New York state was a bad place to be living when the pandemic hit. A magnet for incoming travelers from the world’s earlier coronavirus hot spots, the state was too slow to shut down public spaces while the virus spread rapidly in March, a delay exacerbated by public bickering between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Cuomo’s decision to have hospitals send some COVID-positive nursing home patients back to their care facilities apparently worsened the state’s outbreak as well; ultimately, New York has had the second-highest number of COVID-19 fatalities per capita of any state, trailing only New Jersey.
Cuomo’s popularity nonetheless surged during the crisis, both in his own state and nationally. He was celebrated for the daily press briefings in which he used emphatic language and visual aids to give statistical updates and public health advice—a seeming embrace of proactive, fact-based governing that many found especially refreshing in comparison with then-President Donald Trump’s rambling, reality-averse, erratically held White House press sessions. The results may not have always been there, Cuomo’s fans seemed to be reasoning, but at least he was embodying the right values.
But Cuomo, in many cases, embodies those values only when the cameras are on. In March, he appeared in front of a display of New York state–branded hand sanitizer and announced that his people had come up with a method of making the product that was cheaper than anything being done on the open market; it turned out that the state was, in fact, actually just buying the sanitizer from an outside vendor and putting it into bottles that said “New York” on them. He declared that the New York City subway needed to be shut down for hours every night to be disinfected, a disruptive policy that still persists even though infectious disease experts concluded months ago that the coronavirus does not spread in an appreciable way on public surfaces. Pressed in November on what kind of evidence he was using to justify the continued closure, Cuomo’s office referred a reporter to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which could not provide any. This week, one of Cuomo’s top aides tried to rebut a New York Times story about his hostility to health experts by telling legislators that the governor “speaks on a regular basis” to a prominent epidemiologist named Michael Osterholm, whom she described as one of his “chief advisors.” On Thursday, Osterholm told PBS that, although he has reviewed data for the state government, he has only spoken to Cuomo for “one five-minute conversation my entire life.”
Most concerningly, Cuomo’s administration admitted this month that it had been excluding nursing home residents who died of COVID but didn’t technically die on the grounds of their facilities from its official count of COVID-related nursing home deaths. Since many such residents died only after being hospitalized, this had the effect of making the state’s nursing home outbreak look thousands of deaths smaller than it actually was. Cuomo’s office appears to have compiled the more comprehensive, accurate data months ago but didn’t release it until the state’s attorney general—who is elected independently of the governor—issued a Jan. 28 report alleging that nursing home deaths had been undercounted. (It does not look like the discrepancy could have resulted from innocent semantic misunderstandings: A representative of the data team that manages the AARP Public Policy Institute’s Nursing Home COVID-19 dashboard noted to Slate that “CDC guidance for the data we use in our dashboard specifically states that resident deaths are supposed to be counted regardless of the place of death,” while the managing editor of the COVID Tracking Project said its staff is “not currently aware of any other US state or territory that reports deaths associated with nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities in the way that New York did for most of the pandemic.”)
His press conference performances notwithstanding, the facts and evidence show that Cuomo is not someone who cares much about facts and evidence. But his liberal supporters don’t care: A Siena College poll taken after the nursing home scandal broke found that 83 percent of New York Democrats still approve of Cuomo’s handling of COVID, with more than 80 percent also saying specifically that they approve of his work “communicating with the people of New York” and “providing accurate information.” To hammer home the cognitive dissonance, only 54 percent said he’d done a good job “making public all data about COVID-related deaths of nursing home patients,” which suggests both that 54 percent of New York Democrats are full of it and that a significant portion of the rest of them know Cuomo is full of it but don’t care. To many voters, celebrating the idea of the competent blue-state governor is more important than reckoning with the reality of a serially underachieving chief executive playing three-card monte with dead bodies. At this point, Andrew Cuomo could probably shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.