NEW YORK – New York City’s top health officials watched the flu warning signs and didn’t like what they saw: a massive, Late season peak in Influenza-like diseases that showed worrying aberration.
On March 10, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot went to City Hall to share the results with Mayor Bill de Blasio and urge him to take more drastic measures to combat the spread of the corona virus, which has claimed 450 lives in New York City since then. De Blasio resisted, believing that the closure of schools, restaurants, and cultural centers would paralyze the city’s economy and disproportionately hurt the marginalized residents he wanted to prioritize.
What followed was a week of mixed messages, delayed decisions and feuds that escalated into what one person among city officials called “war,” while the federal government of New York and governor Andrew Cuomo refused critical aid on whether to mandate draconians.
A week later, the mayor followed most of Barbot’s advice after going through a decision-making process that stakeholders described as tense, tedious, and conflict-ridden. While he huddled with top helpers in the town hall and grappled with coping with the biggest crisis of his term, the residents of one of the most densely populated cities in the country continued to crowd in subway cars, dined in restaurants and came to their bars Waterholes – something that de Blasio encouraged only hours before it closed on March 15th.
New York City is now the zero point of a global catastrophe that few have experienced – one that de Blasio has placed in the national limelight, exposed his management vulnerability and threatens to undermine the legacy he has built over the past six years . In addition, the virus shows no signs of waning soon.
“I think afterwards we thought about the various shutdown steps for too long,” said City Council member Mark Levine, chairman of the health committee, in an interview. “We run against the clock to slow the spread, and even a day or two can change the trajectory.”
The virus was reported first in New York City on March 1, when a healthcare worker infected with Iran showed symptoms after his return. At this point, the alarm bells had already started ringing and would become deafening in the following weeks.
“You will probably get the corona virus.” warned the headline a February 24 story in The Atlantic quoting a professor of epidemiology at Harvard who predicted that up to 70 percent of the world’s population would be infected within the year.
City Council member Steve Levin read the article horrified and warned “everyone who would listen, including members of the administration,” he said in an interview. “I mean, I told the cops outside [City Hall] on the metal detectors. “
Levin said he turned to de Blasio’s chief of staff, Emma Wolfe, who was promoted to deputy mayor last week as she helps guide the city’s response. “She insisted that we understand it. We know what’s going to happen, ”said Levin. In fact, she was so enthusiastic about the response to the virus that she wiped it off when he spoke to her about another topic in the first week of March and said she couldn’t focus on anything else, he added.
De Blasio showed less urgency.
“I caught him walking by and he was listening,” said Levin. When asked how the mayor had reacted, he paused to choose his words carefully. “You know, it was him, I think – in the sense of” I hear you, “” he said, declining to go into detail.
In the meantime, city health officials watched emergency rooms for possible coronavirus cases explode – 1,156 patients complained of flu-like symptoms on March 12, compared to no more than 422 on a particular day in March last year. The Wall Street Journal reported.
But de Blasio was determined that life in the city would continue.
He and senior health officials fought during lengthy planning meetings in City Hall after several reports from sources with knowledge of the interactions and published reports. The strife had lasted for years – several current and former city officials said he had long distrusted the top brass of the Ministry of Health because he felt he didn’t understand politics and public relations, and mistreated an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2016.
“He certainly has no confidence in his field of commissioners and senior officials from the agency,” said a former city hall official this week. “If an agency expert says to him,” Mayor, that’s what happens, “instead of granting that truth and acting on it, he’ll laboriously poke around at that opinion for hours and bump into it.”
Another ex-adjutant said de Blasio had concerns about government bureaucrats, pundits, and what he saw as “gossiping”, especially when the gossip criticized his leadership.
To this end, de Blasio kept the schools open for days after parents, teachers, and members of his own administration asked him to shut them down, and sparked a feud with the teachers’ union, which died this week after a 36-year-old schoolmaster chastised by the health department on the corona virus.
Three city officials familiar with his decision-making process said he was relying on advice from Mitchell Katz, the city’s public hospital director, who feared that school closures would affect hospital staff in an emergency. De Blasio was also concerned about the one-sided impact on low-income students and single parents.
He insisted that the schools remain open during the television interviews on the morning of March 15, although he was preparing to announce a system-wide closure later in the day.
“You know I hated closing schools. I thought it would cause all sorts of other problems, and of course it does, ”said de Blasio during a radio interview on Friday morning. Governor Andrew Cuomo who was granted public hero status During this crisis, he similarly reversed his attitude to school closure within a few hours this Sunday.
He and de Blasio also disagreed over whether New Yorkers should demand “local protection,” a semantic argument that went on for days when the residents were left without clear instructions. De Blasio called for politics earlier than Cuomo and at the same time signaled confusion about its implementation.
“What will happen to people who have no money? How will you get food? How do you get medication? ” he asked during a press conference on March 17th. “There are many unanswered questions.”
