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Ten months since China acknowledged the first outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, and seven months since the WHO declared it a global pandemic, there’s nowhere on the planet that’s been hit harder than New York State, where almost 33,000 people have died, most of them during a terrifying surge in March and April. This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo publishes American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic. And while that may look to New Yorkers like the height of chutzpah — the guy who presided over a period of historic suffering and unparalleled death putting out a self-lionizing memoir — it’s not as presumptuous a gambit as it at first seems. Through the spring and summer, as President Trump essentially ignored the coronavirus, Cuomo played a kind of alternate-reality president for information-hungry liberals nationwide, scrambling to expand state hospital and testing capacity and delivering daily televised press conferences tracing the course of the disease and what we knew about it, which helped make him, in time, the second-most-trusted American voice on the pandemic, behind Dr. Anthony Fauci. We spoke in early October, when a small rise in cases was beginning to appear, as had been forecast since the start of the pandemic, and the presidential campaign was taking what seemed like a decisive turn away from Trump, Cuomo’s frequent pandemic sparring partner. The governor was in alternately combative and reflective moods. “Trying to make sense of it all,” he said, when I asked how he was doing. “Trying to make sense of it.”
How scared are you of the fall? How scared should we be?
Nobody knows. But what the scientists have always said is “Beware of the fall.” This is sort of like dealing with the tides in the ocean; when there is high tide and there is low tide, you are going to be subjected to the tide. Do I anticipate a high tide? Yes. But everything we’ve seen so far, we’re in better shape than every other state, and we are better prepared.
And in New York, we are a function, in part, of what’s going on in the rest of the nation. We have this quarantine against 34 states, but in truth, it’s water through a screen. I can’t stop people and truckers coming in from other parts of the country. I can’t stop people from flying into airports; that’s all federal. So if there are infections in Florida and Texas, that’s going to hurt us here. We have a cluster problem, but if the fall tide increases because people are going indoors, because there’s less outdoor activity, because people are going to schools … We see it in colleges, certainly. And we will see it in schools.
You’re pretty clear about that.
Schools, no matter how well you do it, there will be transmission in schools. But we now do 120,000 tests a day. That’s our highest point ever. The highest per capita on the globe. Testing is the one smart, definitive function that you can perform. And we do more faster, and better, frankly, because I was so desperate for quantifiable, hard information for so long. There were so many weeks where every expert said, “Well, I’m not sure, but I think …” Nobody knew anything. The only thing you knew was what the data showed, and that’s why we were so aggressive in setting up the data.
I wanted to ask you about community protection — some people use the term herd immunity, but in a way that is misleading. There are those who believe New York City in particular has had enough of the disease spread that future transmission will be slowed by previous exposure. Do you put any trust in that? Or do you think we’re still vulnerable to the kind of exponential rate of increase we saw earlier in the spring?
Herd immunity is 50, 60 percent. You’re at 20 percent in New York City. That’s the Rand Paul versus Anthony Fauci argument. And Paul was just wrong. It’s just math.
Twenty percent is a lot of exposure. So why was it so bad here? You were criticized for moving too slowly, but you went from the first confirmed case to announcing a shutdown in 19 days — much faster than the West Coast states. You had inadequate testing capacity, but so did everyone else in the country. You didn’t really have a contact-tracing program — no state program and just 50 disease detectives in New York City, compared with 9,000 at the peak of the crisis in Wuhan — but neither did anyone else. There were some noncompliance issues with masks and social distancing, but that was true everywhere. And yet New York just had a dramatically worse epidemic than any other state in the country. In fact, worse than anywhere else in the world. Why did New York get hit so hard?
It’s mass. You have more infected people coming here for a longer period of time. See, when you say it’s in China — okay, how many people are coming here from China? The number of people coming from Europe is much higher. Those flights were coming for two months before anyone said anything. Nobody said, “Beware of people coming from Italy and from Spain and from France.” They did the China travel ban January 31. The big miss was the disease had already left China. It was in Europe. The European travel ban, March 13 — that was ten weeks late.
And they didn’t even really close the door on China, because they let all the American nationals who had been there return.
