Ironically, the coming coronavirus crisis would showcase Andrew Cuomo’s relative weakness and indecision, rather than a mere authoritarian instinct. Like Donald Trump, who was derided as a fascist for four years and then failed dramatically to wield power against the virus, Cuomo’s performance would belie, perhaps, a more troubling reality: New York State was running out of time.
By March 8, 2020, there were 105 confirmed cases statewide. New York City now had 12. As panic began to slowly spread in the city, with more looking warily to China and Europe as a preview of what was to come, Cuomo refused to back off his central contention: Fear was worse than coronavirus itself.
Leaping into his state-issued helicopter, Cuomo had arrived at the suburban village of New Hyde Park, just beyond the border of New York City. He held his press briefing at Northwell Health, where he aimed to get FDA approval to run more coronavirus tests. (Northwell Health got that approval.) Rather than sit in Albany’s Red Room or his Midtown office, Cuomo stood behind a podium with his health commissioner, Howard Zucker. Behind them, physicians in white lab coats stoically looked on.
It was a Sunday. Cuomo donned his dark dress coat and tan slacks, no tie at his neck. Zucker wore a similar ensemble.
“There is a level of fear here that is not connected to the facts. There is more fear, more anxiety, than the facts would justify,” Cuomo declared. “Okay, that is why I want to make sure everyone understands what we are dealing with. You look at the facts here.”
What did the facts say, in Cuomo’s estimation? COVID-19 wasn’t unusual at all. “This is not the Ebola virus, this is not the SARS virus, this is a virus that we have a lot of information on. Johns Hopkins has been tracking this coronavirus—almost every case. Johns Hopkins has been tracking the 100,000 cases. What happens? For most people, you get the virus, you get sick, you stay home. Most people have mild symptoms, most people don’t get hospitalized.”
Four days earlier, officials in Washington state had urged, unambiguously, all employers who could do so to allow their employees to work from home. Microsoft, in coordination with county and state officials, led the way. Cuomo’s advice was milder, buried deeper in his briefing: “To the extent the private sector company can say, ‘Stay at home, nonessential workers. Work from home.’ More and more this is a digital economy. To the extent workers can work at home, let them work at home. We want to reduce the density.”
Invoking Ebola and SARS, two viruses that devastated countries elsewhere but had little impact on the United States, was guaranteed to lull and reassure New Yorkers. SARS had been a curiosity limited to Asia. Ebola brought a brief panic six years earlier, but only a lone medical doctor had become infected in New York. When he was treated, Bill de Blasio embraced him in a hug, to much applause. Within a few months, the fear had subsided, and there had been no disruption of everyday life. Broadway shows went on. Museums remained packed. Restaurants, bars, and comedy clubs teemed with patrons. Times Square, as always, hummed with tourists.
Each day, new Ebola and SARS cases didn’t rapidly increase in New York. For anyone who paid attention to the news, coronavirus was clearly going to be different. By March 10, there were 173 confirmed cases statewide and 17 in New York City. A day later, the statewide total was 216. Across the country, Seattle had announced the closure of its public schools, finalizing a weeks-long process that acclimated residents to a new, distressing normal: life curtailed, life indoors.
March 11 would be remembered as a pivot point in history for coronavirus in America. The virus had been a backdrop for weeks, hovering in newspapers, tormenting the stock market, and feeding anxiety among those who understood epidemiology. It was a slowly building roar, threatening to break open the normalcy Americans still clung to. Right before tipoff, a basketball player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for the virus. The game was postponed. Shortly after, the NBA announced it was suspending its season.
That night, Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office for just the second time since taking office. All these years later, the sight of the former reality TV star could still seem surreal, particularly for native New Yorkers who recalled Trump as little more than cultural kitsch for much of their adult lives. Sniffling while haltingly reading off a teleprompter, Trump folded his hand on his desk and approximated, to the best of his limited ability, the intonations and gestures of the American presidents he had watched on television.
Speaking for 10 minutes, Trump announced that most travel from Europe, following China, would be suspended for the next 30 days. He also said financial relief measures would be imminent. “No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States,” Trump said. “We have the best economy, the most advanced healthcare, and the most talented doctors, scientists, and researchers anywhere in the world.”
Cuomo and de Blasio had made similar proclamations about New York City just nine days prior. Exceptionalism, for New York and America, would beat the virus. Hours before Trump spoke, Cuomo had been in Albany. His tone had begun to shift subtly. The public university systems of New York City and New York State would end in-person instruction the following week, he said. Though he had not confirmed whether the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the largest such celebration in the world, would be canceled, a decision came late Wednesday that a postponement had come for the first time in more than 250 years. Celebrations in Chicago and Boston had already been canceled.
