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Pandemic makes 2020 a year like none other in NYS

Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (r) with Rear Adm. John Mustin welcome the U.S. Naval Hospital Ship Comfort to New York City in March.

While many New Yorkers will be happy to put 2020 behind them, there’s no denying it was a year like no other. At the Capitol, the Legislature took a back seat as Gov. Andrew Cuomo gained power and popularity among residents who eagerly tuned in for his coronavirus briefings.

The year began with the governor following a decades-long tradition, giving a State of the State speech to a packed house of hundreds of guests, this year in the Capitol’s convention center.

“Happy New Year to all of you,” Cuomo said on Jan. 8 as the crowd applauded.

Things weren’t perfect. The state was already facing a budget deficit, there had been a vicious hate crime stabbing at a rabbi’s house, and extreme weather had left extensive flood damage along Lake Ontario. 

“It is going to be a challenging year,” Cuomo said.

But he, like everyone else, had no idea what was in store. No one was even talking about the coronavirus.

By early March, all of that had changed.

Cuomo began what would be the first of 111 continuous days of briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic, as New York became the worldwide epicenter of the coronavirus.

By March 20, all nonessential businesses in New York were closed.  Schools followed shortly afterward. In April, the death toll reached nearly 800 per day.

“The bad news isn’t just bad,” Cuomo said. “The bad news is actually terrible.”

His signature slide presentations, crammed with facts and figures, and his admonishments to the public to wear masks and behave safely filled a vacuum created by floundering federal leadership under President Donald Trump. The briefings were watched by millions of locked-down Americans hungry for a daily routine in what for many had become a suddenly unmoored life.

The governor’s popularity soared, the term “Cuomosexual” was coined, and the normally private governor opened up about his feelings and his family, including his relationship with his three daughters and their boyfriends.

“Advice to fathers: The answer on what you think of the boyfriend is always, 'I like the boyfriend,’ ” Cuomo said. “Always.”   

As COVID-19 cases subsided, Cuomo stopped doing daily briefings. But as the virus rate began spiking again in late fall, Cuomo resumed them three times a week -- this time on Zoom to reduce density in the briefing room.

The state legislature took a back seat to the governor in 2020, granting him sweeping special emergency powers to make decisions during the pandemic. But lawmakers did hold a few sessions -- mostly virtual -- including one in June.

They approved criminal justice measures in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, a death that sparked nationwide protests. The legislature outlawed police chokeholds, required state police to wear body cameras and repealed a legal provision that had been used to shield police disciplinary records from the public.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first woman and first African-American woman to lead the chamber, like Cuomo, also shared some personal stories.

Speaking on the Senate floor, she talked about how racism has affected every aspect of her life. Her father served in World War II in a segregated Army. Her brother quit a job as a transit cop because he did not like how black defendants were treated by the police. And her son, Stephen, was stopped and frisked at age 19 when he visited a white area of town. He ended up in the hospital, accused of resisting arrest.

“I met Stephen in the emergency room, with a fractured nose,” Stewart-Cousins said on the Senate floor on June 10. “Anybody knew that Stephen would never have resisted.”

The legislature returned one last time for the year, on Dec. 28, to strengthen tenant protections and extend a moratorium on evictions and property foreclosures for small landlords until May. 

Stewart-Cousins, delivering her end-of-the-year remarks, summed up the uncertainty that everyone is feeling about the future, saying no one expected the disruptions in 2020, when everything changed.  

“There will be a new year,” said Stewart-Cousins. “I don’t say that it can’t be worse because now I don’t know.”

She said whatever comes next, lawmakers will try to be ready.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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