Observers of New York politics over the past several years understand that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s fanatical obsession with humiliating and overruling his fellow Democrat Bill de Blasio towers over every other consideration in the Empire State. Sometimes Cuomo’s habits come across as merely silly, as when he intervened in de Blasio’s decision to euthanize a deer found roaming around in Harlem. Sometimes Cuomo has slowed down de Blasio’s aggressive moves to the left. But when it came to the coronavirus, de Blasio was the first of the two to decide to take it seriously. As always, Cuomo could not allow de Blasio to seem to be ahead of him on any matter, so he reflexively opposed de Blasio’s suggestion to take serious steps to curb the spread of infection. Here at last New York’s petty political turf war led to the deaths of innocent bystanders, as surely as if Cuomo had been spraying bullets around in a gang beef. Rarely, however, do gangsters kill more than a few onlookers. Cuomo’s intransigence cost the New York area an extra 17,000 lives, according to one study.
Throughout January and February, far too many leaders at all levels downplayed the Wuhan virus, but by March 17, New York City’s mayor had seen enough. Schools had shut down the day before, and de Blasio said in a news conference that New Yorkers should prepare to “shelter in place” to slow the spread of the virus. The governor’s team immediately jumped in to tell de Blasio this idea sounded “crazy.” “Phones were ringing off the hook,” de Blasio’s then-press aide Freddi Goldstein told the Wall Street Journal in an exhaustive, damning tick-tock of Cuomo’s horrific decisions. Cuomo’s officers told Goldstein’s crew in City Hall that “de Blasio was scaring people. You have to walk it back. It’s not your call.”
Five crucial, lethal days went by before Cuomo decided de Blasio was not crazy. As he has done on many other occasions, such as hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour (de Blasio proposed this, Cuomo opposed it, then Cuomo enacted it and bragged about it), Cuomo furiously opposed de Blasio, then switched sides while calling himself the true author of the idea. Millions of New Yorkers went to work, packed into mass transit, and otherwise crowded together. Yet “if everybody had done exactly what they did one week earlier, more than 50% fewer people would have died by the end of April,” Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University and co-author of a study on the matter, told the Journal. Shaman pegs the number of lives that could have been saved by acting one week earlier at 17,514 in the metropolitan area or 36,000 nationwide. Cuomo’s March 25 order that nursing homes must accept those infected with coronavirus was a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe; and Cuomo has sternly resisted all efforts to launch an independent investigation into how much damage the virus did within such long-term care facilities. Cuomo’s claim that only about 20 percent of the state’s 33,000 deaths from the virus were linked to nursing homes is risible given that the percentage is far higher in other states; the true death toll in New York nursing homes is likely to be something like 11,000, maybe more. Cuomo’s continuing refusal to allow an independent look at this is simply a coverup. “I think you’d have to be blind to realize it’s not political,” Cuomo has said, as he prepares to publish a book celebrating his stewardship of the crisis. A bipartisan bill to authorize such an investigation is pending.
By carefully curating his public image with the aid of CNN and his own brother, Cuomo has portrayed himself as a forthright, determined leader, but the Journal’s exposé paints him as a micromanager who substituted his own, spectacularly poor, judgment for that of others. You don’t get to argue, “The buck stops here but by the way everything that happened was President Trump’s fault.” State agencies were forced to wait for permission from Cuomo before offering guidance, and on March 19 the emergency was so obvious that Attorney General Letitia James met with other officials to discuss how they could go about convincing Cuomo to institute the lockdown “without making it appear that he was taking a cue from the mayor,” the Journal reported. In Rockland County, officials pleaded with Cuomo to allow a local emergency order to wear face masks after a local outbreak on April 2. “I found a hot spot, and they did nothing,” county executive Ed Day told the paper. Also on April 2, de Blasio told New Yorkers going outside or venturing near other people to wear a face covering; on April 3, Cuomo downplayed the idea, saying masks might cause a “false sense of security,” then signed a state law mandating their use beginning April 17.
Andrew Cuomo’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus isn’t an aberration; it was a natural outgrowth of his petty, ridiculous, one-sided feud with de Blasio, now more than six years old. As a New York Times report noted, Cuomo previously had long-simmering disputes with lots of other politicians and fellow Democrats, such as ex-governors Eliot L. Spitzer and David Paterson and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, not to mention a “legendary” clash with the inspector general of HUD when Cuomo ran that agency in the 1990s. New Yorkers pride themselves on being pugnacious and stubborn and tend to choose leaders to match. But when the clock was ticking and people were dying, Cuomo’s obstinacy cost thousands of lives.