Cuomo, de Blasio blame ignorance, but not themselves, in wake of damning report
NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio deflected blame Thursday in the wake of a bombshell study confirming that New York’s elected leaders stalled when it was time to take action on battling the spread of the coronavirus.
An analysis by Columbia University released Wednesday night concluded that if New York acted even one week earlier in ordering people to stay home and mandating social distancing, it would have spared more than 17,000 lives in the New York metro area.
The study evaluated how the entire country would have fared had it taken faster action and determined that roughly 36,000 fewer people would have died from the fast-spreading virus had people been forced to keep their distance from one another one week earlier in March.
The findings, first reported by The New York Times, revealed what many New Yorkers have come to believe over the past two months: Cuomo and de Blasio, two Democrats who have been unable to even present the same death count amid long-standing bickering, dragged their feet during the most dire crisis either has faced in their careers and as a result, thousands of New Yorkers died.
But both leaders on Thursday insisted they didn’t know the extent or source of the spread, expressing regret for their ignorance but not the timing of their decisions.
Cuomo, who tends to dismiss retrospective analysis as “Monday morning quarterbacking,” has repeatedly referred questions about his responses to the data by which he says he makes his decisions.
No one reported that the virus was moving to Europe from China late last year, he said Thursday, and if the true extent of the spread was known, travel bans from both regions would have been appropriate as early as Dec. 31.
“Who should have known?,” he told reporters at his briefing in Manhattan. “It’s above my paygrade as the governor of one state, but what federal agency? What international health organization? I don’t know. It’s not what I do; it’s not my responsibility. But someone has to answer that question.”
De Blasio likewise placed blame on the novelty of the disease and the fact that no one had a playbook for its response.
“I wish we had known so much more in January, February, the beginning of March. I wish we had the testing that would have told us what was going on,” de Blasio told reporters Thursday. “It’s very painful to think about, if we had had the testing we needed, everything we could have done differently. Or if we had known then the things we know now, what we would have been able to do for people. It’s horrible.”
The first confirmed case of coronavirus was reported in the city on March 1, but experts now believe the virus was spreading in New York much earlier.
“As we got information, we acted on it,” de Blasio said Thursday. “But of course it’s painful, and of course I look at that and I say, I wish we had known more, because we would have been able to do more.”
The mayor said the findings would now inform a slow, cautious approach to easing restrictions in the city, which is expected to begin sometime in June.
“Our approach will be one that’s cautious and careful and health and safety focused,” he said. “And we’re going to look at everything we can in terms of new research that tells us about what happened previously. It can inform our next steps.”
But even when de Blasio and Cuomo were working off the same information, they struggled to coordinate a coherent response.
The mayor and governor delayed closing schools and nearly 80 city school employees have now died. De Blasio warned a shelter-in-place order would be needed after a lockdown was ordered in San Francisco and was derided by the governor, who said such orders cause unnecessary panic.Cuomo instituted one on March 22, albeit with a different name.
De Blasio declared schools would have to stay closed through the year — Cuomo said it was not the mayor’s decision to make before ultimately closing schools for the year.
Exactly when de Blasio learned of the potential ravages of the virus is rooted in a tale of infighting between him and his public health department that triggered a near revolution among agency staffers. As of this week, he and his chosen health commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, seemed to have settled their feud, at least for the cameras, as she rejoined his daily press briefings after being iced out.
But behind the scenes the tension between de Blasio and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been brewing for years and helps explain why New York was so delayed in enforcing safety measures, such as school and business closures, a shelter-in-place order and social distancing.
It was a recipe for disaster: A mayor who distrusts subject matter experts, an agency he felt created more political problems than it solved and a commissioner who was competing for his ear with the head of the city’s public hospital system, Dr. Mitch Katz, who insisted in early March that closing schools was an overreaction.
New York on March 1 reported its first coronavirus case, a medical worker returning from Iran who was believed to have contracted the virus overseas. It is now widely believed that the novel virus was quietly spreading throughout the city earlier than that.
Nevertheless by March 6, the city had yet to figure out an action plan.
Cuomo had begun publicly discussing the virus’ spread in New York in February, saying a positive case was not an “if” but “when.” But when the first cases were confirmed, his ensuing actions focused on minimizing panic, and emphasizing statistics that suggested the disease would largely spare the young and healthy; that 80 percent of those infected would easily recover at home.
A stay-at-home order, he said as late as March 18, wasn’t warranted. “The fear, the panic, is a bigger problem than the virus,” he told The Daily podcast.
De Blasio first began seeking more testing capacity from the federal government as early as January, but he too downplayed the threat of the disease, encouraging New Yorkers to go to restaurants and use the subways in early March.
“From what we do understand, you cannot contract it through casual contact so the subway is not the issue,” de Blasio said at the time.
Since then, the virus has killed more than 23,000 people in New York, and the state, where more than 350,000 have tested positive, remains the national epicenter of the pandemic. On March 8, when the state had confirmed just 105 positive coronavirus cases and zero known deaths, Cuomo projected confidence in the experts tracking the virus and informing his decisions.
“There is more fear, more anxiety, than the facts would justify,” he said during his briefing then. “This is not the Ebola virus, this is not the SARS virus, this is a virus that we have a lot of information on.”
That information has changed dramatically since then.
“They keep changing the facts on us,” Cuomo said Thursday.