Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York during a daily coronavirus press briefing at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on March 27 in New York City.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
Compared with the Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City and President Donald Trump, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become the face of coronavirus competence in government, but he’s a big part of the reason the crisis in New York grew to such devastating proportions.
Cuomo acknowledges wishing he “blew the bugle” earlier, but he’s also placing misplaced blame on the media, which he incorrectly said wasn’t reporting on the crisis as it unfolded.
And Cuomo’s petty fights with de Blasio caused unnecessary confusion as the virus crushed New York.
A truly effective leader would have worked out his differences with a political rival behind the scenes — and not before an exceptionally anxious public in need of clear guidance on how they’re allowed to live their lives during a crisis with no end in sight.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become the face of coronavirus competence in government, but he’s a big part of the reason the crisis in New York grew to such devastating proportions.
The New York governor’s star has shone brightly during the pandemic, especially in contrast to New York’s tone-deaf and perpetually annoyed Mayor Bill de Blasio, who despite living in a publicly owned mansion in the middle of a spacious park insists on conducting nonessential travel to Brooklyn to walk around a park he likes better.
Compared with President Donald Trump, who says he takes “no responsibility” for the pandemic and treats his own public-health briefings as quasi campaign rallies, Cuomo is Winston Churchill.
Cuomo’s daily briefings are sober but empathetic. He lays out the hard facts and gloomy predictions, yet he doesn’t sensationalize. He presents himself as the adult in the room, in command of the situation and working hard for his constituents.
At a moment when a leader is needed, Cuomo seems born for the moment. It’s a great story, but it leaves out some crucial details.
Cuomo gets to play hero in part because of his own mistakes
Cuomo conceded in an interview with Axios this week that he wished he “blew the bugle” on the coming crisis sooner. He also made a fair point that when “China said basically, it was under control, don’t worry, we should’ve worried.”
But then Cuomo came to bring the misplaced blame and revisionist history.
“Where was The New York Times, where was The Wall Street Journal, where was all the bugle blowers who should say, ‘Be careful, there’s a virus in China that may be in the United States?'” Cuomo asked during an interview with Axios this week.
Well, actually, The New York Times wrote 450 stories on the novel coronavirus between January 9 and March 1, according to its metro editor.
On January 30, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an international public-health emergency. On February 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans to prepare for widespread infections.
Meanwhile, on March 2, Cuomo said: “Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers, I speak for the mayor also on this one, we think we have the best healthcare system on the planet right here in New York. So, when you’re saying what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries. We are fully coordinated, we are fully mobilized.”
New York was not fully coordinated, nor was it fully mobilized.
Testing was slow. Nonprofit social-service agencies that serve the most vulnerable couldn’t get answers either. And medical experts like the former CDC director Tom Frieden said “so many deaths could have been prevented” had New York issued its stay-at-home order just “days earlier” than it did.
On March 19, when New York’s schools had already been closed, Cuomo said “in many ways, the fear is more dangerous than the virus.”
True enough, and we’ll be debating for a long time whether the near-total national lockdown and subsequent economic ruin achieved the stated goal of mitigating the damage in lives lost better than alternative options might have.
But even with New York’s stay-at-home orders, the city and surrounding counties’ healthcare systems quickly became overwhelmed to the point that citizens were receiving text messages from the government telling them not to call 911 unless they had a life-threatening emergency.
Cuomo’s petty fights with Bill de Blasio are not helpful
Cuomo’s rivalry with his fellow Democrat de Blasio is well-documented. But repeatedly pulling rank on the mayor in public has sent mixed messages to a besieged state and city.
When de Blasio wanted to close New York City’s schools, which arguably happened way too late, Cuomo said it wasn’t de Blasio’s decision. But then they closed anyway. Cuomo initially undercut de Blasio when the mayor said city schools might stay closed until September. But that now seems likely, too.
When de Blasio said New Yorkers should prepare to shelter in place, which was already happening on the West Coast, Cuomo again cut him off at the heels.
And most recently, when de Blasio said beaches might have to be closed throughout the summer, Cuomo said any such decision would have to be done in coordination with neighboring states.
This isn’t to say Cuomo’s pushback on de Blasio’s proposals are inherently incorrect. It’s more that a truly effective leader would work this all out behind the scenes and not in front of an exceptionally anxious public in need of clear guidance on how they’re allowed to live their lives during a crisis with no end in sight.
Cuomo has spent years waiting for his hero turn, as exemplified by his well-publicized penchant for assisting car-wreck victims despite the advice of first responders that passersby should refrain from doing so unless the car is on fire.
Now that Cuomo is, like Rudy Giuliani post-9/11, the heroic face of government competence, he ought to exercise some humility himself. Wishing he had blown the bugle is a good start, but claiming he was unaware of the crisis as it was unfolding is simply passing the buck.
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