said. “We can deliver these messages, we can continue to have the conversations, but this takes a group response.” 

“We want to save lives,” Katz added, in between jeers from Tischler and his fellow anti-maskers.

The officials did manage to announce a cadre of new anti-coronavirus efforts, such as increased mask giveaways, and increasing testing capacity in the area — but ultimately cut the press conference short, as Chokshi and his companions became too bothersome to overcome.

Additional reporting by Paul Frangipane