When the first cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan became known, some New Yorkers may have foreseen the catastrophe that was to crash upon us, but few could have predicted the astonishing performance of New York’s unloved governor, Andrew Cuomo, when it did. Prior to the pandemic, his reputation was that of a top-dog machine politician par excellence—a bullying, controlling, charmless power broker, reviled by progressives, accepted by Republicans, and tolerated by the rest.
Though he easily won reelection to a third term in 2018, his power was significantly diminished. Six of the eight members of a group of Democratic centrists in the State Senate, who had unfailingly provided Cuomo with the swing votes he needed to exercise almost absolute control over state laws, were defeated at the polls. They were replaced by left-leaning Democrats, most of them avowed enemies of his. With Democrats bedazzled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new superstar of New York’s congressional delegation, Cuomo, who turned sixty-one in 2018, had the aura of an old-line operative with little political conviction.
It didn’t help that New York is one of the most corrupt states in the country. Between 2010 and 2018, thirty-two members of the state legislature faced sanctions and criminal charges, most of them for embezzlement, campaign finance fraud, misuse of public funds, and selling political favors. Cuomo himself was tainted by association in March 2018, when his closest aide was convicted of soliciting and accepting bribes. Testimony showed the aide and his cronies imitating characters from the The Sopranos, crowing about “magic phone calls” and referring to money as “ziti.”
Yet here was the governor, exactly two years after that low point, at daily press briefings in a dowdy Albany chamber with the solemn decor of an early-twentieth-century steak house, guiding his panicked constituents through an escalating public health crisis that seemed to have no end in sight. Almost overnight, the “establishment” politician, with intimate knowledge of the levers of power and how to use them, had become indispensable.
Every day at around noon Cuomo took his seat at a long table with his advisers and rolled out the latest data. “The increase continues. The numbers keep going up,” or some variation of this, was each briefing’s grim opening line from mid-March into the first days of April. He was self-assured, factual, and respectful, for the most part, of reporters. You could tell he was a brawler who would fight dirty if he had to; it was “a slow day,” he told a reporter proudly, when he didn’t have at least five lawsuits filed against him. Occasionally, in a preening, alpha-male gesture, he would shoot his cuffs and massage the right cufflink.
He often became intimate with his audience, romanticizing his “pure as sugar” mother and his revered late father’s severity, crafting the self-portrait of an ordinary man, divorced, living alone, making amends with his daughters and annoyed with his dog. He commiserated with our forced isolation. (“It’s repugnant not to have closeness, to be afraid of it, to recoil from it.”) He acknowledged the economic uncertainty, the boiling tension of being pressed together with family, kids, companions. “But it’s going to be okay,” he promised. It was a finite amount of time; it would end. In the meantime, “grocery stores will function. Life will go on.”
Cuomo’s most crucial quality was his managerial expertise, his relentless focus during the most unpredictable weeks of the crisis on the acquisition of ventilators, hospital beds, health care staff, and personal protective equipment such as gowns, face shields, and masks to keep New York’s hospital system from collapsing. Yet it had taken him far too long to put that expertise into action or even to articulate a coherent response to the pandemic. As late as March 13 his message was confused and contradictory. “Prepare yourself,” he said. “This is not going to be a quick situation. This is months. We can’t control this.” He reminded us that “you don’t know where the person sitting next to you on the bus has been.” But he didn’t suggest staying off the bus and seemed obtusely more anxious about people getting more worried “than the facts may justify.”
His dire warnings were at odds with his executive actions: the only mandatory restriction at this point was a prohibition on gatherings of more than five hundred people. He seemed annoyed with localities in the state that had closed their schools “out of anxiety”: “We don’t know if closing schools will slow the spread. It may increase the spread. We don’t know. We don’t feel we should close schools as of now.” And he engaged in his usual parochial skirmishes with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio over who had ultimate authority over the city.
Nevertheless, Cuomo pulled off what appeared to be an act of political wizardry on March 13. President Trump, fixated on “keeping the numbers down,” was discouraging widespread testing for the virus, which he saw less as a national emergency than as a public relations problem for his presidency. Trump’s chief concern, then as now, was to avoid being personally blamed. The federal government strictly controlled testing, and the criteria for getting tested—you had to have been in China and to be actively showing symptoms—ensured that the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases grossly understated the total. Cuomo, however, managed to convince the White House to allow New York to conduct its own tests on anyone showing symptoms. This was a major victory. The state immediately ramped up testing, putting it, and Cuomo, at the national epicenter of the pandemic (when it still had far fewer cases than Washington State), which in turn would force the federal government to release more emergency aid.