True. But at least we did something January 31. That’s why the president keeps talking about January 31. “I did the China ban January 31.” Yeah. What he doesn’t want to say is “But the virus came to New York, and most of this country, from Europe.” And you didn’t do the European ban until mid-March.
Do you think it would have been politically feasible for Trump to enact a global travel ban as early as late January?
Oh, I think he would have done it. I think they didn’t know.
What else could have been done?
The first point about COVID, I think, and the transcendent point, is it’s shown our nation’s lack of capacity to manage major situations requiring a unified response and a competent government. COVID is a health episode, but you have social crises that you have to respond to, criminal-justice reform. You have environmental crises that you’re going to have to respond to, climate change. And what this really points out is our inability to mount an effective defense. Why are we ineffective? First, we have to be unified to mount a defense, and we’re more divided than ever before.
Second, you have to have a competent government that is highly efficient and highly effective, and our government has atrophied for decades. We just haven’t used the muscle, and the muscle has atrophied. It just shows a larger problem that we have as a nation.
And as a world. The WHO has been, in certain ways, a disaster.
You’re right, the world. But just from our selfish, parochial point of view, from the nation’s point of view, the World Health Organization, they missed it. And by the way, if you look at the CDC and NIH, they have the same job description as the World Health Organization. They were supposed to be watching the global pandemic.
The virus was in China in December. They knew it. How they assumed that it was going to stay there, I have no idea. But it went to Europe in January, February, March. They missed it. It was coming here from Europe. They missed it. No health screening at airports; flights landing at JFK, Newark. We had tens of thousands of infections before anyone ever knew.
Reading your book, I was thinking of RFK’s book Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Your book could have been called Nineteen Days. You’ve been criticized in retrospect for moving too slowly, but you actually got to a shutdown pretty quickly.
In 19 days. And these are New Yorkers, right? We had heard about cases in China, heard about cases in California and Seattle, but New Yorkers, there is a certain parochialism for New Yorkers — it’s not real until it happens here. Right? Well, there are cases in Seattle, I know, but that’s far away.
March 1, we have our first case. That’s when it starts to get real. In 19 days, you have to bring the public to a point where they will accept the most dramatic government policies maybe ever enacted. You find the last time government said, “Close your business. Close your school. Stay home. Wear a mask. Don’t hug your parents.” Government has never done that. They had to accept that, and they had to believe that it was credible, because if they disregarded the policy, it would have all been over. I couldn’t enforce any of those policies. How do you enforce “Everybody must stay in their house”? You don’t have the governmental ability to do it. So all you had was the chance that you could actually convince people that it was necessary.
In the book, you refer to Errol Morris’s documentary about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, and you talk about the fog of COVID. One thing it seems clear you wish you had known was that the disease was coming from Europe. What other things do you wish you had known?
To spread the virus, they said, you have to be symptomatic. Sneezing and coughing — that’s how it spreads. Wrong, wrong, wrong. They missed asymptomatic spread. What’s amazing about that mistake is that you had European doctors and Chinese doctors say in The New England Journal of Medicine that people were spreading it without showing symptoms.
But I wonder what different policy approach you would build on that knowledge. Even today, knowing that asymptomatics contribute so significantly to the spread of the disease, we’re still basically testing only symptomatic people.
Well, part of it is what you told people was untrue. And I believe they would have been more cautious if they knew that. If the person was asymptomatic, you were totally comfortable giving them a good-night kiss — that was a mistake. Second, we do test asymptomatics now. It totally changed our testing protocol when we heard that. Our testing protocol has nothing to do with symptoms.
But you’re still depending on people coming to the test site. We’re not doing surveillance-scale testing, where we’re requiring everyone to take a test to get into schools or go to the supermarket. It’s still people volunteering for a test, so it’s going to disproportionately reflect symptomatics, who may be responsible for only about half of transmission.
Yeah, but there’s a gray there. We’ve never gotten a court order to have somebody tested. But colleges, it’s mandatory testing. Nursing homes, it’s mandatory testing. We’ve never had a case where the college student says “I refuse,” and the college says “Well, then I’m going to expel you.” But we do blanket testing of categories now.
