Anyone who has dipped into Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus press briefings knows that the New York governor relishes his variegated personae.
There is the ethnic Cuomo, who, we have learned repeatedly, enjoyed spaghetti and meatball Sunday dinners in his Queens childhood home.
Then we have Cuomo the family man, now belatedly bonding with his daughters as they shelter together in place, as we have also repeatedly learned.
Cuomo, the dutiful son, broadcasting to millions of viewers an intimate Zoom chat with his mother on Mother’s Day.
Then there is Cuomo, the righteous champion of human life, berating the Trump Administration for not immediately sending New York State 30,000 ventilators. “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die!” he exclaimed heatedly on April 23. (As it turned out, New York never used the thousands of ventilators it had already stockpiled and it sent its many surplus machines to other states, where the ventilators also sat unused.)
Don’t forget Cuomo, the regal recipient of tribute, whether from one Samir Bhatt, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London. “Governor, it’s a professional honor to work with you,” Bhatt told Cuomo via Zoom on May 18. “Your state has already shown what can be achieved when policies are driven by science”), or from the governors of neighboring states who on May 3 offered a similarly effusive assessment for Cuomo’s performance. Imperial College was the source of the disastrous coronavirus model that sent the world economy hurtling into depression.)
Naturally, Cuomo the triumphant: “The secret of our success has been communications and transparency”—with success being defined, apparently, by having nearly one-third of all coronavirus deaths in the country.
Cuomo the leader who is too comfortable in his own skin to mess around with false modesty: “People said you’re being too aggressive in setting testing goals. What can I say? It’s who I am.”
And then there’s Cuomo, the inspirational: “I talk about New York tough. . . . Yes, New Yorkers are tough, and we’ve shown how tough we are here. Tough means many things, as I’ve said, loving and disciplined, et cetera. But even tough is tough. Yeah, tough is about courage”—courage defined as staying home, wearing a mask at all times, and not protesting the ongoing evisceration of livelihoods and future opportunity, or, if you are a politician, declaring yourself “essential” and collecting your full salary while millions of small businessmen lose their livings.
But the most frequent Cuomo over the last several weeks is Cuomo, the objective man of science, guided not by prejudice or preconceptions but by data and facts: “Don’t act because ‘I feel this, I feel that.’ . . . Forget the anecdotal, forget the atmospheric, forget the environmental, forget the emotional. Look at the data. Look at the measurements. Look at the science. Follow the facts,” he advised on May 18. “This is about facts and science and data. These decisions are being made as a matter of math. It’s numbers, it’s math . . . At a time of such division and politics and elections and all this garbage, this is an exercise in science and math.”
According to Cuomo, his decision to lock down the entire state and to impose on every New York county an arcane set of complicated benchmarks for reopening is not a policy decision, it’s dictated by science. Science, we are to believe, requires that every county have a 30 percent vacancy rate in its hospitals for both general beds and ICU beds, among six other complicated benchmarks, before its shoe repair and gardening stores can reopen. Never mind that even New York City had thousands of available beds at its worst moment of crisis—the breakdown of Elmhurst Hospital, a poorly run public facility in a high-immigrant, high-poverty Queens neighborhood. Three thousand five hundred hospital beds lay empty throughout the city, with two dozen new ambulances available to take patients to those beds, while hundreds of the sick languished without care at Elmhurst. Never mind that the hundreds of additional hospital beds that rapidly were constructed in the Javits Convention Center, in Central Park, and on a Navy hospital ship in April were never fully occupied.
Science, we are to believe, requires that Cuomo’s arbitrary benchmarks for reopening be enforced with a draconian sense of punctiliousness. On May 22, New York City had met most of the seven requirements. But it had only a 27 percent vacancy rate—as opposed to 30 percent—in its general hospital beds and a 28 percent vacancy rate—as opposed to 30 percent—in its ICU beds. No reopening for you!
Men of science reconsider their assumptions when evidence contradicts them. Not this man of science. On April 13, Cuomo stressed that the key to staying safe was barricading oneself indoors with one’s family: “If you isolate, if you take the precautions, your family won’t get infected.” On May 5, the state discovered the “shocking” news, in Cuomo’s words, that 66 percent of new hospital admissions had been people who were sheltering at home with their families, instead of being out and about and commuting to work.
This finding should not have been “shocking.” Ample data from China and Italy already showed that most transmissions are intrafamilial. It has also long been clear from the evidence that the risk of outdoor transmission is virtually zero. One study of 7,300 cases in China found one instance of outdoor transmission between two people talking to each other, or .01 percent of all cases. Infection depends on what Japan calls the three Cs: confined spaces, crowded places, and close contact.