Cuomo’s plan was to pry every bit of aid that he could from Trump, on whose good graces New York was now wretchedly dependent. He seemed immediately to grasp that there would be no unified federal response to the pandemic. The president wouldn’t be distributing aid but meting out “favors” based on his relationships with particular governors. And New York wasn’t, as Cuomo put it, “on the top ten hit parade list with this administration.” It was a patronage system that required Molière-like flattery and public expressions of gratitude toward the president, with thousands of lives on the line.
During the next seven days, Cuomo was still caught between minimizing public anxiety and honestly presenting information from his various statistical models, which pointed to an apocalyptic collapse of the state’s health care system of the kind Italy had experienced. On March 14 he announced the first New York death from Covid-19, an eighty-two-year-old woman with emphysema who had been admitted to a New York City hospital eleven days earlier. “It would’ve happened with the flu,” he said, suggesting that her death shouldn’t be taken as an alarming indication of the coronavirus’s deadliness. He strenuously promoted testing, which conferred on him an aura of wise, competent leadership and raised his national profile. But the more confirmed cases he reported (524 on March 14, 729 on March 15), the more worrisome was his reluctance to impose tighter restrictions.
On March 15 he became irritated when reporters brought up the issue. “Focus on today,” he barked. “Don’t fight the last war” or harp on “recriminations about yesterday.” “You turn the knob [on restrictions] up or down every day, depending on what you see.” His testing suggested that thousands of New Yorkers were walking around with the virus, but gatherings of up to five hundred people were still allowed. What mattered most, he argued, was to fortify the health care system so it could handle the inevitable “wave of cases” without being overwhelmed. Help from the federal government was the only solution. He baited, begged, and pressured the president to mobilize the military and “take this seriously. You can’t leave it to the states. I can’t do it. I don’t have the resources or the capacity.”
Lax restrictions were certain to make the situation worse, but it was not until March 16 that Cuomo finally closed all public schools in New York, as well as gyms, bars, casinos, theaters, and restaurants (except for takeout). The next day he seemed worried about the decision. “I’m getting calls, people are upset,” he said, and he took pains to dispel rumors that some kind of cordon sanitaire would be his next order. “No one will be contained in New York State.” Two days later, he grew testy with a reporter about the phrase “shelter in place,” which he didn’t like, it seemed, mainly because de Blasio had employed it. He insisted it applied specifically to a situation where there was an active shooter in a building and a lockdown ensued. It was “inflammatory and incorrect,” not an “accurate description of the pandemic in our midst.”
Cuomo didn’t issue a stay-at-home order—which he called “New York on Pause”—for all New Yorkers who were “nonessential” employees until March 20, and it didn’t go into effect until March 22.1 It was only then that he found his voice as “Trump’s moral counterweight,” as a journalist at Politico put it. Shrewdly, Cuomo avoided the trap of criticizing Trump by name. But his jabs and pokes and exhortations to “follow the science, follow the facts,” his detailed grasp of the health system’s stretched capacities, his fellowship with New Yorkers’ frustrations and dread, and even his slightly hokey field commander’s demeanor and his clumsy sermons on how to make the best of a terrible situation made the president appear disingenuous and lost. Cuomo had become the anti-Trump—the non-liar, the facts-only empiricist, the national consoler—while appearing to be on Trump’s side. “We’re fighting the same war, we’re in the trenches together,” he said, adding that the president was “being very creative, very energetic.” He even humored Trump (or so it seemed) on the curative possibilities of the antimalarial medication hydroxychloroquine, which he must have suspected were minimal.
