Politics & Policy

Andrew Cuomo’s Reckless Choices

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holds his daily briefing at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., May 7, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
The media’s golden boy made three breathtakingly bad moves in March that in retrospect amounted to catastrophe.

Bill de Blasio made terrible decisions as mayor of New York City. But as more reporting emerges about the catastrophic decisions made by New York’s governor, it’s possible Andrew Cuomo deserves even more blame than de Blasio for what the coronavirus has done to the tri-state area and consequently the nation.

New York and New Jersey combined have suffered more COVID-19 deaths than any other country being tracked by researchers who run the Johns Hopkins crisis dashboard. Cuomo made three breathtakingly bad moves in March that in retrospect amounted to catastrophe. First, Cuomo failed to call for, and even actively discouraged, informal social-distancing measures in early March. Next was the delay in mid-March in ordering formal closures when the virus started rampaging through his state. Third was his March 25 edict to long-term care facilities that they must accept infected patients, which caused a mass deadly outbreak among helpless, trapped, elderly New Yorkers. Only in the last few days have some corners of the media begun to call attention to just how badly Cuomo has failed us.

Like de Blasio, who as late as March 10 was on MSNBC telling New Yorkers that most of us were at little to no risk and that the coronavirus was much like seasonal flu, Cuomo persisted with his don’t-scare-away-the-tourists happy talk well into March, the critical month. On March 1, the day New York State logged its first confirmed case of the coronavirus (a health-care worker who had just returned from Iran), Cuomo assured everyone that, although one of his own daughters had called him in a state of panic, there was no need to be afraid. “The facts defeat fear. Because the reality is reassuring. It is deep breath time. . . . This is not our first rodeo with this type of situation in New York,” Cuomo boasted, adding, “Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers,” but the state was fully prepared. “We don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries,” he said. “We’re going to have a special effort for our nursing homes, et cetera, congregate facilities where senior citizens are being treated.” He further boasted that the state had broken free of federal restraints about testing: “Now we are actually in control of the systems ourselves. And as New Yorkers we like control.”

Summing up, Cuomo said, “Once you know the facts, once you know the reality, it is reassuring and we should relax because that’s what’s dictated by the reality of the situation.”

On March 6 Cuomo insisted, “The overall risk level of the novel coronavirus in New York remains low” and said, “We have more people in this country dying from the flu than we have dying from coronavirus.” As late as March 8, Cuomo, instead of advising people to stay away from the subway, advised New Yorkers to seek out less-crowded subway cars, the mass-transit equivalent of saying, “Let them eat cake.”

How were other states handling the outbreak? On March 1 on the other side of the country, officials were raising the alarm rather than telling people everything was fine. Launching the first phase of social distancing on March 1, in greater Seattle, King County officials held a conference call with 19 of the region’s large tech companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, and urged them to tell employees to stay home if they could. On March 4, Seattle officials said everyone over 60 should stay home and everyone else should work from home if they could. By March 5, photographs of highways typically clogged with rush-hour madness in Seattle showed sparse traffic instead.

In San Francisco, in early March, Mayor London Breed was issuing a series of orders restricting large public gatherings. She ordered residents to shelter in place starting on March 16 and sent details of her shutdown order to de Blasio, thinking he might need to follow suit. Under orders from Governor Gavin Newsom, California shut down on March 19.

In New York, the public is today the victim of Cuomo’s longstanding, bizarre, petty, counterproductive hostility toward his fellow Democrat de Blasio. Though de Blasio publicly stated on March 17 that a shelter-in-place order might be necessary, and said so gingerly so as not to poke the bear, Cuomo fired back that it wasn’t necessary and that only he had the authority to give such an order. Privately he derided de Blasio as offering a scenario more befitting a nuclear apocalypse, according to ProPublica. Five days later, as the virus roared across the state, things had become so bad that Cuomo finally shut down the state, as usual without acknowledging that de Blasio had been correct.

The state and the city continued to work at cross purposes behind closed doors. “The state Health Department broke off routine sharing of information and strategy with its city counterpart in February,” ProPublica reported, citing both a city official and a city employee. “Radio silence,” said the city official. Even today, according to the city employee quoted by ProPublica, the city has difficulty getting basic data such as nursing-home staff counts from the state “It’s like they have been ordered not to talk to us,” the person said.

What may turn out to have been Cuomo’s worst unforced error was his March 25 order that nursing homes must accept patients who carried the coronavirus. This now looks like setting off a series of time bombs in New York State’s elder-care facilities, and Cuomo didn’t reverse this policy until May 11. The governor protested at that time that only 12 percent of New York State COVID deaths had occurred in nursing homes, but we are now learning that many people who died after falling ill in nursing homes have not been counted in the official stats. One such facility reported seven COVID deaths to the state, the New York Post reported, but the actual number of deaths there over a five-week period this spring was 76. New York is literally burying this problem: Many New Yorkers who died in nursing homes were never tested for the virus. Nursing-home staffers told the Post far more people are dying at long-term-care facilities than in a normal spring and that a coverup is underway. There is now a bipartisan group in Albany calling for an investigation, but Cuomo replied, “This is going to be a period where we don’t play gratuitous politics.”

As New York State became the coronavirus capital of the Western world, with more deaths than any country except the U.K. and Italy, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard, the media’s praise of Cuomo grew ever more lavish, and Cuomo’s approval ratings have (consequently) been sky-high. Today a reckoning is overdue for the disastrous results of Cuomo’s policies.

As of May 18, California has suffered eight COVID deaths per 100,000 population. Washington State, 14. In New York State, that figure is 140 according to the Washington Post tracking. Some 28,000 people are dead of COVID in the Empire State today. If New York had managed to combat the virus as successfully as Washington State did, it would have saved about 25,000 lives. But tell us again how delightful it is that Andrew Cuomo is “single and ready to mingle” or that it’s fun to watch him banter with his brother about their mom on television.

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