By contrast, there is no place safer than wide-open, windswept space. It turns out that the mandate to stay cooped up indoors is the exact opposite of what people should do to avoid infection. But rather than urging New Yorkers to get out of their apartments and into the streets and parks for some healthy, fresh air, Cuomo has stayed resolutely silent about the nonexistent outdoor transmission rate. He also robotically continues to stress mask-wearing, making no distinction between indoors and outdoors. On May 23, he said: “I am telling you those masks can save your life. Those masks can save another person’s life.” As a result, about 98 percent of Manhattanites now wear masks outdoors and lunge away in terror if anyone unmasked is seen approaching at a distance. The outdoor mask is a brilliant Foucauldian mechanism to turn every citizen into an unpaid, walking billboard for the state’s message that we must stay afraid, very afraid.
The social-distancing rules embraced by Cuomo, other American politicians, and the official public health establishment are not mandated by science. The six-foot rule is arbitrary. The World Health Organization recommends one meter (or three feet). Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Finland ask for one meter of social distance; Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands, a meter and a half, according to the Telegraph. The larger the required distance, the harder it will be for many businesses, especially restaurants, to serve enough customers to stay afloat. But Cuomo, like other politicians and experts, remains committed to the six-foot rule.
It was not science that required New York State to send infected elderly patients discharged from hospitals back to nursing home facilities. It was not even, pace Cuomo, the CDC guidance for nursing home admissions, which only recommended that nursing homes follow their usual procedures for admitting hospital discharges, but said nothing about known infected dischargees.
It is not science that requires gatherings be limited to 10 people, whether they are indoors or outdoors, as Cuomo magnanimously announced on May 19 in anticipation of Memorial Day. The number is arbitrary. It is not science that says that grocery stores can stay open while tiny storefront enterprises that are lucky to see one customer every few hours must go out of business.
Cuomo is so confident in his powers of persuasion that he invokes the failure of coronavirus science in the past as a reason to dispense with human discretion now. On May 25, he said with preening humility: “I’m out of business [of making judgments] because we all failed. The models were all wrong” in predicting deaths by the millions. Cuomo was “out of the guessing business,” he said, and would rely on a mechanistic application of his seven-part metrics for reopening. But if the models were and continue to be wrong, that is an argument for exercising common sense. Ninety-one percent of all coronavirus deaths in New York State have been in New York City and its four surrounding counties, as of May 26. The remaining nine percent are spread over tens of thousands of square miles, with many counties having had less than half a dozen deaths. They should all reopen now with no preconditions.
For years, the Democratic party has portrayed itself as the party of science, as opposed to those red state rube politicians and voters. (The science of biological sex differences is another matter entirely, of course. Most elite progressives and Democrats are committed to the idea that a biological male can decide to be a female and vice versa.) The claim to be guided by science, as opposed to prejudice or passion, has only accelerated during the pandemic.
On April 19, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said to Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace that unlike Donald Trump, she was all about “science, science, science, evidence, data on how we should go forward.” On May 5, she tweeted that “science is our key to unlocking our country. The last thing we need is political interference into science.” Joe Biden admonished Donald Trump on May 3 for not masking in public: “I think it’s important to follow the science. Listen to the experts. Do what they tell you.”
Pundits on CNN and MSNBC daily echo these talking points about the need to follow the science and to stay locked down indefinitely.
Politics and leadership are about making prudential decisions that require trade-offs among competing interests. The public handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a policy disaster of unprecedented proportions that wiped out trillions of dollars of wealth and human capital almost overnight. None of those pandemic decisions were dictated by science; they were choices that incorporated a host of unspoken assumptions about the world, especially about the ability of the government to replace private economic activity.
Up to two-thirds of people who will die of COVID-19 this year would have died of another cause by the end of 2020 anyway, according to the Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson. Science has no answer for how to balance the value of prolonging their lives against the value of the lives that have been and will be lost because of deferred medical care and unemployment-induced poverty and despair. Science has no answer to the question of how to balance the value of averted COVID-19 deaths against the destruction of opportunity for hundreds of millions of young adults and low-income workers. Cuomo can try to hide behind “science,” but every day he is making an implicit trade-off between one set of interests and another, and affirmatively choosing to prolong the lockdown.
Cuomo is thus responsible (along with New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and other New York politicians) for the daily-diminishing chance that New York City will recover from its deliberately induced coma.
However much past policy decisions were taken in good faith, they must now be reversed for the sake of human life. To dodge political accountability by invoking science is not leadership, it is cowardice.