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The Undeserved Myth of Andrew Cuomo, Pandemic Hero

The governor’s factual, steady communication was a welcome alternative to Trump. But the praise he received has obscured structural problems and missteps.

  • Credibility:

At a COVID-19 briefing on November 18, Governor Andrew Cuomo grew irritated at Wall Street Journal reporter Jimmy Vielkind’s questions about whether New York City schools would be open the following day. Specifically, Vielkind wondered, would state or city parameters make the final determination? “For the millions of parents who want to know,” he asked, “are the schools gonna open tomorrow in New York City?” 

Cuomo’s response is best watched or listened to, but suffice it to say, for the next several minutes, the governor responded to this perfectly legitimate question—reiterated by a second reporter—with what can only be described as insulting condescension. “Read the law, and you won’t be confused,” Cuomo snapped.

This patronizing display demonstrated a marked—if not uncharacteristic—shift from the Andrew Cuomo that liberal America fell in love with this past spring, the governor whose relatively stable, fact-heavy, expert-informed briefings stood in striking contrast to the erratic lunacy of President Trump’s disjointed press conferences. Those daily sessions ultimately both won the governor an Emmy and allowed him to publish American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, this past October.

A little prematurely, one might say. On December 4, New York State recorded over 11,000 new coronavirus cases, one of its highest single-day totals (thus far) in the pandemic. The statewide positivity rate has ticked steadily upward for weeks and is now above 5 percent, with some regions closer to 10 percent. In Ulster County, confirmed active COVID-19 cases have surpassed their April high, and the curve is only accelerating. More than one-third of the total number of cases in the county are currently active. NYC health authorities have now advised elderly and immune-compromised people to stay at home as much as possible—and for members of their household to do the same, outside of essential trips—effectively adopting the pseudoscientific approach of the “Great Barrington Declaration” in lieu of any serious and coordinated health policy. It should go without saying that the wealthiest and most privileged in this state have been doing that for months—including fleeing to the Hudson Valley—while a vast majority of the most vulnerable in this society have no meaningful way of sheltering at home and avoiding exposure. Why would that change now?

Cuomo lashed out at reporters during a November 18 briefing.

You might miss the severity of the situation listening to Cuomo’s press conferences of late. A recent daily email briefing of his noted: “The next stage of the battle with COVID is going to be vaccine distribution and vaccine acceptance,” which seems glaringly short-sighted, given that even liberal estimates of a successful mass vaccination program do not see distribution en masse before summer 2021—and estimates show the US potentially reaching over 500,000 fatalities by February.

But for Cuomo, it’s pretty much your fault that things look so terrible in New York. “If you didn’t eat the cheesecake, you wouldn’t have a weight problem,” he said at another recent briefing, as folksy explanation for the state’s again-ballooning pandemic. “It’s all self-imposed.” 

Callousness and stupidity of these comments aside, Andrew Cuomo personally is obviously not entirely to blame. The federal government has abdicated any responsibility or even attempt at guidance, and obvious strategies to mitigate the virus have been predictably subsumed into the culture war. America in 2020 was destined to fare terribly in a pandemic. But the governor’s relative impotence in the face of this second wave highlights a disturbing undercurrent in his pattern of governance—particularly with regards to the pandemic—that has been with us the whole time.

It is true that this was a novel virus, and that the state’s staggering death toll (now approaching 28,000 confirmed people, by far the highest in the country—and the real number is closer to 35,000) can be partly chalked up to the unprecedented severity of the first wave in the nation’s largest city. The virus was somewhat poorly understood; federal support was weak. But Cuomo did not act, at the time, with what was even then the best scientific consensus, as he himself has admitted in acknowledging his costly delay in imposing a mask mandate. Same goes for his (and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s) delayed shutdowns, which could have prevented significant loss of life if enacted earlier.

These are acute examples; the governor’s shortcomings in policy run deeper. As was noted in the spring, the shortage of hospital beds in the state has been accelerated by Cuomo’s efforts through two-plus terms in office—the number of beds has dropped by 20,000 over the last 20 years. Moreover, even as the first wave of the pandemic was raging, and Cuomo began to win widespread acclaim (deservedly or not), his administration continued to push for $400 million in cuts to New York hospitals in an effort to shrink the state’s Medicaid budget.

Perhaps most horrific was the toll in New York’s nursing homes—a total fatality number still not acknowledged by the state. This was due to several factors. An important one was a rule, pushed by Cuomo and adopted early in the pandemic, that forced nursing homes to re-admit convalescing coronavirus patients without determining if they were still contagious. Ostensibly intended to ease the pressure on hospitals, the policy inevitably contributed to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes.

Around the same time, Cuomo signed a bill that effectively granted immunity to nursing home and hospital executives for lawsuits resulting from the pandemic. As David Sirota pointed out in the piece linked above, the Greater New York Hospital Association and other groups representing the healthcare industry had donated over $2 million to Cuomo and his related political organizing efforts over his second term in office. Sirota quotes from a report that notes: “the average rate of death per state is 7.5 times higher in states with corporate immunity than states with no immunity for corporations.”

As the pandemic receded in New York this summer, the state’s approach to the crisis shifted to a targeted one, focused on identifying microclusters categorized in ascending severity as yellow, orange, or red zones. The precise, scalpel-like strategy was nice in theory—and perhaps in practice, if statewide and national rates were low enough. For a few months, it appeared to be modestly effective. But it has now clearly failed, and the state is experiencing uncontrolled spread once again.

Indeed, we currently seem to be seeing a kind of replay of the spring surge, but far more widespread, and ultimately, possibly worse. It is true that therapies for COVID-19 are improved and that mask wearing is more widely practiced than it was nine months ago. It is equally true that mass death has been explicitly normalized in a way it was not in the spring, and that, at the end of the day, resistance to shutting down the economy—and specifically restricting bars and restaurants, which continue to accelerate viral transmission, despite the Governor’s emphasis on “living room spread”—has come to trump what might be lifesaving policies. 

This, again, is not solely Cuomo’s fault; it is, in fact, more reflective of Cuomo’s impotence in the face of a brutally neoliberal political-economy. But Cuomo has been an enthusiastic endorser of these policies for his entire career, and shows no sign of altering course amid the most severe crisis the state and country have faced in living memory. Despite whatever acclaim he may have received, he continues to pursue misguided and effectively punitive policies, and New York is paying the price.

The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.