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Cuomo's political fortunes rise & fall in year 1 of pandemic

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Dan Clark / WMHT
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Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the first confirmed coronavirus case in New York. Since then, over 38,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 and more than 1.5 million who were sickened. At this point last year, though, nobody imagined what was in store.

On the evening of March 1, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a press release, announcing that a case of COVID-19 had been found in New York. 

He said nobody should worry, adding that there was “no reason for undue anxiety” and that the risk to the general public was low in New York. He said he and his team were on top of the situation. 

The next day, Cuomo held a coronavirus briefing, beginning what would become a daily ritual for the next 100 days. The governor, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, top hospital executives and media crowded into the small room. He also began what would come to be a tradition in the briefings -- offering anecdotes about his family members to make his points.

He said his daughter called him to say that she was nervous about news of the virus and wanted to know the facts of what was going on.

“So I want to make sure I tell the people of New York what I told my daughter. In this situation, the facts defeat fear. Because the reality is reassuring,” Cuomo said. “First of all, this is not our first rodeo with this type of situation in New York.”

But the ride, of course, was much rougher than Cuomo or anyone imagined.  

By March 15, the state had over 750 cases. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were canceled. By the end of the month, Cuomo, after initially hesitating for several days, ordered a shutdown of the economy and schools. College students were told not to return after spring break.

By early April, over 18,000 people were in the hospital and some wards were overloaded. The governor and his staff desperately searched world markets for more ventilators. Nearly 800 people were dying each day.

“The bad news isn’t just bad,” Cuomo said on April 8. “The bad news is actually terrible.”

Masks in public became mandatory. Cuomo wrote a book about his management of the pandemic and won an Emmy for his briefings.

In June, with the infection rate slowing, many New Yorkers took to the streets as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, incensed over the treatment and killing of African Americans by police. The State Legislature passed reforms, including banning chokeholds during arrests and opening up police disciplinary records to the public.  

By summer, the economy had opened up a bit and restaurants were trying to stay afloat, through outdoor dining and take-out. Jason Pierce of the Savoy Tap Room in Albany spoke at the end of October.

“A month from now, two months from now, when the snow is flying, the weather is subzero,” Pierce said. “What’s going to happen?”  

For now, the restaurant -- along with many others across the state -- is offering a takeout and delivery-only menu. Such limited options did not bring in enough business for the many restaurants that closed for good over the winter.

About 2.6 million New Yorkers lost their jobs during the pandemic’s first year and the state’s antiquated unemployment system struggled to keep up. Recent unemployment numbers say about three-quarters of a million New Yorkers are still out of work. Some jobs have returned, but others are gone for good.  

Cuomo’s political fortunes, like the path of the virus, have risen and fallen throughout the past year.   

The governor’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic had been questioned early on, and state lawmakers and some families of residents who died of COVID-19 pressed for the release of the number of residents who died in hospitals. Months later, Cuomo’s health commissioner continued to say he was still compiling the numbers.

Then, in late January, Attorney General Letitia James released a report that found the Cuomo administration had undercounted the deaths by 50%. Data released since then by the health department show that to be true. The matter is now the subject of a federal investigation.  

Cuomo took responsibility for an information vacuum, but didn’t exactly say he was sorry for keeping the numbers quiet.

“Apologize?” Cuomo said. “Look, I have said repeatedly we made a mistake in creating the void.”

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been rocky, with seniors and essential workers, who are among the first in line, spending hours on the internet competing for limited appointments on sites that often crash.

Cuomo is also facing allegations that he sexually harassed two former aides, something he denies. He said he is “truly sorry” if his remarks created any unintentional misunderstandings. The attorney general is launching an investigation with subpoena powers.

On Feb. 24, when the charges were first made public, Cuomo canceled a scheduled coronavirus briefing. He has released the daily figures on the infection rate and number of New Yorkers who have died. But the governor, with his political future in potential jeopardy, has not held a public coronavirus briefing since.

One year into the health crisis, the virus is once again on the decline, and more state residents are getting vaccinated. Most hope that by next March, the pandemic will be in the rearview mirror.

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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