As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the digital stage at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, he was beaming. The governor was there to share his message of why America needs better leadership in a crisis — and used his own image as a competent governor who responded to what he inanely called the "European virus" pandemic as President Donald Trump should have — to make the case for a Joe Biden presidency.
However, the belief among Democrats (especially outside of New York) that Cuomo had anywhere near close to a perfect response to COVID-19 is factually incorrect. In truth, the governor’s response was not only bad, but arguably cost up to several thousand New Yorkers their lives.
First, it is important to understand the two major reasons that Cuomo has received such unearned accolades for his response to COVID-19: His public relations strategy, and the fact that the media and the public graded him and his response on a major curve by comparing him to Trump rather than assessing the results of that strategy on its own merits.
Cuomo’s approval ratings skyrocketed when he began having his daily briefings early in the pandemic, which were featured live on CNN and MSNBC at the time. Why? Because of the contrast between Cuomo’s briefings and Trump’s. Trump’s briefings were meandering grievance fests that neither provided new information nor presented ongoing important factual information (continue to social distance and wear masks) to a concerned public. So, when Cuomo acknowledged hard truths (that we were in for some dark days) and used PowerPoint presentations using actual statistics, people responded positively. (Some even went so far as to make Cuomo a sex symbol and labeled themselves “Cuomosexuals.”)
But what Cuomo did not do during his many reassuring briefings was discuss his mistakes, including in refusing to encourage (or force) New Yorkers to stay home in early to mid-March.
And he has yet to fully acknowledge what may turn out to be his most consequential mistake: using a memo from the Department of Health to force nursing homes to admit actively infectious COVID-19 patients to free up hospital beds for New Yorkers the state deemed more likely to survive. (While the order was in effect — it has since been rescinded — relatives of nursing home residents were not permitted to enter the facilities, in part to protect both themselves and the residents.)
The virus, of course, spread through New York’s nursing homes and over 6,500 residents died. While it is impossible to know exactly how many of these deaths were the direct result of this policy, it is clear that it was utterly dangerous and irresponsible to expose vulnerable populations to people who had the disease. It took almost two months before Cuomo changed the policy, but by then the damage was already done.
As the full scope and horror of what was unfolding in New York’s nursing homes became clear, the Cuomo administration began to focus its attention not on fixing the problem or admitting its mistake, but rather trying to make it disappear. The mandate that Cuomo's health department issued in March which made nursing homes unable to refuse to take in people who either had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 vanished from New York’s Department of Health website. Both Cuomo’s office and the Health Department declined to comment when asked about it.
Then, Cuomo sought to place the blame on Trump, seemingly believing that Trump's omnishambles response to the pandemic made him an easy target. The governor claimed that his nursing home policy was simply following “President Trump’s CDC guidance.” (This claim was denied by the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and PolitiFact rated it “mostly false.”)
Last month, the Cuomo administration released a report reiterating that it had done nothing wrong with its policy, and claiming that none of the New Yorkers who died in nursing homes were infected by the patients the governor ordered admitted to the homes, but rather by the health care workers who cared for them.
The report sparked blowback from elected officials and health experts because it cherry-picked statistics and did not count nursing home residents who died in hospitals. The Associated Press said that it had “fatal flaws” and could not meet the criteria to be published in a medical journal. (The AP also reported that the death count in New York’s nursing homes was likely severely undercounted.)
And in early August — as more and more questions were being asked about Cuomo’s calamitous nursing home policy — the governor swatted down calls for an independent investigation. He went even further and, in a Trump-like fashion (albeit a slightly more sophisticated one), suggested that any criticism of his response was politically motivated — even though many of those who raised questions were health experts, not Republicans.
But that's not all: In March, Cuomo had quietly slipped into the state budget major liability protections for companies from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not just try to emulate this — to liberals' dismay — but he copied Cuomo’s language verbatim in Republicans' own efforts at the federal level.
Cuomo somehow still maintained his fandom — and has now gotten a book deal to chronicle his "true leadership."
When it comes to Cuomo’s treatment of health workers and first responders, he has not exactly been worthy of praise or self-written hagiographies either. Not only did he and his administration attempt to scapegoat workers for the deaths of thousands of nursing home residents, he also decided to tax the selfless health care workers from out of state who answered the call to come to New York and save our fellow New Yorkers' lives.
So, yes, Cuomo was a refreshing and calming voice for the nation and the world when New York was seeing the worst impact of the virus. Yes, Cuomo was so much better than Trump in how he communicated during the crisis. However, none of that excuses his failures and wrongdoing in response to COVID-19, let alone his ongoing unwillingness to admit to any of them.
Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus response sucked less than Donald Trump’s, but at the end of the day it still was a failure and should be called such — not fêted at the Democratic National Convention.
CORRECTION (Aug. 18, 2020, 7:14 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the method used by the Cuomo administration to mandate that nursing homes admit COVID-19 patients to free up hospital beds. The mandate came in a memo from the New York State Department of Health, not in an executive order from the governor.