Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday delivered a grim statement, mixing resolve and regret. Offering himself as a kind of regional leader in the — supposed — absence of federal direction, he announced, somewhat lugubriously, that he would close bars, restaurants, gyms and casinos around New York state in order to retard the spread of the coronavirus.
Call it his Rudy-at-9/11 act.
Cuomo said he worked in conjunction with the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut — casting himself, naturally, as a first among equals — to prevent what he called a “wave” of desperately sick people poised to overwhelm the state’s hospital capacity and health system, resulting in “people on gurneys in hallways,” presumably suffocating to death for a lack of ventilators.
It’s refreshing to see the governor stepping up to the plate and taking decisive steps. Shutting down schools downstate, and bars and restaurants statewide, is probably the best course of action, as New York prepares for an influx of desperately sick people into its intensive care units.
Cuomo’s bold action stands in strong distinction to the dithering of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose flip-flops on closures over the last week — which he describes as proof of his timeliness and flexible leadership — really just demonstrate the extent to which Hizzoner is just blowing in the wind, with no compass to guide his actions.
Last Friday, de Blasio announced that he wouldn’t close the schools, largely because he wanted to preserve the free meals they provide to poor kids — an important social service, but one that could surely be worked around. Then, on Sunday night, having reversed direction — following news that the governor was planning to close the schools himself — de Blasio cracked jokes about the importance of keeping bars and restaurants open. “If you love your neighborhood bar, and it’s less than 50 percent occupancy, go there now, only briefly — and socially distance,” he chuckled.
Only two hours later, apparently hearing that the governor was preparing to shut down bars and restaurants statewide, the mayor flipped and announced that they would have to close early Tuesday morning.
Cuomo is certainly looking more steadfast than de Blasio, though that’s a pretty low bar for Churchillian postures of leadership. But at the same time that the governor is trying to make the coronavirus crisis his 9/11 moment, he is hedging his bets by pointing his fingers and playing a familiar blame game versus President Trump, his favorite bête noire.
The governor claims that, in a vacuum of federal rules, people will begin “state shopping” to find a place with the laxest regulations. “This is a national problem … you need federal parameters to stop the national patchwork of density-reduction closings.” Otherwise, Cuomo continued, “if you don’t like the rules in New York, you can go to Pennsylvania; you don’t like what California is doing, then you can come to New York.” This lack of federal guidelines, says the governor, will inevitably lead to “chaos.”
Now, it may be true that people will relocate households or businesses from one state to another for tax or regulatory reasons, but it is preposterous to imagine that someone in California who wants to be able to eat a sit-down restaurant meal or send her child to school is going to move across the country in the middle of a pandemic for that reason.
Plus, contrary to what Cuomo says, federal guidelines were already there: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended that all gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled or postponed and encouraged businesses to establish off-site work protocols where possible.
The governor points out that cities are subordinate to states, and his say-so overrides the word of local mayors. Cuomo suggests that the same dynamic works on the federal level, and that the national government can overrule the states.
But this, as he well knows, is false. Constitutionally, states, unlike cities, are sovereign entities. For the president to order bars and gyms to close would be an unprecedented use of executive authority and would make him a dictator.
Gov. Cuomo is acting like a real leader — almost. Let’s have more evidence-based action, and less noise.
Seth Barron is associate editor of City Journal.
Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images