America’s COVID-19 devastation is disproportionately a story of New York State’s devastation, and New York State’s devastation is overwhelmingly a story of New York City’s devastation. There’s a case to be made that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is the single individual in the United States who is most to blame for the catastrophic loss of human life.
I refer you to a grueling investigation by Charles Duhigg in the New Yorker that painstakingly compares the responses to the outbreak in Seattle and New York City. Seattle, paying heed to warnings from scientists, acted quickly to stem the outbreak; de Blasio, despite having several weeks after Seattle announced its first case to prepare for the deluge, shrugged at the virus and even advised people to go out and mingle. As of April 26 Seattle appears to be in good shape: King County, Washington has had 5,739 cases and 400 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University dashboard.
New York is another story: 17,126 deaths in the city, 22,009 deaths in the state, and nearly all of the state’s deaths are in the metro area. That’s out of 53,755 deaths in the entire country. New York City, with less than 3 percent of the U.S. population, has more than 30 percent of the country’s fatalities. Gotham has been crushed so badly that the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard lists only four countries (Italy, Spain, France, and the U.K.) with more deaths than the city. The worst-hit country, Italy, has only about 50 percent more deaths from the virus than New York City despite having more than six times the population.
New York City’s population density is off the charts compared with the rest of the U.S., as is its usage of mass transit. A map of COVID-19’s lethality maps fairly neatly onto the subway map, with infections increasing for the lengthiest commutes. The metropolis is especially vulnerable to infectious disease, as its epidemiologists are well aware.
Yet on March 2, de Blasio urged New Yorkers in a tweet to go out on the town. On March 10, de Blasio said on MSNBC, “If you’re under 50 and you’re healthy, which is most New Yorkers, there’s very little threat here. This disease, even if you were to get it, basically acts like a common cold or flu. And transmission is not that easy.” On March 11, the day Seattle closed its schools, de Blasio said in a press conference, “If you are not sick, if you are not in the vulnerable category, you should be going about your life.” De Blasio didn’t acknowledge until April 3 that asymptomatic transmission was taking place, claiming he had learned this in the last two days. It had been 63 days since Anthony Fauci declared that asymptomatic transmission was certainly happening. Meanwhile, governor Andrew Cuomo, who often makes a point of publicly opposing de Blasio, this time joined the mayor in lethal obliviousness. “We should relax, because that is what is dictated by the reality of the situation,” Cuomo said on March 2, promising that most of the afflicted would recover easily and that “we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”
This was mayor-from-Jaws-level happy talk, times a thousand. The two leaders’ science experts were horrified by what de Blasio and Cuomo were saying, according to the New Yorker piece. A former head of the city’s Department of Health told the magazine that there’s always a divide between political appointees and public-health professionals, “who sometimes have to make unpopular recommendations. But, with the de Blasio people, that antagonism is ten times worse. They are so much more impossible to work with than other administrations.” In early March, the city health department passed along alarmed advice and advised collecting information from swabs about the outbreak in a procedure called sentinel surveillance. The most disturbing passage among many in the New Yorker piece is this one:
The Mayor’s office refused to authorize testing the swabs. “They didn’t want to have to say, ‘There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of you who are positive for coronavirus, but we don’t know who,’ ” a Department of Health official told me, adding, “It was a real opportunity to communicate to New Yorkers that this is serious — you have to stay home.” The effort was blocked over fears that it might create a panic, but such alarm might have proved useful. After all, the official told me, panic is pretty effective at getting people to change their behavior. Instead, the Mayor’s office informed the Health Department that the city would sponsor a job fair to find a few new “disease detectives.” That event was held on March 12th, in Long Island City. The Department of Health official said, “We’re in the middle of a catastrophe, and their solution is to make us waste time interviewing and onboarding people!” (The Mayor’s office eventually relented on the sentinel-surveillance samples, and testing began on March 23rd — almost a month after samples were first collected. By then, the outbreak was well under way.)
Disastrously, on March 4 de Blasio publicly advised New Yorkers who thought they might have the virus to go to their doctor (presumably by subway) — exactly the opposite of what the epidemiologists were saying. People were better off staying home unless they were in extremis. Not till the catastrophically late date of March 15 did the de Blasio administration allow the city’s Department of Health to post a thread advising sick people to stay home because “Everyone in NYC should act as if they have been exposed to coronavirus” and “New Yorkers who are not sick should also stay home as much as possible.” A member of the New York City Council told Duhigg that health officials “had been trying to say that publicly for weeks, but this mayor refuses to trust the experts — it’s mind-boggling.”
Thanks to all the bad messaging, it took a week for New Yorkers to catch up to Seattle residents, who had been encouraged but not required to stay home, in adopting social distancing. “All you had to do was look at the West Coast, and you knew it was coming for us,” epidemiologist Jeffrey Sharman of Columbia University told the New Yorker. “That’s why Seattle and San Francisco and Portland were shutting things down.” New York “dithered,” he said. That’s a polite way of putting a retreat from reality that may have unleashed more deaths in the city than 9/11. A former head of the CDC, Tom Frieden, estimated that if New York City had moved up its various lockdown measures by just ten days, 50 to 80 percent of lives could have been saved. In New York City, that translates to more than 8,500 deaths, on the low end. That’s three times the scale of 9/11. A second former New York City health commissioner told Duhigg that “de Blasio was just horrible,” adding, “Maybe it was unintentional, maybe it was his arrogance.”
Governor Cuomo deserves comparable scrutiny for his role in playing down the crisis. On March 17, the day de Blasio first speculated that a stay-at-home order might be necessary, Cuomo said no such thing was advisable, although on March 20 he reversed course. San Francisco announced its shelter-in-place order on March 15.
Cuomo and de Blasio didn’t merely drag their feet; for far too long, they pointed the public in the wrong direction, the direction of death. Cuomo’s interest in higher office seems evident. As for De Blasio, his mayoralty ends at the end of next year, he is barred from running for a third term as New York City mayor, and not one of the city’s mayors has advanced to a higher elected office in 150 years (although a mere 107 years ago one ex-mayor did manage to win a seat in Congress). Yet his absurd presidential run is illustrative of his utter disconnection from the reality of his political strength. The magnitude of his disconnection from scientific reality is now being seen in the city’s prisons, which he is emptying, and its potter’s field, which is filling up. It would befit de Blasio’s disastrous legacy if the mass grave on Hart Island became commonly known as De Blasio’s Field.