NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson on the ‘Frightening’ Weeks Ahead and What New York Needs Now

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As the City Council Speaker, Corey Johnson has been one of the loudest voices pushing for a substantial coronavirus stimulus for residents of New York. With the city’s economy in tatters as it becomes the global epicenter of COVID-19 cases, Johnson has pushed for a temporary basic income of $550 per adult (in addition to whatever federal UBI payment emerges from Congress), he has proposed $12 billion in expanded unemployment benefits and aid to small businesses, and he joined the call for a 90-day rent moratorium similar to the mortgage-payment suspensions already enacted by Governor Cuomo.

Johnson joined Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway on their Pivot podcast for their weekly “Friends of Pivot” segment, where they bring on an expert voice to go deeper on an issue of importance. The City Council Speaker discussed the possibility of a coming rent suspension, the remaining lag in the federal response, and the anxieties of an overrun hospital system: “I don’t think New Yorkers are psychologically prepared for what’s about to happen.”


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Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer. It is also now on YouTube.

So let’s talk about how these shelter-in-place measures are working.
Well, it just started Sunday night at 8 p.m. I think there has been pretty broad compliance, but the real difficult thing is, New Yorkers aren’t sure how long this is going to go on for, and that uncertainty causes a tremendous amount of anxiety. This is a challenge unlike anything we’ve ever faced before. People are comparing it to what we as a country went through during World War II. I think that’s an apt comparison, and like during World War II, we are going to have to make sacrifices and we will. They were known as the greatest generation, and if we act selflessly, hopefully we’ll be known as that as well.

What industries do you think are going to be hit hardest in the long term? 
I’m most worried about our small businesses, our bars, our restaurants, our mom-and-pop stores, our small retail establishments, the hospitality industry, hotels, all of these jobs that really make up the backbone of New York’s economy, both at the neighborhood level, the small businesses, bars and restaurants, but also the hospitality industry, which is so important for tourism. In 2018, we had 68 million tourists visit New York City, the highest number ever recorded. Before this crisis began, unemployment was at 3.9 percent, one of the lowest numbers ever recorded. Unless the federal government steps up in a real way that helps out businesses like that, it’s going to be hard for these small businesses to ever come back.

Is the federal government helping them, or is it something that you all could do as governors of that city and of that state?
Well, we’re going to see this week what happens with the congressional bill. The Senate Republicans put forward a bill, which would not have helped them. The Democrats in the House are wanting to do something I think that would help small businesses in this way. I put forward a plan, just the beginning of a plan, last week to start the conversation on asking for $12 billion from the federal government for New York City, which would expand unemployment benefits to people that aren’t currently covered in unemployment, so gig-economy workers, freelancers. It would create broader eligibility.

No. 2, it would help a lot more people in small businesses, and would also create a universal basic income on top of whatever the federal government gives because we know the cost of living is more expensive in New York City. I hope that the New York congressional delegation is able to get some of that in. We also saw that the MTA, which you and I spoke about before, has a $4 billion budget deficit now, so we need that money to come through from Congress as well, given how important the MTA is for New York’s economy.

If there’s one thing you could ask of New York citizens or of businesses and institutions around the city, what would that one thing be?
Well, for individuals it would be to stay at home. And as hard as that is for so many people, we know that it will save lives. It is not a cheap mantra. It is really just a truth. We want people to stay home because we have to halt transmission. Our hospital systems are already getting overwhelmed. We know that it’s going to get significantly worse over the next few weeks. So every person that we halt transmission to will ease things up just a little bit. So that’s the most important thing to do if you’re a nonessential worker, is to stay home. For institutions and businesses, I think right now is a time to really try to look out for your employees or former employees. What does that mean? That means making sure that they’re getting the emergency food that they need. It means that you’re making sure that they can qualify for unemployment benefits in the right way.

We have this dual crisis, we have the health-care crisis that’s upon us and we have the economic crisis that’s hitting us day by day where you have now hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed people. And that is a really scary, painful combination that the largest city in the United States of America is going through right now. And the two things that we can do are have people stay home to help with the health crisis that is intensifying every single day, and then on the economic crisis we need to come together and help each other. I’m not sure the Feds are going to do it for us.

Do you expect the Navy ship coming to offer much reprieve in that hospital part of it? 
I mean, it’s going to help a small bit, but it’s not nearly what we need. That ship, the USNS Comfort, that’s going to be in New York Harbor has 1,000 hospital beds, and those beds are going to be used for actually non-COVID 19 patients to create more room in the hospitals for coronavirus patients. We actually have to be over the next five days, it sounds crazy. Be building tens of thousands of new hospital beds. Not 1,000, not 2,000, not 5,000, but tens of thousands.

