At some point in the past several days, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press updates in Albany have become must-see TV. And not just for New Yorkers.
Fox News is even cutting off discussion with guest experts on the coronavirus pandemic to go live with Cuomo’s press conferences. Certainly, there’s news value in the updates — New York City and its immediate suburbs are the hardest hit by infection in the U.S., ground zero for COVID-19. How the city and New York state are reacting to and handling the outbreak is being watched by the nation, as states and cities elsewhere are seeking clues and maybe even some guidance on how to proceed against this insidious virus.
But Cuomo isn’t simply using his daily news conferences to cite facts and figures to New Yorkers, whose lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic. With the economy at a devastating standstill, with schools closed and so many people idled at home — and with a virulent sickness stalking our unprepared society — the governor is offering encouragement and hope.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had his “Fireside Chats” over the radio, giving comfort and easing anxiety during the Great Depression. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is channeling something similar and is taking time each day with “look at the bright side” messages — even as the message is sometimes fractured and unsteady from the White House.
That’s heady stuff, even suggesting a comparison with FDR, but these are unprecedented times.
In Monday’s briefing, the governor observed, “We are going to have time. And the question is how do we use this time positively?”
He spoke of finding the silver lining while living a quieter life for the next several weeks. He also noted he has the opportunity to spend almost unlimited time with his daughter, Cara, while she volunteers in his office during the COVID-19 crisis.
“She would never be here otherwise. But I’m now going to be with Cara literally for a few months. What a beautiful gift that is, right?” Cuomo said. “I would have never had that chance. And that is precious, and then after this is over she’s gone, she’s flown the nest. She’s going to go do her thing, but this crazy situation, as crazy as it is, came with this beautiful gift. So one door closes, another door opens. Think about that.”
For my part I know exactly what he means, as our son Sam has been back in the house, trying to teach his high school students from a couch on his laptop. The past several days have been busy — God, have they been busy — but we’ve shared some moments the past several days that we wouldn’t have had in normal circumstances.
As Cuomo suggests, a silver lining.
The governor also took a few moments Monday to even look ahead, speculating aloud what it might look like for the state to begin putting its economy back together — even before infections are completely contained.
“It is unsustainable to run this state or run this country with the economy closed down,” he said. “There has to be a balance.”
Cuomo said he and his administration have begun considering who might be able to return to work sooner than later — possibly younger, healthier people. He said the state could also start testing people widely to determine if they’ve been infected with the virus and recovered on their own. It’s possible those individuals could get back to their routines sooner, as well.
Such policies might make more sense for overall public health anyway. The governor asked rhetorically if it’s indeed wise to, say, keep potentially infectious schoolchildren at home with elderly grandparents.
Those words were likely to result in some backlash, as there are many New Yorkers, particularly in Upstate, who believe the ever-escalating measures to combat the virus have been too extreme, putting far too many out of work. And, with financial storm clouds looming even before the COVID-19 disaster, Cuomo is going to rue his far-left veer in recent years and failure to address a more than $6 billion budget shortfall.
The governor said he has no second thoughts about any of the strict limits he imposed last week.
“I’m sure there will be political consequences,” he said. “I know people are very angry about it. … I did the right thing. I’m proud of it.”
To be fair, it’s not as if there is a pandemic playbook from which to work. In the weeks of the crisis, the governor has acted decisively and calmly, setting an example of leadership that has been noted not just in the Empire State but throughout the nation.
Cuomo is helped by the fact that he has willing partners in the Democrat-controlled Statehouse — his counterpart in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, has faced far more opposition and complaint over very similar measures to fight the spread of the virus. It’s true also that Pennsylvania hasn’t yet seen the number of infections that New York has experienced.
In any case, Cuomo has handled himself well in facing almost impossible — and certainly unprecedented — decisions.
As governor of New York, Cuomo has always aspired to a more prominent national profile in the Democratic Party. Through the forge of crisis, today he has one.
(Jim Eckstrom is editor of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Publishing Co; firstname.lastname@example.org.)