Like so, so many things about this pandemic, I can’t believe I have to say this again. Maybe we’re all dead and this is hell, where we’ve been sentenced to an eternity of gasping “please, money, my business is dying,” “wear mask I beg,” and “do literally anything, elected guy.”
Still, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo keeps finding ways to make a dire situation even worse. On Wednesday, during one of his now-infamous COVID-19 press conferences, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked the governor whether schools would be open on Thursday. (They are not; Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the closure Wednesday afternoon as the city’s positive COVID test rate reached 3 percent over a 7-day average. It’s worth noting that the rate of actual transmission in schools, surprisingly enough, has remained significantly below the city average.)
This question was not well received. Cuomo jeered the reporter, asking “What are you talking about?” and claiming that parents aren’t confused about potential closures, telling the reporter, “you’re confused.”
As it happens, the way the school closures were rolled out was, as you’d expect, pretty sloppy. Per NBC News:
There was confusion throughout much of Thursday, because de Blasio’s daily briefing about the pandemic was hours behind schedule.
And adding more to the uncertainty, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a frequent critic of de Blasio’s — said earlier Thursday that New York City’s positivity rate was about 2.5 percent.
De Blasio insisted that it’s well known that City Hall and Albany, the state capital, develop their data in different manners, with the city backdating test results to the exact date they were administered, meaning that the 3 percent threshold was hit last week.
Clear as mud, as my father would say!
It didn’t take long for basically everyone to point out how insane it is that indoor dining is still allowed at a low capacity and gyms are open but the New York City schools are closed through Thanksgiving.
Why all the confusion and double-talk? Because most charitably, in New York the right hand never knows what the left is doing. Why doesn’t Cuomo seem to agree with the city’s positivity rate? Because he’s using different numbers. Why the hostility about a simple question? Because we’re about to be swept up in yet another pissing match between the governor and the mayor. But unlike when warring sides just feed bitchy quotes to a New York City tabloid, there was, and could be again, real collateral damage as a result.
Although Cuomo used his propensity for PR to become something like America’s governor during the first wave of COVID-19, we now know both the state and city responses were a disaster. We can see this by comparing the response with Seattle’s, another major city that was an early focal point for the virus, as the New Yorker did at length. From that investigation (emphasis mine throughout, dumb in-house style theirs):
In early March, as Dow Constantine was asking Microsoft to close its offices and putting scientists in front of news cameras, de Blasio and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, were giving speeches that deëmphasized the risks of the pandemic, even as the city was announcing its first official cases. De Blasio initially voiced caution, saying that “no one should take the coronavirus situation lightly,” but soon told residents to keep helping the city’s economy. “Go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus,” he tweeted on March 2nd—one day after the first covid-19 diagnosis in New York. He urged people to see a movie at Lincoln Center. On the day that Seattle schools closed, de Blasio said at a press conference that “if you are not sick, if you are not in the vulnerable category, you should be going about your life.” Cuomo, meanwhile, had told reporters that “we should relax.” He said that most infected people would recover with few problems, adding, “We don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”
De Blasio and Cuomo kept bickering. On March 17th, de Blasio told residents to “be prepared right now for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order.” The same day, Cuomo told a reporter, “There’s not going to be any ‘you must stay in your house’ rule.” Cuomo’s staff quietly told reporters that de Blasio was acting “psychotic.” Three days later, though, Cuomo announced an executive order putting the state on “pause”—which was essentially indistinguishable from stay-at-home orders issued by cities in Washington State, California, and elsewhere. (A spokesperson for de Blasio said that City Hall’s “messaging changed as the situation and the science changed” and that there was “no dithering.” A spokesperson for Cuomo said that “the Governor communicated clearly the seriousness of this pandemic” and that “the Governor has been laser focused on communicating his actions in a way that doesn’t scare people.”)
It is now November. The U.S. death toll has now climbed past 250,000—officially sliding this to the “L” column even by Trump’s own deranged barometer. More than 33,000 people have died of COVID in New York state. And still, it appears our leaders haven’t learned much at all, even after dragging their feet on closures, not really ever closing things down if you’re a poor person, and making a confusing mess about what’s allowed and what isn’t. From the New Yorker story (which, to be clear, was published in April):
Today, New York City has the same social-distancing policies and business-closure rules as Seattle. But because New York’s recommendations came later than Seattle’s—and because communication was less consistent—it took longer to influence how people behaved. According to data collected by Google from cell phones, nearly a quarter of Seattleites were avoiding their workplaces by March 6th. In New York City, another week passed until an equivalent percentage did the same. Tom Frieden, the former C.D.C. director, has estimated that, if New York had started implementing stay-at-home orders ten days earlier than it did, it might have reduced covid-19 deaths by fifty to eighty per cent. Another former New York City health commissioner told me that “de Blasio was just horrible,” adding, “Maybe it was unintentional, maybe it was his arrogance. But, if you tell people to stay home and then you go to the gym, you can’t really be surprised when people keep going outside.”
FIFTY TO EIGHTY PERCENT of COVID-related deaths could possibly have been avoided had the message been unified and clear from the start and, most importantly, if everything was shut down just days earlier. I’m never going to shut up about this: Before you get too hot for praising Cuomo’s COVID response, remember that as he weighed the economic health of the state and blustered on the national stage, more people got the virus every single day he didn’t act with full force. Some of those people died. It’s no stretch to say that Cuomo’s hobbled, delayed response to the pandemic made its containment harder and the state’s death toll worse. There’s blood on this state’s hands. It feels like we’re staring down the barrel of a second wave. I would love nothing more than for that to turn out to be my own paranoia. But when I see Cuomo blow up over a single question, I can’t help but feel sick with deja vu.