You saw that they’re going to start converting the Javits Center to basically a military hospital, and we have to find other spaces as well. The governor put out numbers the other day that said we basically have to double the number of hospital beds in New York from 50,000 to 100,000, and we have to do that in a short period of time. And in that we need the PPE, the personal protective equipment, and we really need ventilators.

What do you need from major manufacturers and how do you get it? 
What we really need is that Defense Production Act to be kicked into gear so that we can use other industries to start manufacturing this and it can be shipped to New York City. New York City is now considered the epicenter of COVID-19 on the entire globe right now, and it is going to get significantly worse over the coming days. And the thing that I’m most afraid of is that I don’t think New Yorkers are psychologically prepared for what’s about to happen. I don’t say that to scare people or to panic people, but in the United States of America, it is going to be frightening to see scenes like we’ve seen in Italy in New York City, and that is likely to happen here over the coming days and weeks. So we need those supplies and we need ventilators and we need them yesterday, we need them today, we need them tomorrow.

If you’re a healthy New Yorker with some resources, what can you do other than waiting on or hoping for the federal government to make the right decisions?
Well, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the first thing, the most important thing, is to stay home just to not spread transmission, which will help in ways that people don’t even realize. So that’s No. 1. No. 2, we need to help people that are struggling with access to food right now. That’s actually one of the most important things that we need more attention to. There are a lot of now homebound seniors whom we are telling stay at home and who need access to food. There are a lot of poor people who are having trouble making ends meet, and then there are the newly unemployed people that are going to have food-access issues. So we actually need people to give to some of the organizations that do that type of work. The biggest one in New York City is City Harvest. City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York City are two of the biggest food distributors.

So if folks wanted to reach out to City Harvest or to the food bank or to the Met Council, those are three organizations that are doing that type of work and they can tell you if they need you to volunteer and what precautions you would need to take, but also they need dollars right now, not just to buy food, but to hire new people to scale up the larger need they see now as it relates to food insecurity.

What about a rent moratorium for not just public housing, but across the city for people that have lost their jobs?
I support that. I think we need to do a rent freeze, and a rent freeze not in a way that just 90 days from now you’ll then owe a cumulative three-month bill, but a rent freeze in a way that looks at what we’re doing for people that are paying mortgages. We’re helping folks there, and for renters, which are a huge number in New York City, putting that off and then using some of the federal stimulus money to cover some of these things for New Yorkers. We are eight days away from the beginning of April, and all day long on social media, I’m having people tell me that the thing they’re worried the most about is paying their rent right now because of the cost of it. So we want the state and the Feds to enact a rent freeze that will give people peace of mind and then figure out from the federal level how to pay for that and how to compensate some landlords for that that may be struggling as well because of this.

Trying to govern in this must be very difficult. You saw in Congress, people are getting COVID-19 from assembling, essentially. How do you govern in this environment? How does it impact you all personally?
One of the big fears that I have for New Yorkers is that even though we’re telling people to socially distance and to physically distance from each other, I’m really worried about social isolation and emotional isolation because those things are not the same. It’s really important that New Yorkers reach out to one another, FaceTime with each other, Zoom conference with each other, check in on your single friends, check in on older neighbors. Even if you can’t actually, physically be with them, knock on their door and talk to them through the door. People are really going to need that connection with each other during this time. And I find that as an elected official, but I also know that as a New Yorker, that days are like roller coasters for people, and it’s going to get potentially worse.

Personally, I’ve every day just been trying to do two things. No. 1, be a good boyfriend to my boyfriend, and he’s been a great boyfriend to me because we are really relying on each other right now. No. 2, be a helpful elected official. What do I mean by that? Getting out factual information, doing it in a calm and measured way, trying to come up with ideas that will help people. But have I been anxious at certain points? Yes. Has it been scary at certain points? Yes, but also I try not to get wrapped up in that. I try to think, What is the next thing I can do to be helpful?

One of the big things that’s been most helpful to me throughout this is the lessons I learned from my own sobriety. I’ve been sober for almost 11 years, and in sobriety, I take life a day at a time. I don’t drink a day at a time and that’s been successful for me. Throughout this crisis for New York City, we have to just take it a day at a time as New Yorkers. We have to sometimes take it an hour at a time where it’s difficult, so even though I’m the Speaker of the City Council and I’m trying to be as helpful as possible, it has similarly been anxiety-producing, but I’m trying to just focus on the things that I have control over, which is not much right now. I’m saying the Serenity Prayer a lot and trying to be as helpful to New Yorkers that are looking for accurate, factual, calm, measured information. Those are the things that I’m going to try to do every single time.

NYC Council Speaker Johnson on the ‘Frightening’ Weeks Ahead