Coronavirus

3 Ways New York Botched the Coronavirus Response in March

A hapless mayor and overpraised governor made false promises, gave inaccurate health information, and helped turn Gotham into the pandemic's epicenter, according to The New York Times

|

The New York Times Wednesday published a long and damning breakdown of how the overlapping and eternally feuding governments of the city and state of New York helped turn the already difficult challenge of managing COVID-19 in the country's densest metropolitan area into the health and public-policy catastrophe we are enduring today.

This is no mere didn't-take-that-one-meeting-or-memo-seriously kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking, which too often passes for post-facto analysis of government crisis management. Instead, it's a detailed yet necessarily incomplete list of false promises, bad epidemiological advice, and ideologically motivated decision-making.

It's impossible to measure precisely the extra infection/morbidity rates caused by New York's abundant policy errors, but the article quotes an estimate from the person with the most directly relevant resume: former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) director Thomas Frieden, who prior to holding that post for the entirety of President Barack Obama's administration was health commissioner for the city of New York.

"Frieden said that if the state and city had adopted widespread social-distancing measures a week or two earlier, including closing schools, stores and restaurants," the Times reported, "then the estimated death toll from the outbreak might have been reduced by 50 to 80 percent."

It is not necessary to share Frieden's numerical assumptions or mitigation preferences in order to assign some direct policy blame. Here are three main categories of New York's COVID-response failure.

1) False Promises.

The article starts with the last time that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio made a joint appearance to address their constituents: March 2, the day after the first New Yorker tested positive for COVID-19. "Out of an abundance of caution we will be contacting the people who were on the flight with her from Iran to New York," Cuomo vowed.

However: "No one ever did that work," the Times found.

The CDC, which has failed to heed its own guidelines on multiple occasions during this crisis, nonetheless spells out very clearly in its 2006 Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza the importance of government leaders shooting straight.

"Timely, accurate, credible, and coordinated messages will be necessary during a pandemic, and…inconsistent reporting or guidance within and between nations can lead to confusion and a loss of confidence by the public," the plan advises. "Information provided by public health officials should therefore be useful, addressing immediate needs, but it should also help private citizens recognize and understand the degree to which their collective actions will shape the course of a pandemic."

Both the widely mocked de Blasio and the overly adulated Cuomo have repeatedly failed on these communicative counts. Like the president they despise, for example, both men made empty early boasts about their ability to withstand the worst.

"We can really keep this thing contained," de Blasio said on Feb. 26.

"Everybody is doing exactly what we need to do," Cuomo said at their March 2 press conference. "We have been ahead of this from Day 1."

The cruel, exponential math of epidemics can make exercises in hindsight seem nitpicky, even unfair. But New York's political chieftains weren't just making promises they couldn't keep, they were actively dispensing advice and crafting policy in contradiction to the understood science at the time.

2) Bad Epidemiological Advice.

On Feb. 2, de Blasio stated at a coronavirus press conference that, "What is clear is the only way you get it is with substantial contact with someone who already has it. You don't get it from a surface. You don't get it from glancing or very temporary contact based on what we know now." New York Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot added: "This is not a time to fall prey to false information that you may be seeing on the internet, to fall prey to the stigma.… This is not something that you're going to contract in the subway or on the bus."

Both of those confident assertions were not, in fact, summations of what was known about coronavirus transmissibility at the time. Three days before de Blasio's medical advice, at a press briefing of the president's Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed not what was conclusively known, but rather what was conclusively not known—"The issue now with this is that there's a lot of unknowns," Fauci said.

And yet even in that Jan. 31 presentation, Fauci made clear what the De Blasio administration would consistently deny for the next six weeks: That the virus was devilishly transmissible, including from people who had no reason to believe they were infected.

"In the beginning, we were not sure if there were asymptomatic infection, which would make it a much broader outbreak than what we're seeing.  Now we know for sure that there are," Fauci said (italics mine). "It was not clear whether an asymptomatic person could transmit it to someone while they were asymptomatic. Now we know from a recent report from Germany that that is absolutely the case."

You could fill a whole series of 30-second ads showing de Blasio claiming the exact opposite.

On March 10, the mayor insisted on MSNBC that "If you're under 50 and you're healthy, which is most New Yorkers, there's very little threat here. This disease, even if you were to get it, basically acts like a common cold or flu. And transmission is not that easy." The next day—just hours before the National Basketball Association shut down its entire season—de Blasio urged New Yorkers to "not avoid restaurants, not avoid normal things that people do," adding: "If you're not sick, you should be going about your life."

On March 15, to the irritation of his own health department, the mayor claimed that "public health folks say it appears that transmission is when people are symptomatic."

Even as late as last week—63 days after Dr. Fauci said that asymptomatic transmission was a certainty—de Blasio claimed that it was "only in the last really 48 hours or so" that NYC health officials "feel they've seen evidence around the world, particularly a new study coming out of Singapore, that shows more evidence that this disease can be spread by asymptomatic people."

