The coronavirus pandemic isn’t over, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s daily press briefings are and that makes it a useful moment to look back at his performance over the 111 days he met with the press, stated his case and, importantly, subjected himself to questioning.
That’s a good place to start because much of what made Cuomo a national leader over the past three months was the regularity and clarity of his communications with New Yorkers and, as it turned out, millions more around the country. It’s the first rule of crisis management, and Cuomo didn’t shrink from it. He spoke clearly, sometimes forcefully and demonstrated genuine care for the thousands of New Yorkers sickened and killed by Covid-19.
He made sure to publicly answer questions from reporters, understanding them to be performing an essential function, especially at a time when he was exercising extraordinary powers granted him by the Legislature. In that way, he acknowledged the continuing, even heightened, need for his own accountability. (Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, says that was merely Cuomo being a “showhorse.” It makes you wonder what he would have done had he been governor, a position that interests him.)
Cuomo also committed to a science-based and data-driven approach to managing the crisis. He understood different regions of the state could be evaluated separately from other regions, but based on the same criteria and reopened in carefully monitored phases as their conditions reached certain thresholds. Even then, he demonstrated a sensible flexibility that helped to keep most New Yorkers on board with the effort most of the time.
The result of all this is as Cuomo described it last week in his final daily briefing, the only one that he didn’t deliver live. New York a few months ago was the global ground zero of Covid-19; today, it has contained the virus better than virtually any other state, several of which are ignoring the lessons New York’s difficult experience should have offered them. Arizona, Texas and Florida – the latter now scheduled to host the Republican National Convention – are paying a price for their reckless indifference.
Two negative aspects of Cuomo’s performance rate a mention. Like much of the rest of the country, New York was late in recognizing the threat. Seattle was the first city with an acknowledged epidemic, a fact that prevented many, including Cuomo, from considering the possibility that infected travelers could be arriving from Europe as well as Asia. Soon, downstate New York was saturated with Covid-19.
The oversight may have been in some way understandable, but it was also catastrophic. With more than 175,000 cases, New York has seen 8,606 deaths from Covid-19, more than any other state. Many of those deaths were in the state’s nursing homes, a consequence driven in part by Cuomo’s policy of moving some coronavirus patients back to their nursing homes. That helped to create a fire storm of infections among an at-risk population.
Cuomo said the initial policy was driven by a fear that hospital beds would become too scarce to care for future patients. It wasn’t an unreasonable concern, but he changed the policy when the consequences became obvious. It should have happened earlier.
All states – indeed, all countries – were in a learning curve about Covid-19, so any evaluation of performance has to take into account that public officials were operating in a fog. But evaluations are necessary. The country looked at the failures that led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the terror attacks of 2001.
We should do that again. It’s how we learn and, as Reed said, any hearings should include the terrible toll on the residents of nursing homes. But Reed should be cautious how he pitches this.
The last thing the country needs is another reckless series of Benghazi-style hearings whose purpose is to carve out political advantage rather than serve the national interest. In that regard, Reed’s push for an investigation would be more credible if he had included in it President Trump’s disastrous nonresponse to the pandemic. But he didn’t.
The state Assembly has already expressed a healthy interest in examining what happened in New York, including its nursing homes. All states should want to review their records in confronting a dangerous period in the country’s history, So should Washington. But they should do it by the numbers – the same way Cuomo met this moment.
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