Why not include high schools and elementary schools in that?
I’ve recommended it to the local school districts. I’ve recommended they do as aggressive testing as they can. I don’t know that still, as a nation, we have enough tests to do … Just take New York City schoolchildren. It’s like a million, right? You could never do a million schoolchildren every day. You have 140,000 nursing-home workers. You could never do 140,000 nursing-home workers every day. But we have 20 million people in the state. So you still are nowhere near what you would like to do, right? You don’t have the physical capacity to do that volume every day. But that would be ideal. Rapid testing would be ideal.
Going back to the spring and what we could have done differently, I assume you wish also that we had been earlier to understand the preventative role that masks would play as well. Right?
The big three mistakes: You missed it when it came; you were slow in closing it down; you did no health screening at the airports. Second, you were wrong on asymptomatic spread. Third, you were wrong on masks. Fourth, you were operationally incompetent. You couldn’t mobilize the testing. You couldn’t provide the PPE. You provided no federal controls. The premise of delegating to 50 states in a national pandemic made no sense. COVID is not a New York, New Jersey, Connecticut issue. It’s a national issue.
Especially given the much greater capacity the federal government has to mobilize capital and resources. Sending states into a marketplace to bid against one another, instead—
They had the Defense Production Act to do just that. You call up a clothing manufacturer and say, “I need you to make masks. I need you to make gowns. And you must do it.” They did the exact opposite. They made every state compete to find masks and then subject yourself to all sorts of fraud and bid up the price tenfold. Reliant on the owner of the New England Patriots football team to fly a private jet to China.
You almost couldn’t imagine a more dramatic or explicit failure of federal leadership. Yet I look around, especially at our peer countries in Europe, and I see the U.S. has fared poorly compared with most of our peer countries but not categorically worse in deaths per million, for instance. Outside the countries of East and Southeast Asia, there are very few success stories anywhere. So how should we think about the particular responsibility of the Trump administration versus just what it means to be fighting a pandemic in a state of ignorance and on the fly?
I question your quantifiable assumptions of success. This country had a later wave, right? The other countries were early. But you look at what Italy and the U.K. and France and Spain lose per day now. They’re losing 50, 100 lives. We’re losing a thousand. So on the numbers, we’re in a much worse position than they are.
Second, they all nationalized the response. And whatever happened early on — Boris Johnson, etc. — they all got it certainly by March. And we still had this up until today, a federal disconnect, right, where the president still wouldn’t wear a mask. It became a politicized issue and divided the nation. And any of these issues, be it social crisis, post-pandemic, environmental action, you ought to be unified. These are controversial, hard policies. You have to be unified as a nation. A divided nation is never going to do this.
So in terms of what was within your control and your purview as governor, do you have any regrets about how you handled the spring? I know in your book you defend your response on nursing homes. What do you regret?
Masks. We were the first state in the nation to mandate masks, but I should have done it earlier.
How big a difference do you think that would have made?
Well, here’s what I’ll never know. It’s misleading to say you could have done anything just by establishing a government policy. Government couldn’t do any of these things on its own. They had to be socially accepted. Could I have convinced the people of this state to wear masks earlier? Could I have effectively convinced the state of the severity faster than 19 days? And here’s the flip side: If you pull the trigger and you were wrong, if you ever articulate a policy and the people don’t follow it, your credibility is gone. You only get one misfire. Do you know what I mean?
But masks is an interesting one because, even as the public-health guidance was mixed, we did see all across Asia everybody preemptively start to wear masks, as they do not just when there’s a respiratory epidemic but even in the case of a normal flu season. And it probably did quite dramatically reduce their experience with the disease, although there are other factors there as well, of course.
You’ll never know, because it’s not like for 19 days I was communicating in a vacuum. The president of the United States was communicating the exact opposite. I’m saying, “We’re going to have to close down everything.” He’s saying, “This is going to be gone by Easter.” He’s saying it’s a hoax.
And even Fauci was advising against mask-wearing for quite a long time, just because the science was so confused on that point. That could turn out to be the most consequential misstep in the whole American response.
