At 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 30, the 600-passenger Liberty Belle departed East River Pier 36 in Lower Manhattan for a floating booze cruise, with more than 170 passengers aboard — a larger gathering than New York City permits under Covid-19 regulations.
The New York City Sheriff was waiting at the dock when the boat returned three hours later. According to a Tweet from @nycsheriff, deputy sheriffs arrested the owners and captain for an illegal party, violation of social distancing provisions and operating an “unlicensed bar and bottle club.”
New York City and state have managed to keep the Covid-19 infection rate at 1% while it spirals out of control elsewhere by rigorously enforcing social-distancing and mask-wearing regulations. Restaurants have been closed and liquor licenses suspended when crowds have partied on the sidewalks in front of businesses, but this is believed to be the first time action was taken against a boat operator.
Social media outed the event, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. A resident of a nearby apartment building, who saw the crowd on the boat, started the chain of events by alerting officials with a Tweet describing the scene and asking, “Who has jurisdiction over these floating nightclubs?”
Meanwhile, partygoers’ Instagram posts showed people dancing and drinking with no masks or social distancing, something The New York Times later dubbed, “reckless socializing.” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer alerted the sheriff’s office, which went to the pier to await the boat’s return. (NYC sheriffs are peace officers as opposed to police officers but they have been called in to enforce Covid-19 regulations.)
Officers arrested the party organizers, Alex Suazo and Ronny Vargas, and gave them desk-appearance tickets. The captain, identified in news reports as Joseph Spadero, was given a summons for not displaying a proper identification number on the boat.
According to its website, New York-based Empire Cruises owns, operates and rents out seven vessels for private events and parties. Liberty Belle, with three indoor and outdoor decks and four service bars, is the largest. According to its website, NYPartyCruise charters the Liberty Belle. The site says the company handles events coordination and private charter cruises. They do not “own the vessels, nor do we hire their staff as far as security, bartenders or sailing crew.” None of the operators could be reached for comment.
Daniel L. Henry, public affairs officer with the Coast Guard Sector New York, said the Coast Guard had no jurisdiction over onboard parties and had no information on the Liberty Belle incident. “The Coast Guard does maritime law, but if there is a state mandate on social gatherings, and the Coast Guard does not get involved in that,” he said.