New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has long had an uneasy relationship with both the media and the overwhelmingly Democratic residents of his state. He has let the vital New York City subway fall into ruin, actively connived with Republicans to give them control of the state Senate, and generally been a thorn in the side of anyone who wants to do anything good. But now, thanks to the novel coronavirus outbreak, suddenly everyone loves him. He's getting breathless (even lustful) media coverage, and his approval rating has jumped by 27 points.
Don't be fooled, though: Cuomo has royally messed up the coronavirus outbreak, just like he has everything else. If you want an example of effective crisis leadership, look to Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee.
To begin with, the numbers don't lie. New York state has thus far had the worst outbreak not just of any state, but of any place in the world. Its deaths have risen faster than any other sub-national region at an equivalent point in their outbreaks, even Lombardy, Italy and Madrid, Spain.
Many have pointed to the density of New York City, with its heavy reliance on public transportation and many international travelers, as one reason its outbreak spread so fast. But while it is surely easier for a virus to spread in such a place, this fails to explain why Hong Kong and Singapore, which are both comparably dense and internationally connected, and also much closer to the initial coronavirus outbreak, have not seen shattering numbers of cases.
Pandemic control measures work in dense cities just as they do in rural areas (which are not remotely immune to viral epidemics), and Cuomo was inexcusably lax in setting them up. New York had its first confirmed case on March 1, and its second on March 3, a "super-spreader" event who was linked to 28 more cases by March 6. But on that same day, Cuomo was still reminding people that more people were in the hospital from the flu than COVID-19. The state transit authority (which Cuomo controls) also informed its employees they would not be issued protective gear, and forbade them from wearing their own. On March 8, he said shutting down public transit was unnecessary. He did not start even moderate lockdown measures until March 12.
To be fair, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was also incredibly irresponsible about this. He also downplayed the virus' severity, dragged his feet on lockdown measures, and was still going to the gym on March 16. But that, in turn, points to the horrible relationship between the governor and the mayor, which is about three-quarters Cuomo's fault. De Blasio is an incompetent nincompoop, but Cuomo is a vicious political backstabber who seems to take great personal delight in needling de Blasio, starting pissing matches with him, and obstructing his agenda out of pure spite. Now, when a working relationship between the two most important authorities in New York could not be more important, that childish pique is taking its toll.
Now that the outbreak is extremely bad, New York's hospitals are being overwhelmed. Few are more responsible for this than Cuomo, who has relentlessly hacked away at his state's hospital capacity during his terms as governor. He pushed through repeated cuts to the state's funding of Medicaid and vetoed a funding increase, which helped bankrupt several hospitals that served New York's poorest residents. Several of them were subsequently turned into luxury housing developments, which was probably half the point. In sum, the state has lost about 20,000 hospital beds since 2000 — a trend that predated Cuomo but kept going under his watch. Even today Cuomo is still trying to push further Medicaid cuts, as hospitals face a completely unprecedented onslaught of work and costs.
Yet for the last few weeks, Cuomo has been holding daily televised updates about the progress of the outbreak in New York. His clear warnings about the dangers of mass death, and the obvious contrast between him and President Trump's daily buffoonery, have made these briefings ripe for media pickup and must-watch viewing for many Americans who are desperate for information. But no amount of showmanship now will make up for the early delays that set New York on its current trajectory.
Returning to the above chart, Washington state, despite being the site of the earliest cluster of confirmed cases in the U.S., has contained its outbreak better than any state, and many other sub-national regions as well. This simply must be because Governor Inslee started testing earlier, implemented clampdown measures earlier, and tightened them earlier. By late February it was clear that Washington would suffer a serious outbreak, and Inslee declared a state of emergency on the same day, Feb. 29, that the state recorded its first COVID-19 death. Working closely with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Inslee first strongly encouraged people to avoid groups and stay at home, then started requiring them to do so in early March. The state set up a command center to coordinate the overall response and direct resources to where they were most needed, and Inslee began regular briefings to inform the public about what was going on.
A month later, Washington has less than a tenth as many cases as New York, and its hospitals have so far been strained but not overwhelmed. It easily could have been just as bad — Washington is only somewhat smaller than Lombardy, where the devastating Italian outbreak has been centered. As we have learned over and over and over, quick action is absolutely vital when it comes to containing the coronavirus.
Now, Inslee was lucky to have access to the world-class medical research centers of the University of Washington system, and the bottomless pockets of Bill Gates, who has provided a lot of resources and assistance to the state. Even his efforts fell far short of Taiwan's or Vietnam's, which actually squelched their outbreaks almost entirely. But on the other hand, Inslee was and is seriously hampered by the lack of a coordinated federal response. With the doddering lunatic Donald Trump in the White House, Washington state is heavily limited in what it can do — and yet has managed better than many European cities.
This is what competence looks like: not some faux-macho media hound going on television a lot, but careful, agile governance informed by the best available information. Inslee may not get such an approval bump from role-playing as the Important Leader, but his quick work saved thousands of lives.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.