3) Ideologically motivated decision-making.

Many of the de Blasio administration's most scientifically unsupported statements during the coronavirus outbreak have been used in the service of justifying his most heavily scrutinized policies. This is no accident.

Faced with a literal life-and-death issue, the mayor has in several critical moments chosen his own ideological commitments over the urgent advice of health scientists. None more important than his treatment of the country's largest school system.

New York City was far behind the national and international curve in closing down public schools to stop the community spread of COVID-19. The reason had little to do with science—indeed, Demetre Daskalakis, the city's head of disease control, reportedly threatened to quit if the schools were not shuttered, as did several other city health officials.

But de Blasio sees schools as delivery systems of government services to the poor, and as the Times delicately (and over-generously) phrased it, the mayor's "progressive political identity has been defined by his attention to the city's have-nots." So even as three dozen city virologists were warning that keeping the schools open amounted to "gambl[ing] with the lives of New Yorkers," de Blasio was exempting the institutions from his order to stop all city gatherings of 500 or more people, explaining with perhaps more literalism than he intended that the schools were one of "three things we want to preserve at all cost."

Several teachers and union officials have accused the Department of Education of bottling up news about teachers testing positive, and threatening educators with reprisals if they warned parents to keep their kids home from possibly infected schools.

Preventing the dissemination of bad information is a classic managerial mistake, one particularly endemic in poorly run governments. So, too, is a stubborn unwillingness to learn. Perhaps most distressing in the Times article is not the particulars of policy errors, but an expressed unconcern at acknowledging them: "The governor and the mayor emphasized that they had no misgivings about their initial handling of their response."

NEXT: As More Death Data Becomes Available, COVID-19 Looks Less and Less Like the Flu

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Great… now do Trump.

    1. “But what about Trump? Huh? What are you going to say about Trump, because I HATE Trump!”

      Just cut and paste asshole.

    2. You mean the Trump that over a week ago now you assured us all would contract the China virus and die? Oh that’s right, you’re full of shit.

      1. Actually I think he’s shamelessly overestimating the scope and extent of the disease. Now that he’s confined to making speeches to the press Corp he’s basically telling them what they want to hear. He’s good at that.

        1. Yeah but over a week ago you assured us that Trump would catch it and die within five days.

          And you’re full of shit.

    3. One cannot swing a dead-from-COVID-19-cat without hitting an article doing Trump. This one needed to be written because it shows just how bad the leaders we choose at every level are.

  2. Why is the NYT throwing DeBlasio under the bus? Presumably they don’t think there will be a lot of danger of making NYC turn Republican.

    What in the article is damaging to Cuomo? It seems to be all De Blasio from the examples you give.

    1. Oh, I see, the promise to trace that one person’s contacts.

    2. Presumably they don’t think there will be a lot of danger of making NYC turn Republican.

      That would be my guess. I don’t really know anything about NYC politics, but in SF Gavin Newsom was considered the Right Winger, aka a “Downtown Democrat.”

    3. This is just the NYT clearing the decks for their all-out blitz of “ORANGE MAN LIED, PEOPLE DIED!” stories from now until November. If they had completely ignored the obvious incompetence in the Democrat response they would have left themselves open to accusations of bias.

      Now they are free to publish Trump Hate 24/7 and if people complain they can point to this as an example of their Unbiased Journalisming.

      Incidentally this is also the reason Reason is publishing this column, too.

      1. So any time press criticizes pols other than Trump it’s just so that they look fair when criticizing Trump. Did we get that right? How is it Fox News never criticizes Trump? They don’t care if they seem biased? That must be it. Or maybe they are just US Pravda.

  3. “as the Times delicately (and over-generously) phrased it, the mayor’s ‘progressive political identity has been defined by his attention to the city’s have-nots.'”

    He just loves them to death.

    1. And he wants to eliminate inequality by making everyone have-nots.

  4. Serious question, Mr. Welch: How do you expect to build your paid subscription base when your content these consists of little more than warmed-over rehashes of articles from mainsteam news sources? People pay for that which is different, not that which is a pale, wan imitation of something else.

  5. Hopefully they’re staying on top of selling loose cigarettes and making sure calorie counts on menus are clearly displayed.

    1. The are the other 2 of the three things we must preserve at all costs.

  6. “This is not a time to fall prey to false information that you may be seeing on the internet, to fall prey to the stigma.… This is not something that you’re going to contract in the subway or on the bus.”

    This shit is the most egregious statement of all. It seeks only to dissuade people from avoiding public transit and possibly making mean comments close contact with immigrants or other ‘unsavory’ people. It’s essentially peddling false information in service to preemptive social justice posturing.

    Social justice virtue signaling literally kills.

    1. “about close contact with”

    2. I recently heard it called “dangerous nonsense.” Better to die than be accused of some sort of ism against a protected class, right?