Yes. Surgeon general tweets there’s no reason to wear a mask, leave it to health-care officials. Now, in light of all of that, I’m saying “Wear a mask.” But you have the president of the United States saying it’s bullshit. You have the surgeon general saying it’s nonsense. You’re having Fauci saying it’s not worth it. So this is not in a vacuum, and I can’t announce a policy that people reject or don’t wholeheartedly accept.
The challenge is especially acute because you’re doing something the public would have considered completely hysterical just a few weeks before.
It’s just unreal and hysterical. It is so intrusive. When does government intrude on your personal life that way? “Wear a seat belt.” “You have no business telling me to wear a seat belt.” “Don’t text and drive.” “I resent you trying to control my personal behavior.” “I don’t think you should drink until you’re 21.” “That’s an intrusion.” Now we tell them, “You shouldn’t leave your house. You can’t go to school. You can’t go to work. You have to wear a mask. You can’t come within six feet of another person.” While the president is saying, “It’s all baloney.”
That’s why the briefings were incredible, David. How did that happen? People wanted information. They tuned in, and the communication was on a wholly different level. There was a sincerity and authenticity and a credibility that they discerned from the briefings. And they believed it. And you know they believed it because in 19 days, they did things that were unimaginable two weeks before.
Let me give you one other first-perspective mistake, if I could have done it over again. You now have Trump telling Woodward he knew what was happening, right?
Which is sort of an interesting parallel because, if this is true what they’re saying today, that he had a test 72 hours ago, which is what the doctor said today, that means he knew he was positive, and he did the whole day of campaigning in New Jersey after they knew he was positive.
Yeah, it’s criminal, really.
I mean, literally, people have been prosecuted for transmitting HIV knowingly.
That’s exactly right. And it’s a total parallel to Woodward saying Trump told him in February this was terrible, but he wasn’t going to tell the American people.
He didn’t want us to know.
It’s a parallel. In February, New York State was not authorized to do any tests. The CDC was doing all the tests. They had the testing protocol, literally the reagents, in the formula. And we were sending all our samples to them to test. And they were very slow in turning around the samples. I thought they were just slow and incompetent. Now you have to wonder: Were they slow and incompetent, or they just didn’t want us to know the virus was here? It would have been illegal for me to do the tests without sending them to the CDC in February. But in retrospect, I would have done it anyway. I would have told them to go to hell.
Let’s talk about schools. America is having a much harder time opening schools in the midst of a pandemic than most of the European countries. And even beyond that, in New York, the planning has seemed quite chaotic and stop and go over the past few months, especially in the city. Why?
Well, first of all, you’d have to ask Mayor Bill de Blasio the question.
What’s your critique of how he has handled it?
The factual analysis — not to get into editorial comment — you have 700 school districts in the state. We have left it to each individual school district to come up with a plan subject to state guidance. All 700 school districts did that, and they have a variety of plans. What happened in New York City is they put forward a plan and then failed to complete it, so they had to delay the opening. They came up with a second plan and failed to complete it and had to delay the opening. That’s where people get the impression of disorganization.
Could you have done anything to prevent that from happening? Could you have intervened, claiming that authority at the state level?
No. The state would have had to declare an emergency and take over the City Department of Education. Education is a locally run function, subject to overall state regulation by the State Department of Education, which I don’t control — I don’t even control it on the state side.
There’s 700 school districts in this state, and there’s politics in this state. You have very Republican districts upstate. Any one of them is capable of saying, “Oh no, no. The parents in my district want to stay open.” That happens, my credibility and my effectiveness go right down the drain. It just has to happen once.
But you have required employees of nursing homes to be tested. You’ve required students at state colleges to be tested. Theoretically, you could put regulations in place that would govern at least some aspects of the opening of schools, right?
Well, we have. We have state guidance. We say, “There has to be distancing. There has to be masks. There has to be a testing regimen.” But then the localities design the exact plan to do that with their parents and with their teachers.
So if you were in Bill de Blasio’s shoes, how would you have handled things differently in the city?