De Blasio was waffling too. As recently as March 9, he had wanted the parade to go on, and generally urged New Yorkers to continue eating out, shopping, and enjoying their city. Outside of the public eye, de Blasio was clashing with his Health Department, which was pleading with him to enact restrictions and warn residents about the severity of coronavirus. In early March, de Blasio had blocked an effort at “sentinel surveillance,” which would have asked local hospitals to provide the New York City Department of Health with swabs collected from people who had flu-like symptoms and had tested negative for influenza. De Blasio’s office, one Health Department official said, wanted to stem mass panic, since sentinel surveillance would have probably revealed what they mostly suspected: hundreds, if not thousands, of people were already infected with the virus.
Cuomo, like de Blasio, was not willing to concede that COVID-19 posed a catastrophic threat to New York. This became apparent in his remarks at the end of his March 11 briefing, when he again compared coronavirus—a rapidly spreading contagion with no known cure—to the ordinary flu. First, Cuomo said Ebola was much more frightening. “I understand it’s a virus, I understand it sounds like a bad science fiction movie. This is not the Ebola virus, we’ve dealt with that. That was a much more dangerous, frightening virus.”
“The facts here,” Cuomo continued, “actually reduce the anxiety.”
One, Cuomo said, most coronavirus patients in New York were at home, not hospitalized. They were recovering.
“Let’s go back to China, to the first case, and track all of the cases and find out what happened,” the governor continued, ticking off his favored facts. “121,000 cases from the beginning, 4,000 deaths. 66,000 people recovered, 50,000 pending cases. 4,000 deaths are terrible, yes, no doubt.”
“How many people died in the United States from the flu last year? Roughly 80,000 from the flu. So, again, perspective.” Perspective, Cuomo urged. The flu had never led to a travel ban or a canceled NBA season. It had never reordered society. There was, indeed, perspective to be gained from the coronavirus, watching it tear through large parts of the world before landing in the United States, but this was not what Cuomo was calling for. Coronavirus appeared, even by then, to be twice as contagious as the flu and require far longer hospital stays. It was much deadlier. There was no vaccine.
As public health officials began to recommend lockdowns, invoking the flu was the most convenient, ignorant rebuttal. Hadn’t we maintained a strong, open economy with tens of thousands of flu deaths annually? Trump and Cuomo, for a brief moment, were almost in agreement.
“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year,” Trump tweeted on March 9. “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Cuomo’s memoir dwells little on March 11, the day American life was wrenched in a horrific new direction. He claims, falsely, “many people thought I was overreacting” when he announced the transition to remote learning for the city and state university systems. No public official openly criticized the move. He mulls over the anti-Asian sentiment Trump had stirred up about “the China virus” but does not refer, in any way, to the comments he made at his press briefing. “The communication strategy was everything,” he writes.
The next day brought changes from both Cuomo and de Blasio. In a bow to the severity of the virus, Cuomo banned gatherings larger than 500 people, shutting down Madison Square Garden and Broadway. Public schools across the city and state were exempted. De Blasio, in his own public remarks, appeared humbled, his voice seeming to quiver with the anxiety that much of the city was now feeling. He had, at last, declared a state of emergency for New York City.
“We have to fully understand that this is the shape of things to come,” the mayor said. “It feels like the world turned upside down in just the course of a few hours.”
Coronavirus was plainly spreading everywhere. There were 95 confirmed cases in the city, up 42 from the previous day. For the first time, de Blasio acknowledged the cold, terrifying reality of the virus: he expected the city could have 1,000 cases by next week, with 20 percent requiring hospitalization.
“We’re getting into a situation where the only analogy is war,” he said.
The major shutdown orders of the previous 24 hours had come from Cuomo’s office, including the cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which wended through the streets de Blasio governed. In almost all instances, the state government enjoyed legal dominion over city government, and could override any local law or action taken. De Blasio was the mayor of New York City, but Cuomo now operated as a mayor and governor—no move, consequential or not, could proceed without his approval.
In ordinary times, Cuomo could cede some control to de Blasio, acknowledging the important role he played in the governing of more than eight million people. But in wartime, with his own vast emergency powers, there was no need to treat de Blasio as anything more than a nettlesome subordinate.
If Cuomo were acting, as he insisted, on the basis of science and fact alone, this would not have been such a poor development for the people of New York City. De Blasio was a known micromanager and equivocator, frustrating his staff with his singular blend of self-righteousness and indecision. He was not a crisis manager and would never be one.
The problem was, Cuomo wasn’t one either.
Coronavirus isn’t so different than the flu, he had said. It isn’t as threatening as Ebola. The fear is worse than the reality. Cases were rising, he insisted, simply because New York State, thanks to his aggressive maneuvering, was testing a lot more people. Unwittingly parroting—or inspiring—Republican talking points, Cuomo was inventing a version of reality that did not square with imminent suffering and death.
Excerpted with permission of OR Books from The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York by Ross Barkan.