In another example of his mixed messaging, he said he would make a “first attempt” to reopen the schools by April 20, while at the same time President Donald Trump’s efforts to bring the companies back by Easter, which falls on April 12 , as “false hope”. ”
Yes, go on Freitag de Blasio tweeted April 5 is “the day the stress we are currently seeing on healthcare and staff could overwhelm us if we don’t get the help we need.” This is a race against time. “
De Blasio spent Think days The question of whether the St. Patrick’s Day parade should be canceled even after other cities had canceled the parade, according to several government officials, did not provide clear instructions for a communal work-from-home policy and argued with library officials who left their branches wanted to close before he was ready.
And in his most ridiculous movement, he went to the gym the morning after the schools closed when the guidelines for “social distancing” came into force and the fitness centers were preparing to close that evening.
Perhaps more importantly, his government’s guidance on testing the virus was inconsistent, as was its tone regarding its severity.
Shortly after the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, the mayor was asked to respond to the expected recommendations on possible quarantine.
“I think at this point we can say that we are looking at all the guidelines, but with a certain trustful but verified worldview,” he said.
He also said the city’s hospitals are ready for an influx of patients. “We have 1,200 beds that we can easily activate,” he said on March 8. “Just the fact that you turn off a lot of insignificant things and turn all that talent and capacity into a crisis should do something for New Yorkers.” We are very confident that we can handle it in hundreds of cases. “
The New York Times this week recorded the nightmarish scenes from one of the city’s public hospitals, where 13 people died in one day.
In private, people in the town hall asked whether de Blasio’s week of late action put people at risk.
A council member expressed these concerns publicly“By not disclosing virus cases in schools, they kept families in the dark and put more lives at risk,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of the education committee, in response to the headmaster’s death.
Mayor spokesman Freddi Goldstein said the city hospitals and health department had supplies of protective equipment, but she declined to provide information about the amount of supplies available when the first case was confirmed on March 1. De Blasio has asked the federal government to provide 15,000 ventilators, 3 million masks, 45 million gloves, robes and face protection, 500,000 goggles and another 50 million surgical masks.
“It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and have an opinion,” she said. “The mayor is responsible for 8.6 million New Yorkers. He has to think about their safety, their livelihood, their education. Every decision he made was deliberate and thoughtful. You need that in a crisis. “
A public health official who has long advised de Blasio and is part of high-level instruction on the plans of the administration defended his style of government.
“It was hours and hours of detailed questions,” said Irwin Redlener, doctor and director of the National Center for Disaster Reduction, in a recent interview. “When someone gave him general information, he said vigorously and aggressively:” I don’t want that. I want the details, I want the numbers. “
“I was pretty impressed,” he added. “I was a little intimidated because he was very demanding in a reasonable way.”
Redlener said he would have preferred to act more quickly against the closure of public spaces, but the mayor tried to explain a mountain of consequences – relapsed students, job losses, economic devastation – and at the same time saw an “agonizing” lack of clarity on the part of the federal government towards government.
But even this week, de Blasio, who likes to offer “blunt truths”, expressed uncertainty about whether public playgrounds should be closed. “If we believe people abide by the rules, we leave them open. If we think otherwise, we will close them, ”he said on Friday. Meanwhile, City officials have started posting Signs “Play at your own risk”.
While de Blasio worked from City Hall, his top helpers, who monitored the response, were huddled for weeks at the Brooklyn Emergency Management Office, where city officials work shifts in a 40-person room that serves as the command center. The agreement ensures that de Blasio is physically separated from its first deputy mayor, Dean Fuleihan, who would take over the city if de Blasio couldn’t serve, and has recently started working from his apartment.
The team relies on a pandemic response plan previously drawn up by the emergency department, although a workshop hosted by the city’s hospital authority in late 2018 to investigate the effects of a worldwide bird flu outbreak drew disturbing conclusions: “The workshop raised shows how quickly such an outbreak could overwhelm the city’s health system ” The Greater New York Hospital Association wrote in a press release to its members.
Former OEM commissioner Joe Esposito, who was released by de Blasio more than a year ago, defended his former boss and said in an interview this week, “I’m not sure I would have done anything differently.”
As the days passed and New Yorkers indefinitely settled into new routines, de Blasio’s messages had become clearer and much worse.
He has spent up to three hours a day preparing for his daily press conference, which often takes place in front of the public around 5 p.m. after Cuomo has already spoken to the New Yorkers in briefings that kick off the day’s news cycle and attract a loyal following Has.
“[De Blasio] continues to use this war analogy. He doesn’t seem to be a general. He seems to be writing a book about the general. Cuomo appears to be a general, ”said a former city hall official.
On Friday, the mayor let out his frustration with the ordeal.
“This whole godforsaken experience was a learning curve,” he said in his weekly radio interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Teacher Show.” “None of us went through this.”
Dan Goldberg contributed to this report.