Well, I think anyone would say what’s important is public confidence, the demonstration of capacity. So come up with a plan that is accepted and you can execute. It’s never good when you come up with a plan and you say school is going to start on Monday, and everybody plans their life that way, and then you change, and then you change again. That’s been the problem in New York City.
And we haven’t gotten to stage two — what actually happens when you bring students back. Does the infection spread? We don’t know that yet because New York City hasn’t done any testing in the schools of the teachers and the students that they published. And that’s the real question, right? Does the virus increase? That we don’t know. That we’ll know next week and the week after.
Well, you said earlier that you suspect, of course, that there will be some amount of transmission. It’s just a matter of how much. Right?
Let’s talk a little more, big picture, about where this leaves the state and the city in kind of a long-term way. The short-term impact has been enormous — as you mention in the book, we’ve already paid out 16 years of unemployment benefits in four months. But you’re also planning for a major budget shortfall. You put austerity measures in the budget that you approved earlier in the spring, partly as a way of dealing with that. We’ve seen in Michigan that some tax revenue has been higher than anticipated. But what do you expect for New York? What kind of a hole do you expect New York State will be in?
Well, we were talking about tides. New York is going to be especially susceptible to the national tide. And this is a national problem. This economic issue, like the pandemic from day one, was a national problem. And if we don’t receive federal assistance, it’s going to be a negative, at least midterm negative, for our economy. If we ever had to close this deficit on our own, it would require higher taxes, cutting of expenses, and borrowing.
It’s a $50 billion deficit. It’s the highest in the history of the state. The question is normally: Do you raise taxes, or cut expenses, or do you borrow? Here there is no “or”; it would be “and.” You’d have to cut expenses and tax and borrow. And you would hurt the economy. And you would hurt the city, more so.
New York City, you have an additional challenge, which is similar but much worse than the challenge after 9/11. After 9/11, there was a period where people were questioning New York City in general and the safety of the city. Nobody wanted to go downtown. People were afraid to come back into the city. We have that, plus, right? There’s a sense that New York City and the density and the crowding is a problem for COVID. That’s compounded by a sense of rising crime, rising homelessness, lack of capacity. So those issues are all interrelated. There’s no doubt that it’s going to take significant, united, aggressive action to get New York City back to where it needs to be.
How much federal support do you think will be necessary?
Well, the hole is $50 billion. Anything short of that is going to require us to make it up on our own. The biggest deficit the state has ever solved on its own has been about $10 billion, and that required real hardship. I’m asking [the federal government] for the 50 because my point is it’s their liability. They caused it. They missed the virus coming from Europe, not New Yorkers. It was their negligence that caused this. Why would we be liable?
But I have handled a lot of disasters and emergencies and reconstruction. When I was at HUD, I worked on dozens of hurricanes, floods, etc. We had Superstorm Sandy here, even our 9/11 experience in New York. There’s an opportunity in this. When you rebuild, you don’t build back what was there before. You build it back better. You sustain damage on your home; all right, you put in an insurance claim, and a tree fell and hit the roof and you have to fix it. But by the way, in the meantime, you have a new roof. And they have to redo the windows, and you have better windows that provide better energy efficiency, and the house is better for it. I believe that’s true for the City of New York. We have a lot of these issues that had to be dealt with anyway.
Look at the subways. If I said to you, “We’re going to disinfect every subway car. And we’re going to get the homeless out of the entire system — every car, every station,” you would say “Impossible.” By the way, I would have said “Impossible.” But we did that.
To stay on the MTA for a second, as a case study going forward, what do we need to do to solve that problem to make it a public service that endures, providing the kind of service New Yorkers have come to expect?
Well, they are now getting the best service they ever had. Cleaner trains, more planned service, more capital repairs—
But, I mean, their budget is in terrible shape, right?
Well, that’s just money. But all this is just money. The MTA needs money; the state needs money. There’s nothing that we don’t know how to do. It’s a question of funding.
Do you worry about what will happen if the state doesn’t get it? You mentioned a few minutes ago that fear about life in the city in general being unsafe. Do you worry about the long-term hole that people leaving New York could make in our social fabric here?
