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Cuomo: New year could bring new reopenings, despite virus spike

Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (r) at his last COVID-19 briefing of the year on Dec. 30, 2020 with state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker.

As the new year begins, New York state leaders face two major challenges. One is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as infection rates spike again and a vaccine rollout begins. The second is the state’s related multibillion-dollar budget deficit, which needs to be closed by spring.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’s been given special emergency powers from the state Legislature during the pandemic, will likely continue to be the major figure as state officials try to bring down the coronavirus infection rate and ensure a fast and efficient rollout of the vaccine.

“2021 is going to be literally what we make of it,” said Cuomo. “We’re coming out of probably the most traumatic year that we’ve had in decades.”  

Cuomo is set to deliver his State of the State message on Jan. 6, and unlike in the past, it will be given without a large audience present, as most gatherings are banned in New York to curb the spread of the virus.

He’s already previewed some of his proposals. Cuomo said we can’t wait the six to nine months or longer that it could take for enough people to be vaccinated to reopen the economy.

On Dec. 30, he authorized a “pilot” program to allow about 6,700 masked, socially distanced Buffalo Bills fans to attend the team’s upcoming playoff game. They must agree to pay a fee of $63 to take a rapid coronavirus test before entering and provide information for contact tracing afterward.

The governor has received some blowback over the plan from critics who say other segments of society should have a higher priority for reopening.

But Cuomo said it’s not just about football.

“If it works there, can you do (New York City’s) Madison Square Garden?  Could you do a theater on Broadway? Could you do a certain capacity in a restaurant so restaurants could start to reopen safely?” Cuomo said. “That is the road that we are looking at.”

The governor said he also wants to help the state’s economy get back on track by extending eviction protections approved by the Legislature in late December so that they can also apply to small businesses unable to meet rent payments due to pandemic-related financial losses.  

The other major task facing state lawmakers is closing the multibillion-dollar budget deficit. The governor’s budget office places the gap at $8 billion; Cuomo said it could be closer to $15 billion.

More than 100 Democratic lawmakers, who hold the majority in both houses of the Legislature, have signed a petition to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents to help close the gap.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he’s ready to approve new income taxes on the richest New Yorkers as soon as possible. He’d even hoped to do it before the year ended, but a deal with the Democrats in the Senate and the governor never materialized.

“The members of the Assembly are perfectly fine raising revenues to help fill this budget gap,” Heastie said on Dec. 21. “At some point, we’re going to have to reconcile more than $10 billion or so of a budget hole.” 

Cuomo said taxes alone won’t be enough. He said spending cuts and borrowing would also be needed. He said he’d rather wait, though, to make any major decisions on the budget until President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. The governor hopes Biden can convince Congress to pass a financial aid package for states and local governments hit hard by the pandemic.

“I just hope Joe Biden gets in quickly, and sanity restores to the nation,” Cuomo said on Dec. 21. 

Other proposals for closing the budget gap include expanding sports betting and legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana, which could bring in revenue by taxing the sale of the drug.

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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