News & Politics

Why Did New York Infect America With Coronavirus? New Report Blames Cuomo, de Blasio

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

The New York City area not only has more than a quarter of America’s coronavirus cases, but new research suggests that most of the coronavirus cases outside the Big Apple trace back to the New York City area, as well. New York City is the epicenter for the coronavirus in the United States, and a new report suggests Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-N.Y.) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) shoulder most of the blame.

New York’s emergence as the epicenter of the coronavirus was far from inevitable. A report from the left-leaning site ProPublica contrasted New York City’s and New York State’s responses with those of San Francisco and California. While people do not live on top of one another in San Francisco to the same degree that they do in the Big Apple, the actions of de Blasio and Cuomo strike a marked contrast with those of Mayor London Breed (D-San Francisco) and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.).

Lefty Democrats have abused their power during the coronavirus crisis, issuing tougher restrictions on churches and choosing winners and losers among businesses during lockdowns. Americans across the country are demanding businesses reopen, which is wise, so long as Americans still take voluntary precautions. But in the case of big cities like New York and San Francisco, which were always likely to become coronavirus hotspots and whose health systems were indeed at risk of being overwhelmed, stay-at-home orders and lockdowns made a great deal of sense.

Breed worried about the coronavirus pandemic early, thanks in part to San Francisco’s large proportion of Chinese Americans. She worked with Newsom to impose restrictions in late February and early March. de Blasio, by contrast, gave reassurances in late February that New York would beat the virus, and even after he became worried, he faced pushback from Cuomo.

Even worse, de Blasio had spent weeks spurning his own Health Department, leading the department to consider a “resistance” to the mayor, according to an anonymous New York City official. That official said de Blasio had gagged the Health Department commissioner and her top deputy for infectious diseases.

“The hospital networks are looking to us for information and support, but we’re hampered by the official stances,” the official told ProPublica. “More like China and Iran than what the city is used to getting.”

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Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, denied any knowledge of a Health Department rebellion and insisted the mayor had been “nothing but upfront, honest and blunt with New Yorkers from the start. Everyone underestimated the threat because the information we had was greatly limited from the start.” Yet Breed acted weeks before de Blasio took the threat seriously.

City health officials criticized de Blasio for a February 26 press conference at which the mayor reassured New Yorkers that there had been no confirmed cases in the city and insisted that Gotham could bolster its response if cases emerged. Officials had hoped the mayor would close schools or limit mass transit — the New York subway seems to have functioned as a vector for the spread — but de Blasio “said all the wrong things.”

On March 9, eighteen academics and community leaders sent de Blasio and his health commissioner a letter demanding the mayor consider closing schools and curtailing business hours. A week later, The New York Times attributed the mayor’s resistance to his own Health Department to his reliance on Dr. Mitchell Katz, who sent an email to the mayor’s top aides, downplaying the impact of social distancing measures and pushing for herd immunity.

Meanwhile, the state Health Department refused to share data with its Gotham counterpart in February. Even now, the city cannot rely on basic data from the state, such as the counts of ventilators at hospitals or nursing home staff. “It’s like they have been ordered not to talk to us.”

Cuomo has insisted that he acted more quickly than any other governor, noting that he acted during a short window from the first positive COVID-19 case in the state on March 1 to the shutdown on March 22.

“But a range of health officials and scientists interviewed by ProPublica say creating such timelines misses the central issue: No later than Feb. 28, federal officials warned the country that a deadly pandemic was inevitable. It is from that point forward, they say, that any individual state’s actions should be judged,” the report claims.

New York City officials were briefed on a model from Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch on March 6. That model predicted that a couple of dozen sick people in the city could produce more than 100,000 cases by mid-April, close to what actually happened.

de Blasio has insisted that he always followed the “science,” but Lipsitch noted that models are nothing more than helpful information to guide policy-makers. They do not predict the future, and using them to do so is misguided. Politicians cannot cite them to dodge accountability for their actions.

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“For any decision-maker to say they relied exclusively on models to make decisions about what to do and when and how is an abdication of responsibility,” he said.