Yes. But on my list of worries, I worry about COVID, too. I worry about the next virus. I worry about climate change. I worry about the next storm and the next flood. I worry about social unrest. And then I worry that there may be total insanity in Washington and we don’t receive federal aid. But it would have to be total insanity.
It would mean if they don’t come to an agreement now — I spoke to Speaker Pelosi yesterday, Secretary Mnuchin. It means that deal never comes together. It means Joe Biden doesn’t win. Because if Joe Biden wins, he’ll provide aid. It means the Senate doesn’t go Democratic. Because if it goes Democratic, Senator Schumer will certainly provide the aid. The only way that happens is all of the above would have to collapse. President Trump wins reelection, and the Republican Senate wins reelection. If that happens, I’m sure they would maintain this position of “We’re not going to help Democratic states,” which is all that they’re saying. It’s just political. But I don’t believe that is a realistic probability.
Every day, I hear New Yorkers talking about the city going back to the ’70s. Where do you think we’re heading?
I think we’re going to be better for it. We’ll mourn the loss and grieve those lost, like we do 9/11. But we’ll be stronger and better for it.
I do believe this has been the most challenging time for government, because government was more relevant. The consequences were higher, and government had a greater responsibility — not just to communicate and connect with people, and not just to develop trust, which was so necessary, but it then had to perform. It had to do the tests. It had to do the PPE. It had to find hospital capacity. And it did. In every projection, including the IHME model, which is what the White House used, 110 to 140,000 New Yorkers would need hospital beds. And we flattened that curve. That is inarguable, and that is a remarkable achievement that saved lives. And I have been in government for a long time. There’s very few circumstances where government action will either save lives or cost lives and the connection will be demonstrable. That was the situation here. And it still is.
It’s also kind of amazing to think how sort of personal that experience was for you. I mean, obviously, you have a team; you have a huge number of people working with you. But to a certain extent, also because of the conditions of the pandemic, you were relatively isolated during this time. And during that time, you became one of the most trusted figures in American politics as the whole country faced down this nightmare, but you were also dealing with and presiding over this incredibly grim crisis on the ground. You had it on all sides.
It was incredible. But I’ll tell you what was most incredible in retrospect. I don’t even have the words for it. There weren’t two sides. It was one side. Every conversation was the same. People saying there’s no way government can put the policies in place enough that we flatten the curve. And there’s no way that people would follow them, even if you put them in place. It’s just too dramatic, especially in New York, where people are very strong-willed and we’re very diverse. Plus, nobody trusts government anymore. And I was a popular governor, but you’re going to a level of connectivity and trust that people just don’t have with government anymore. I mean, you have to go back to — when was government that intense, World War II?
Well, definitely before Reagan.
To establish the connection that was necessary, I didn’t communicate as an elected official. I didn’t separate the conversations I was having with my family and the conversations I was having at the briefings. They were the same conversation. I was doing the briefings every morning for two hours. I wasn’t sleeping. There was no official hat and unofficial hat. I did not speak as a politician, as a governor. I didn’t even have any of those filters. When I didn’t know the facts, I told you that. When I was worried, I told you that. When I saw a glimmer of light, I told you that. When I was sick to my stomach worried about my brother, I told you that. When I was frightened for my mother, I told you that. When I had to quarantine my daughter, I told you that.
Now, in normal politics they would say, “Oh, you can’t talk. You can’t show fear. They’ll use that against you. The press will mock you. You can’t tell those jokes. They’re not funny. The press will mock you.” But for me, it was all or nothing anyway. They had to believe me. They had to trust me. They had to trust the information, and I had a very short period of time to do it. The briefings, all I had were the numbers. There were no remarks prepared. There was no discussion beforehand. It was all just genuine daily conversation. And if they were going to mock my sense of humor or mock me for being weak because I expressed fear, so be it. But if I didn’t connect, then people wouldn’t follow the policies and then the curve wouldn’t be flattened and then we’d have tens of thousands more people dead. So that’s what I did.
*This article appears in the October 12, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!