PBS Highlights Missteps by NY Democrats in Pandemic Response

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On Thursday’s Amanpour & Co. on PBS and CNN International, the show devoted a segment to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, and gave a surprising amount of criticism toward Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In an interview hosted by NPR weekend anchor Michel Martin, The New Yorker‘s Charles Duhigg argued that the death toll in the state has been 50 to 80 percent higher than it could have been if the two Democrats had taken advice from their health advisors more quickly as he also recalled that the two feuded and sent mixed messages during the response.

It was even noted that de Blasio hypocritically went to a gym to work out after Governor Cuomo advised the public against such unnecessary travel.

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In the earlier part of the segment, it was argued that, in spite of the coronavirus outbreak in Seattle, New York officials were slow to take seriously the possibility of an outbreak there, and Martin brought up the issue of how long it took for New York schools to be closed.

Duhigg recalled that two of Mayor de Blasio’s health advisors had to threaten to resign to pressure him to close the city’s schools. He began: “New York closed their schools in early March, and there was a long delay. … Mayor Bill de Blasio sort of publicly had this indecision about whether he ought to close the schools.”

After arguing that de Blasio had legitimate concerns about how people’s children would be taken care of if schools were closed, Duhigg added: “Now, at the time, de Blasio was getting recommendations from his own health officers to close the schools and restaurants. Two of de Blasio’s top health officers came to him and threatened to resign unless he closed the schools and bars and restaurants.”

Host Martin soon brought up de Blasio getting caught going to the gym:

MICHEL MARTIN:  The mayor, Bill de Blasio, came under some criticism for going to the gym, right, just as he was urging other people to stop going to the gym. You might think, “Oh, that’s kind of petty — everybody’s got to, you know, everybody wants to do what they want” — but why does something like that matter?

Duhigg declared that such behavior sent a mixed message to members of the public who might have been looking for an excuse not to stay at home. He soon argued that Governor Cuomo tried too much to prevent panic, and recounted a study suggesting that the death toll could have been reduced greatly if the lockdown had started 10 days earlier:

DUHIGG: Well, initially, Governor Cuomo, similar to Bill de Blasio, was saying, “Look, you don’t need to be concerned about this,” like, their instinct is to reduce panic, which is usually a pretty good instinct. It’s just not the right instinct in a pandemic. Now, I will say, both of them, compared to, say, federal leaders, did get on the horse pretty quickly and start saying, “Look, this is something to take seriously — we need to be concerned about this,” but those four or five lost days matter a lot. Doctor Tom Frieden — who used to be a commissioner of public health in New York and was the director of the central — the CDC — he actually estimates that if New York had moved about 10 days faster to shut things down, we would have seen 50 to 80 percent fewer fatalities in New York.

The New Yorker contributor soon informed viewers that Mayor de Blasio not only feuded with Governor Cuomo over how to handle the pandemic, but that he also had bad relationships with his health advisors which hurt the response:

DUHIGG: in New York, we had the opportunity to response quickly, but instead what we had was a situation where Bill de Blasio — the mayor of New York — was frankly fighting with his own health department. He was not listening to the advice — there was a  history of bad relationships there. And, more importantly, there was an ongoing feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo — the governor of the state of New York. And that fight — that feud has meant that communications have been muddied — they’ve fought in public about who has the right to close down the schools — what kind of advice should be given out.

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Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Thursday, April 30, Amanpour & Co. on PBS and CNN International:

MICHEL MARTIN: I think people in the New York area may remember New York didn’t close its schools for, what, at least a couple of weeks after that, and then — when did New York close their schools?

CHARLES DUHIGG, THE NEW YORKER: New York closed their schools in early March, and there was a long delay. … Mayor Bill de Blasio sort of publicly had this indecision about whether he ought to close the schools. And he was making a legitimate argument. One of the things he said is, “Look, if you close the schools, you disproportionately impact our most vulnerable,” right? There are kids who rely on schools for meals.

There’s health providers who can’t go to work unless their kids are in schools because they don’t have daycare. Now, at the time, de Blasio was getting recommendations from his own health officers to close the schools and restaurants. Two of de Blasio’s top health officers came to him and threatened to resign unless he closed the schools and bars and restaurants.

(…)

MARTIN: The mayor, Bill de Blasio, came under some criticism for going to the gym, right, just as he was urging other people to stop going to the gym. You might think, “Oh, that’s kind of petty — everybody’s got to, you know, everybody wants to do what they want” — but why does something like that matter?

DUHIGG: It matters enormously because the consistency in messaging is key to persuading people what to do. You know, in a moment of panic when someone is asking you to do something like stay in your house, what you’re saying is like, A, “I want to find an excuse to ignore them,” and B, “I want to understand what’s going on.” And so if, for instance, as in this case, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York state says, “I’m going to close down all the gyms,” and then Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City asks his driver to take him to a gym that’s nine miles away so he can work out, to the average viewer, they’re saying, “Who am I supposed to listen to? Am I supposed to be like the mayor and go outside? Or am I supposed to listen to the governor and stay inside?”

Anytime you have any conflicting information — particularly when you’re in an emergency, people are scared and they don’t know what to listen to — it’s a really, really dangerous. You can’t have these distractions during a pandemic. They become deadly.

MARTIN: What about Governor Cuomo?

DUHIGG: Well, initially, Governor Cuomo, similar to Bill de Blasio, was saying, “Look, you don’t need to be concerned about this,” like, their instinct is to reduce panic, which is usually a pretty good instinct. It’s just not the right instinct in a pandemic. Now, I will say, both of them, compared to, say, federal leaders, did get on the horse pretty quickly and start saying, “Look, this is something to take seriously — we need to be concerned about this,” but those four or five lost days matter a lot. Doctor Tom Frieden — who used to be a commissioner of public health in New York and was the director of the central — the CDC — he actually estimates that if New York had moved about 10 days faster to shut things down, we would have seen 50 to 80 percent fewer fatalities in New York.

MARTIN: That’s remarkable — wait, wait, wait, wait — you’re saying that just those couple of days — maybe a week — could have saved thousands of lives?

(…)

DUHIGG: In New York, although conditions were different — obviously there’s an element of luck, a chance of luck in any pandemic — in New York, we had the opportunity to response quickly, but instead what we had was a situation where Bill de Blasio — the mayor of New York — was frankly fighting with his own health department. He was not listening to the advice — there was a  history of bad relationships there. And, more importantly, there was an ongoing feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo — the governor of the state of New York. And that fight — that feud has meant that communications have been muddied — they’ve fought in public about who has the right to close down the schools — what kind of advice should be given out.

It’s impossible to say, if we could rewind the clock, that just changing the leadership would have changed the outcome of the — and the course of this pandemic – but certainly in New York — the fact that we are now the epicenter of the entire world and have tens of thousands of deaths — some of that must be laid at the feet of our political leadership and the fact that, frankly, they weren’t ready for this, and they weren’t listening to people who were ready and trained about how to communicate during a pandemic.

(…)

It’s unequivocal that, in retrospect, we are going to look back and we are going to say Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, in New York state, that they didn’t act fast enough — that there were warnings out there — that everyone should have known that as soon as Seattle started having massive numbers of deaths and massive numbers of cases, we need to respond immediately.

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