    3. Social justice virtue signaling literally kills.

      6 million Jews agree.

  7. Hey Welch, ive heard we can solve problems by just doing a recreation of Game of Thrones. #RedWedding2 AmIRight?

      1. Thank you I dont twitter so i want someone to post this everytime Welch writes an article. If he wants to explain himself then great, until then im gonna reference it as much as i can.

        1. I don’t Twit either. You can still just go to the webpage and bookmark it for future use.

          1. Ya i know. Youre a more consistent poster her than I am. I shouldnt be trying to saddle someone else with my faux outrage and “war against welch”.

  8. It seems like countries with socialized health care systems and even a bonafide dictatorship of the proletariat have lower case numbers than freedom-loving Americans. How does this fit with the Ayn Rand School of Howard Roarkism and I’ve Gone Galt in a Coal Mine in An Undisclosed Location book, hmm?

    1. Who’s collecting the data in these proletarian paradises, and what penalties do they face if the data comes out wrong?

    2. even a bonafide dictatorship of the proletariat

      It does make it easy to lie about your numbers.

    3. a bonafide dictatorship of the proletariat

      Who has one of those?

    4. Thanks for reminding us that the soul criterion for deciding whether one wants to live under authoritarian rule is how such rule responds to a pandemic.

    5. “…lower case numbers than freedom-loving Americans”

      So you’ve stooped to carrying water for the wet markets now?

    6. The USSR reported very low crime rates and zero homosexuals. You would have loved it. You can always try N. Korea, Venezuala, or Cuba for a taste.

    7. Yeah, Italy’s socialized health care system has been totally awesome to the max…

    8. I guess you haven’t seen the numbers out of western Europe. Look those up and get back to us. We’ll wait.

  9. the overly adulated Cuomo

    Nice band name.

    1. Oh man, I have a great joke about his brother, but it’s too soon.

      1. Come on, out with it already. You think anyone here is the least bit sensitive?

      2. No, you don’t

  10. …explaining with perhaps more literalism than he intended that the schools were one of “three things we want to preserve at all cost.”

    Ha.

  11. Yes. True. But these same basic failings have been done by a large number of governments over the past few months. The virus is spreading because governments are reactive and not proactive, and by the time they react is is too late.

  12. “Like the president they despise, for example,”

    Obligatory.

  13. Everyone knows that the New York Times is a right-wing publication. If it weren’t for the great leadership of Mayor DeBlasio and Governor Cuomo, The pandemic would have killed off the entire island Manhattan.

    /Where’s OBL?

    1. Busy consoling Mr. Koch on his losses.

  14. I guess we dodged a bullet when De Blasio dropped out of the Presidential race – it’s hard to imagine a worse handling of SARS-CoV-2 than Trump’s, but we could have seen an ever worse national handling of SARS-CoV-3 in 2022 if De Blasio had been the Democratic nominee.

    1. You don’t have to imagine a response worse than Trump’s. Just look at New York.

  15. It would be short and faster to list the things they did right.

    (crickets…)

  16. Its criminal they did not track patient one from Iran in terms of who they had contact with..its basic for these things…once you get a few hundred..testing doesn’t matter as you don’t have the manpower to track down all the “contacted” people. Quarantine is the only way..NYC should have been shut down in early March…keep thinking of Escape from NY..we need a wall around NYC…Trump’s new campaign speech?

  17. If you are under 50 and healthy, you really aren’t in much danger. He was right about that.

    90% of deaths are from people with some condition or old.

    And if anything, that’s what is different from the flu. That often kills younger people.

  18. “Preventing the dissemination of bad information is a classic managerial mistake, one particularly endemic in poorly run governments.”

    Huh?

    1. That’s what I was wondering. If this was in error, it should be corrected. If not, it begs an explanation.

  19. “Preventing the dissemination of bad information is a classic managerial mistake…”

    Seems like that would be a GOOD thing for management to do…

  20. “Ideologically motivated decision-making.”

    When you rework this anagram you get Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party of Canada.

    From the onset these miserable incompetent fools played the ideological game claiming shutting airspace and borders would be ‘xenophobic’. Even now, they insist on being fools as the Health Minster preposterously claimed, ‘there’s no proof China lied’. This same minister, taking her cues from other fools in her party including her boss and Freeland, also quivered with emotion during a press conference.

    This government chose to let events dictate them while purposely putting the lives of Canadians in harm’s way to be ‘woke’ which amounts, to me, of dereliction of duty.

    I absolutely ignore their pressers and glad Quebec is too.

    Sounds like Justin, Bill and Andrew all have Wuhan of the brain.

  21. #WhenDemocratsRule

    This is what Open Borders brings you. One party Democratic rule. Relish it.

    Reason writers should be required to live in sanctuary states and cities *forever*.

  22. Linda F. Kemp It is very boring for me, talk to me! ?? Write me. ? Maybe we will make friends ?? ==>> Details Here

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.