But when New York received four hundred ventilators from FEMA, Cuomo said, “Really? What are we going to do with 400 ventilators? You pick the 26,000 who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators!” (A few days later, FEMA sent an additional four thousand.) He pleaded with Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to force private companies to manufacture emergency medical supplies, leaving no doubt that if he were president he would do so. “I don’t understand this reluctance,” he said. Corporate “volunteerism isn’t going to get us there. New York has a problem of a totally different magnitude. We need the help now.” If “it’s a war,” he shouted, “then act like it’s a war!” He mockingly paraphrased the Republican rationale for not invoking the act. “‘We don’t want to tell businesses what do, that’s our philosophy.’ Fine! Businesses want to make money. Give them the money to do what we need.”
By late March his popularity was such that he began, during his press briefings, to address an audience beyond New York. “We’re your future,” he said. “If you’re in Kansas and you’re saying, ‘This is a New York problem,’ no! It’s a New York problem today. Look at us today, see yourselves tomorrow.” He promised to share New York’s stockpile of ventilators with other distressed regions of the country “once we have passed our apex…and can handle the load.” He would “personally manage redeployment.” He promised to send health workers, too, who would come with experience from the front line. “That’s how it should be done. Let’s help each other.” He wasn’t running for president, but he had somehow presented himself as the commander in chief while alternately hectoring, praising, and belittling the actual one.
By April 3 he appeared to realize that Trump wasn’t going to invoke the Defense Production Act. With a pragmatist’s mixture of resignation and appeasement, he said, “Assume you’re on your own.” He had by now employed the leverage of his improbable status as a trusted public servant to wrest everything he could from the White House: the four thousand ventilators and, after the conversion of the Javits Center into a pop-up hospital and the docking of the US naval ship Comfort in Manhattan, three thousand beds that would be staffed and equipped by the federal government, providing “a major relief valve,” in Cuomo’s words, for New York’s hospitals.
During the last days of March, Cuomo sometimes seemed close to tears. The number of new hospitalizations was doubling every four or five days, the death count mounted, and even the most optimistic models pointed to the specter of thousands of acutely sick patients with no beds or equipment to treat them, as well as hundreds of unburied bodies in refrigerated trailers parked on New York City streets and in nursing homes because funeral parlors were too overloaded to handle them.2 At the peak of the “war,” as he took to calling it, it was predicted that the state would need 30,000 to 40,000 ventilators, about three times the number it had, and 110,000 hospital beds.
On March 28, he gave a desperate demonstration of a bag valve mask, which consisted of a plastic bag, a mask, and a manual hand pump. It looked like something you might find in an old pharmacy, gathering dust in the corner. One squeeze of the pump equaled one gulp of oxygen. Cuomo began to squeeze the pump with his hand. “We’re actually buying these,” he said, pumping and pumping. To keep a patient in need of breathing assistance alive, someone would have to stand by the bed and do this twenty-four hours a day. “We’re looking into the National Guard operating them,” Cuomo said, if the state ran out of ventilators. Then he set the bag valve mask aside with disgust. “No thank you.”
One beheld this performance in disbelief and awe. The peak of our misery was a chimeric spot on Cuomo’s chart toward which we were inexorably climbing, though no one knew when we would reach it or how many would die when we did. We were preparing for “the battle at the mountaintop,” he said, and it was about one thing: Could any of us walk into a hospital and get the right care? He called the enemy we faced “evil…a vicious predator that attacks the vulnerable and weak,” as if it were subject to human laws of morality. But the battlefield jargon seemed absurd: only one side was armed in this war, and the only effective tactic against it was to retreat en masse and hide.
If there was a military dimension to Cuomo’s management of the pandemic, it was that of a quartermaster, gathering and husbanding war materiel. He was brilliant at jump-starting the vast machinery of government. His relentless push to keep the state’s health care system supplied was riveting, not least because any one of our lives might depend on it. He strong-armed hospital administrators to add beds—in lobbies, conference rooms, hallways, offices, wherever they would fit—and canceled elective surgeries statewide, a major source of revenue in the for-profit medical sector. He sent the National Guard to seize 20 percent of unused ventilators from hospitals in counties where the virus was less widespread. He scoured the world for equipment, paying $8 apiece for simple surgical masks and $50,000 for ventilators that normally cost $20,000. Still, health care personnel, stressed to an unimaginable degree, were often forced to work without adequate protection.
