- Police have confiscated the drones of at least two photojournalists attempting to take aerial photos of a mass grave being built in New York City.
- The city is burying unclaimed and anonymous victims of COVID-19 on Hart Island, a stretch of land off the shore of the Bronx.
- Hart Island has been historically used for such anonymous burials, but new graves on the island are being dug at almost five times the usual rate as COVID-19 overwhelms city morgues.
- The NYC Department of Corrections is now keeping Hart Island completely closed to press. The NYPD said in a statement that it was enforcing city laws preventing unauthorized drone use.
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The NYPD has seized the drones of at least two photographers who were trying to take shots of a mass grave being built on Hart Island, a New York City potter’s field off the shore of the Bronx.
Hart Island has been used by the city government for anonymous burials dating back to the 18th Century. But as the death toll from COVID-19 nears 10,000 in New York City and morgues across the city become overwhelmed, the number of burials on Hart Island has jumped to five times higher than usual.
The New York City Department of Corrections, which runs Hart Island, has kept it completely closed to press amid the coronavirus outbreak. The only photos of the site to become public were taken by photojournalists using aerial drones or helicopters.
But on at least two occasions, the NYPD has cracked down on such drone photography. Gothamist reported that George Steinmetz, a photojournalist with a 35-year career shooting for National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, was confronted by police Wednesday while photographing the island. The National Press Photographers Association told the outlet it’s aware of one other drone confiscation at Hart Island since the pandemic began.
NYPD officers reportedly took Steinmetz’s $1,500 drone and charged him with violating a city law that prohibits drones from taking off from locations other than an airport. Before they did, he was able to take this shot:
Preparing for burials of what appear to be more COVID-19 victims this morning on Hart Island, New York City. For over 150 years this island with no public access has been used to bury over a million souls who’s bodies were not claimed for private burial. With the morgues of NYC strained, the pace of burials on Hart Island has increased dramatically. I was cited by NYPD while taking this photo, and my drone was confiscated as evidence, for a court date tentatively scheduled for mid-August. #keepthememorycard
The NYPD said in a statement to Business Insider that it was enforcing city laws preventing unauthorized drone use.
“Drones are illegal to fly in New York City except for authorized areas. The areas approved for flying drones are very limited and set by the FAA,” an NYPD spokesperson said.
A Department of Corrections spokesperson did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on the decision to keep Hart Island closed to press. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio previously said the city is exploring ways to “safely” open the island to journalists.
Earlier this month, Associated Press photographer John Minchillo was able to take several aerial photographs of the mass grave being dug on Hart Island. Here’s what it looks like.
The graves are being dug on Hart Island, a strip of land near The Bronx that has been the city’s potter’s field since the 1700s.
By early April, the number of burials on Hart Island had risen from the typical 25 burials a week to roughly 25 burials a day — a fivefold increase — as the death toll from COVID-19 spiked.
Burials on Hart Island have historically been carried out by city detainees, but are now being done by contracted workers to comply with social distancing rules.