As he explains his administration's approach to containing the new coronavirus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s thoughts turn to wristwatches. It is not the hands that make a clock tick, he said, but the pieces inside. And like the jewel regulating the gears inside a watch movement, the three-term governor finds purpose moving the gears of government forward. Whether it is limiting the spread of an infectious disease, allocating education funding or taking any other action as governor, it all comes down to the same thing, according to Cuomo. “This is all about government performance,” he told City & State in an interview inside his Capitol office last week. “That’s why it’s liberating in some ways because it’s devoid of politics.”
The governor had just finished a Monday afternoon meeting in the adjacent Red Room with 20 top state officials on the state’s response to COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019. Much of it consisted of Cuomo pushing staff to find answers to hard questions. Just hours before, the governor had announced a goal to increase testing capacity for the virus to 1,000 people per day – but at the moment the state only had 1,000 test kits on hand. The necessary chemicals were increasingly scarce. Efforts would have to be made to keep too many people from requesting tests. Legal frameworks were needed for quarantining people. “What if the feds say: ‘Sorry, I can’t help you?’” Cuomo asked at one point, suggesting the state may be on its own. “Just assume nobody does anything for you except you.” Mobilizing resources in a state of 20 million people is no easy task.
Yet after weeks of preparation, and just six hours after the governor announced the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the state, New York’s response was taking shape. Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye left the meeting tasked with exploring electrostatic sprayers to disinfect New York City subways. State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Linda Lacewell was assigned the overnight goal of expanding the state’s paid sick leave program to cover people who would be quarantined in the future. It was 4 p.m. – and there were plenty of working hours ahead.
As state officials left to tackle their assignments, Cuomo’s other moves on the coronavirus started ticking. He wrangled state lawmakers into passing a bill that gave him $40 million in emergency funding to combat the disease, as well as a controversial expansion of executive power in response to a range of emergencies – including the coronavirus. His media blitz continued in the following days with state and national media spreading the message that New York had a sophisticated and largely apolitical response to a disease that has infected dozens inside New York and killed thousands across the world in recent weeks.
The number of confirmed cases has multiplied in recent days, and state efforts have ramped up accordingly, with the state recommending that at least 4,000 people isolate themselves to limit the spread of the disease. Hundreds of SUNY and CUNY students who were studying in China, Italy, South Korea and Iran have been called back to the U.S. At a Thursday press conference in the state Capitol, Cuomo said that while more cases are to be expected, only a fraction of infected people require serious medical attention, especially the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. “What am I worried about as governor?” he said. “I’m worried about undue fear and anxiety. I’m worried about nursing homes, senior care facilities – any senior congregate setting.”
On Monday, shortly after his meeting with his deputies in the Capitol, Cuomo demanded that lawmakers act on a $40 million emergency funding proposal he first floated last week to fund more health care training, medical supplies and quarantine spaces. State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker quickly huddled with lawmakers. The state Senate reconvened Monday evening at Cuomo’s behest after adjourning for the day hours before. “I did not think when we gaveled out that we would be gaveling back in,” state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told reporters on Tuesday as Cuomo signed the bill into law. “This was a first for me as a leader.” Passing a bill with a few hours notice also requires what is called a message of necessity from the governor to waive the three-day waiting period mandated by the state constitution for new legislation. But Cuomo got it done, despite some objections from lawmakers.
A controversial provision in the legislation expanded the governor’s power to issue directives through executive order during emergency situations as varied as infectious diseases, hurricanes and volcanoes. Such authorizations would come 30 days at a time under the legislation, which expires in April 2021. Lawmakers could also pass a resolution to override a gubernatorial directive. “Maybe it will all be fine,” said Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, who voted against the legislation. “Maybe nothing bad will happen. But nothing bad will happen if we take a day or two to think about it – and we may avoid something we may regret for years.” While lawmakers from both parties called the bill a Cuomo power grab, only a dozen voted against it in the Assembly and just a handful in the Senate.
Some lawmakers grumbled on the floors of the legislative chambers that there was little they could do besides vote in favor of the emergency funding bill. There were political concerns to take into account. Constituents might hold a “no” vote against incumbents, whether or not they were voting for a greater principle. The threat of the coronavirus also weighed heavily on the minds of lawmakers who saw a need to empower the governor at a time of potential crisis. “I hope all of us can support this so we speak as one voice,” Republican state Sen. Kenneth LaValle said on the Senate floor. The final vote in the state Senate was 53-4.
The law grants Cuomo new legal tools for implementing any future quarantine actions, school closing or public transit restrictions, Cuomo told reporters during a press conference last week. “The suspension of existing law means I'm removing an impediment from an agency,” Cuomo said. “But it doesn't give you the ability to affirmatively do anything, and in this situation, the government has to act.” If lawmakers were going to expand gubernatorial powers to deal with the coronavirus, then they had to do the same with all the other types of emergencies that were already written into state law, Cuomo argued. “Let’s see where it is next April,” he said of the possibility of renewing the law.
Only time will tell if Cuomo’s approach to the coronavirus is effective, but he has earned praise from public health experts for how he has mobilized state government, including a tweak to state insurance rules waiving patient costs for coronavirus testing. The administration has isolated the dozens of New Yorkers who have been infected so far, stockpiled supplies and coordinated state agencies in anticipation of a surge of cases in the coming weeks. Administration officials at the Monday meeting with the governor discussed geolocating state equipment and whether the National Guard has ambulances on hand. Can government keep people isolated for the two weeks it takes for the virus to come and go? The governor had his doubts. “Those are the kinds of things that you want people to be thinking about,” said Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa who specializes in diseases like the coronavirus. “(You) need to be cautious and proactive, not have a huge fear factor, which only makes things worse.”
Maintaining public calm has been a point raised by Cuomo at recent meetings, both public and private. The disease is more deadly than the flu, but its fatality rate is in the very low single digits. Four out of five people don’t even get visibly sick, Cuomo has noted. “The fear factor has to be managed as much as the reality of the situation,” he said during a Tuesday appearance on CNN. “People just don't believe the facts that government is telling them, and that's unfortunate for a much broader set of reasons.” The tools Cuomo has used in recent days to confront the disease have included the Legislature, state agencies and his own executive power. Considering the fact that the governor has made multiple broadcast appearances and hosted multiple Capitol press conferences since last week (including the first joint appearance of the year with the two state legislative leaders), it is fair to assume that the news media has an important role of its own in the governor’s political toolkit.
The coronavirus has given Cuomo another opportunity to cultivate an image as a leader who takes charge in a time of crisis. His success in winning lawmakers to his cause this week has strengthened his hand. While his immediate goal in recent days has been to respond to the looming crisis, his media appearances have presented him as a problem-solver on a national stage. “People are so distrustful of government now and it's so hyperpoliticized,” he told CNN. “People don't even know what to believe anymore.” Promoting New York as a national leader is a matter of great personal pride for the governor.
If the virus continues to spread in New York, he will have his chance to make his case on a matter of life and death. The benefits of both managing a public health threat to millions of people – and doing so in a way that appears competent – are obvious at a time when the response from the Trump administration has been uneven. For the past few days, such goals have become an obsession for Cuomo. It’s showing what makes him tick.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of state Sen. Kenneth LaValle.
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