Cuomo sped up the mass production of Covid-19 tests—as early as March 23, he said that New York had administered more tests per capita than South Korea or China at the apex of their crises. He empowered qualifying medical students to start practicing as physicians, corralled retired doctors and nurses, and assembled a pool of 78,000 health care volunteers. Admirable as these measures were, they did not represent more than good government during an emergency. That they have temporarily turned Cuomo into a national hero speaks to how starved Americans have become for mere competence.
Unexpectedly, the pandemic showed signs of peaking in New York in early April. On April 5 Cuomo announced that the number of hospital beds wasn’t a problem anymore. The state had 90,000, about 40,000 more than before the pandemic, but still significantly short of his goal of 110,000. The following day he reported that the number of new hospitalizations and ICU admissions had fallen. We had reached the top of the mountain, which was no longer a “peak” but a “plateau.” It was possible to declare a muted victory. The system hadn’t cracked. The supply line had held, for now. New York had avoided the nightmare of Italy, where health care workers had been forced to let patients die without treatment. Most of the models had been off, undoubtedly because so many New Yorkers had complied with restrictions. (The Gates Foundation–funded model, however, which projected 16,000 deaths in New York, may prove to be close to the actual total.)
Yet by April 12, Easter Sunday, 9,385 New Yorkers had been killed by the coronavirus: 5 percent of confirmed cases, a staggering mortality rate, and more than 40 percent of the number of victims in the entire country. This didn’t include those who died at home without being tested. The number of at-home deaths in New York City, twenty to twenty-five a day during normal times, spiked to around two hundred during the height of the pandemic. In statistical parlance, the death count was “a lagging indicator,” because a lot of Covid-19 casualties were on breathing support for eleven to twenty days before dying. The toll was sure to continue to rise significantly. The number of new positive cases in the state, 8,236 on April 12, remained high, and the total number of hospitalizations—18,707—was not yet decreasing.
On March 24, Trump told reporters, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” Invited to contemplate this remark, Cuomo contributed his most memorable comment of the crisis: “My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable. God forbid, if you can’t keep up you are expendable.” He had touched the heart of the matter. What is the proper function of government? Where does its responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens end?
Trump and his allies have in the meantime opened a new line of attack, charging Democrats and pandemic modelers with conspiring to exaggerate the projected death toll in order to destroy the US economy and hurt Trump’s chances for reelection. An ugly smear campaign seems likely. The majority of the dead are people with inferior health care and chronic medical conditions who live in crowded households where the asymptomatic young inadvertently infect the old—in other words, the poor. In New York, Latinos and blacks are dying at twice the rate of whites and Asians, partly because they comprise such a large percentage of essential workers, who are at a higher risk of contracting the disease. Why should the rest suffer for them? Republicans have implicitly asked.
A battle between the hardest-hit states and the president over how and when to restart the economy has already begun. Seven governors in the Northeast and three on the West Coast have forged separate alliances to bypass Trump and make their own decisions about lifting restrictions. On March 28, Cuomo had denounced Trump’s threat to impose a quarantine on New York as “preposterous…anti-American…illegal” and tantamount to “a declaration of war against the states,” in a tone that suggested that the threat, like so much else that comes out of the president’s mouth, was nonsense. Trump backed down, issuing a “travel advisory” instead. We can expect far more consequential clashes in the coming weeks.
The coronavirus is still spreading and so is the economic hardship it has caused. Soup kitchens and food banks across the country are besieged by the hungry. If the pandemic passes with “only” 60,000 dead, as some of the updated models are projecting, and there is no second wave, Trump may be able to grab credit and blame the economic collapse on his enemies, however he defines them. For the moment, it is possible to believe that the pandemic has weakened the spell of venom and degradation that Trump has cast on America. “Deep state” technocrats and experienced governors like Cuomo, not the president, have led the response. Whether this will be enough for Americans to repudiate Trump in November remains to be seen. What does seem certain is that New Yorkers won’t be able to comprehend the full extent of this catastrophe until we are out again on the street, mingling without fear, sharing the pain.
—April 16, 2020
Grocery and liquor store workers, health care workers, pharmacists, firefighters, police, and transit and sanitation workers were deemed essential. ↩
This scenario did occur in late March and early April, but thankfully not to the extent that was feared. Workers at the Crown Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Brooklyn, a modest facility around the corner from where I live, had so many casualties that they had to turn a spare room into a temporary morgue. ↩