New York had a detailed plan for responding to a pandemic, produced by the state Health Department in 2006. The plan anticipated a flu-like disease might overwhelm the health care system, and predicted that local governments would need their own stockpiles to respond. Yet interest and funding apparently dried up before the stockpile was ready — and officials did not invest in ventilators. ProPublica suggests the federal government is responsible for this lack of funding, but New York also failed to finish the project.

Epidemiologists faulted Cuomo for not taking the warnings of New Rochelle, N.Y., seriously. After a lawyer who had tested positive for the virus returned to that town on March 2, cases in the area spiked. Yet on March 5, Cuomo insisted that “the facts do not merit the level of anxiety we are seeing. … I’m a little perturbed about the daily angst when the number comes out and the number is higher.”

A few days later, however, Cuomo took action in New Rochelle. On March 10, he closed the local schools and cordoned off the city, even calling in the National Guard. The epidemiologists told ProPublica that the governor took the wrong message, however. “Instead of treating the threat as isolated to Westchester County, Cuomo could have seen a sign of wider infection in tightly packed New York City that hadn’t been detected because of inadequate testing.”

In fact, recent disease models now estimate that by the time of the first confirmed cases on March 1 and March 2, at least 10,000 people in New York were already infected with the coronavirus.

Cuomo took action later in March. He closed schools on March 15 and issued a full lockdown on March 22.

Some of these actions actually made the situation worse. Cuomo’s administration ordered nursing homes — which house the most vulnerable population — to accept hospital patients who had tested positive for the virus, putting thousands more at risk.

As ProPublica noted, the governor’s lockdown “came six days after San Francisco had shut down, five days after de Blasio suggested doing similarly and three days after all of California had been closed by Newsom. By then, New York faced a raging epidemic, with the number of confirmed cases at 15,000 doubling every three or four days.”

Dennis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, disputed Cuomo’s boast about closing his state fastest. He insisted that deaths per million was about 10 times higher in New York than in California by the time officials decided to close down their respective states.

“As early as the first week of March, the governor and the mayor were being told from all around them that there was active community transmission happening in New York and they needed to take action,” Nash told ProPublica. “They knew. And it seems disingenuous to now claim they were the fastest.”

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By contrast, San Francisco Mayor London Breed admitted her early wishful thinking about the coronavirus. “You know, like in my mind, I’m like, ‘stop talking about it. It’s not going to hit.’ It’s like I knew it was coming, but was trying to will it not to hit.”

Staffers consistently warned her about the threat, however, and she established an Emergency Operations Center on January 27. On February 25, she issued the lockdown order.

“Although there are still zero confirmed cases in San Francisco residents, the global picture is changing rapidly, and we need to step up preparedness,” Breed explained. “We see the virus spreading in new parts of the world every day, and we are taking the necessary steps to protect San Franciscans from harm.”

From March 6 onward, she issued increasingly restrictive orders.

ProPublica noted that there had been nearly 350,000 coronavirus cases in New York and more than 27,500 deaths on May 15. The true story is worse, as the majority of coronavirus cases across the U.S. trace back to Gotham. In California, by contrast, there were just under 75,000 cases and slightly more than 3,000 deaths. In New York City, there had been almost 20,000 deaths. In San Francisco, there had been 35.

Many factors contribute to this difference, but the quick leadership of Breed and Newsom strongly contrasts with the failures of de Blasio and Cuomo.

There are many moral issues surrounding the lockdowns — Should mayors and governors have the power to shut down economies at the drop of a hat? Should the government pick winners and losers in crisis situations? How can the people prevent local officials from trampling on their rights in the midst of a crisis?

Whatever the answers to these important questions, it remains true that big cities like New York and San Francisco were likely vectors of the spread and the quick lockdowns in San Francisco contributed to stopping the spread far better than the late lockdowns in New York. In April, two experts concluded that if New York had imposed its social distancing measures a week or two earlier, the death toll might have been cut by half or more. Considering New York’s role as the U.S. epicenter of the disease, that’s an extreme underestimate.

Democrats who lionized Andrew Cuomo for his press conferences during the coronavirus should reconsider their support for the governor. This ProPublica report only confirms the damning picture of his lack of leadership during the crisis.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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