“For the vast majority of New Yorkers, life is going on pretty normally right now,” Bill de Blasio said on Morning Joe March 10, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. topped 1,000. “We want to encourage that.” He added that there was a “misperception” that the disease “hangs in the air waiting to catch you. No, it takes direct person-to-person contact.”
He pledged to keep schools open, even if someone at any given school was found to have contracted the disease, saying that they would take a day to isolate the sick and clean the school before getting it back up and running. “If you’re under 50 and you’re healthy, which is most New Yorkers, there’s very little threat here.”
Three days later, facing (to use a favorite de Blasio-ism) “a very different reality,” including a growing outcry from parents and from his own public-health officials, some of whom threatened to quit if he didn’t shutter schools and start taking the outbreak more seriously, New York City public schools were officially closed, probably for the rest of the school year.
Shortly thereafter, he declined to cancel St. Patrick’s Day parade and then did. He resisted calls to cancel regular street sweeping and then did. He had a photo op at a 311 call center, where he told a caller who had just returned from Italy that she did not need to self-quarantine, advice that forced 311 to actually call the woman back and tell her to stay inside for 14 days. The mayor touted the city’s new, wide-scale testing capacity, only to have his Health Department announce that only hospitalized patients should be tested. He tweeted at Elon Musk to supply the city with ventilators. When a New York Times reporter wrote of his own gut-wrenching story about contracting COVID-19 and being unable to get help, a top mayoral aide chastised him online for seeking help at all rather than just getting better at home. And the mayor himself told a radio host that people who don’t display symptoms can’t transmit the disease, an assertion that contradicts information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It has added up to perhaps the worst stretch of the mayor’s six-year tenure, just at the moment when the city has needed him most. Aides conceded that the mayor was more focused on managing the crisis, on having life in New York go on as normal for as long as possible, while keeping an eye on his national ambitions — something that made him slow to recognize the growing threat.
“It has been just a constant struggle to get the mayor to take action,” said a City Council member, one of nearly a dozen lawmakers, senior government officials, and de Blasio advisers interviewed for this story. “I get it — he is concerned about the economic well-being of the city, he doesn’t want to overreach, but he is doing this thing he does where the more people tell him he is wrong, the more he is convinced he is the only one who has the right answer.”
New Yorkers, like all Americans, have been desperate these past few weeks for a real leader — someone who can be both a reliable source of information about the nature of the coronavirus threat and the state of the response, and a decisive authority marshaling maximal resources to protect the public. But even those sympathetic to de Blasio, who encouraged his presidential run and cheered on his battles with his bête noire, Governor Andrew Cuomo, have found themselves turning to the loathed-among-lefties governor for inspiration and comfort.
Even in a pandemic crisis, the mayor can’t seem to escape the rivalry. The school closure came only when Cuomo called for it and when the city’s teachers union and the city’s health workers union came up with a plan to provide child care for the children of medical workers. Soon after, de Blasio announced that he was going to huddle with senior staff to figure out whether or not to close the city’s bars and restaurants. The state had already ordered them to operate at 50 percent capacity, but on the unseasonably warm weekend before, they were packed.
“If you love your neighborhood bar, go there now,” de Blasio advised New Yorkers before his meeting — advice that seemed focused on imminent closings as the main problem, not the health threat from keeping them open.
A few hours later, administration officials came up with a plan for bars and restaurants to close, then found out the next morning that Cuomo had come up with his own plan to close not just bars and restaurants across the state but across Connecticut and New Jersey, too, the better to keep people from sneaking across state lines for a nip. Local officials were furious — these were crucial hours, they said, as every hour in this crisis is crucial, and here was the mayor of the city where the virus was soon to descend like a pestilent fog, wasting time on a decision that was going to be rendered moot by the morning anyway. Though better communication would’ve surely helped, that frustration, too, seemed like pettiness wrapped in principle — the most important thing was obviously getting the policy right, not which official got there first.
But the lasting memory of the mayor in the early days of the coronavirus crisis will invariably be his visit to the Park Slope Y, hours after the governor announced that gyms were going to close as a matter of public safety. That gym, 11 miles from the mayor’s official residence at Gracie Mansion, had always been, for de Blasio’s detractors, proof of his lack of attention to the job, and for de Blasio, proof that his detractors are obsessed over trivialities and removed from the concerns of real New Yorkers. Going there for him was never about hitting up his favorite ellipticals or, as he maintained, about remaining close to the neighborhood people who knew him before he became mayor; it was about trolling the press and about refusing to follow the guidance of advisers, based on the belief that he knew better what people really cared about. But on a day when he was ordering all gyms closed and all New Yorkers to take extraordinary precautions against this disease, what point was he trying to prove?
Even late into last week, the mayor continued to use most of his media opportunities to slam Donald Trump, frustrating some of his allies who saw de Blasio trying to fire up Democratic partisans rather than figuring out how to work with an erratic president, and something that led Trump to declare, when asked about de Blasio’s criticisms, “I’m not dealing with him. I’m dealing with the governor.”
It is forgotten now in the grip of this latest panic, but early on in his tenure, de Blasio was known as something of a specialist in disaster management. He was out front and visible, shoveling snow in front of his old Brooklyn home in the first days of his administration after a series of crippling snowstorms shut down the city, and hosted off-the-cuff, even charming, press conferences with first responders. He received high marks for managing the Ebola crisis of 2014 and the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak the year after that. But as this crisis has continued, the mayor has been hampered by the very things which grate on even those inclined to support him: a tendency to overmanage, especially public communications (his health department has been virtually muzzled during this ordeal); a certainty in his own vision, but indecisiveness when the public is looking for concrete action; and a belief that those who disagree with him fail to see either the political ramifications of their actions, or inhabit a world blinded by elite consensus.
Sources inside City Hall say that this is as raw a moment as de Blasio and the senior staff have experienced. Fifteen-hour days, seven days a week, an endless marathon of media appearances, news conferences, and meetings, while the body count and caseloads mount ever higher. The resources of the mayor of New York are immense: an over 325,000-person workforce, a $95 billion budget, a sophisticated police force, and a health department that is the envy of any city in America. In the past few weeks, the mayor has seemed to recognize his role: providing real-time information to New Yorkers, letting people know what kind of new rules and regulations may be considered, trying to avoid the large shadow cast by the governor. Just last weekend, he appointed a new task force to deal with the crisis, a group made up of his well-regarded chief of staff Emma Wolfe and a bunch of seasoned government hands.
“I think there is just now a realization here that we are going to be dealing with this for a very long time,” said one senior City Hall official.
“He is the mayor of New York City,” said one adviser. “He isn’t trying to sell marshmallow-flavored vodka. He needs to realize that he needs to marshal a response here and set a tone for a city of 8-and-a-half million people, and there isn’t a lot of time left to do it.”