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My Front-Row View of Andrew Cuomo's Coronavirus Briefings

My Front-Row View of Andrew Cuomo's Coronavirus
Briefings 1

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ALBANY, N.Y. — For years, reporters covering Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo often shared the same complaints: We wanted more time with the governor. He didn’t make himself available enough.

Be careful what you wish for.

For more than three months, Mr. Cuomo has daily held a news conference about the state’s response to the coronavirus. Those briefings come to an end on Friday. For many of those, I have occupied a front-row seat in the New York State Capitol’s ornate Red Room, lobbing questions, taking notes and consulting a raft of legal pads that I array around me like bathmats. 

Even when the governor goes on the road to hold a briefing, I still bear witness by watching the live video and tweeting out details from my kitchen or backyard. In recent weeks, the conferences have morphed to also address the nation’s racial reckoning, ignited after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Those twin crises pushed Mr. Cuomo’s streak past the century mark last Monday, a feat of either political endurance or oh-my-God overkill, depending on your taste for the governor, a third-term Democrat. Either way, 100 straight days of news conferences make the pace of F.D.R.’s fireside chats — some 30 of which were broadcast during the Great Depression and World War II — seem downright languorous.

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I have covered Mr. Cuomo for seven years as The Times’s Albany bureau chief and a statehouse reporter, during which time the governor has twice won re-election and more than once disagreed with my reporting and that of my colleagues. And after all that time, I was pretty confident I knew the man: The governor’s reputation was of a pure political pragmatist with an ironclad grip on Albany’s levers of power. And that was just what his friends said.

Then, the coronavirus hit. And suddenly the very characteristics that had been criticisms of the governor — his micromanaging, his meddling in local affairs and his sometimes paternalistic preaching — became evidence to some television viewers, particularly those unaccustomed to Mr. Cuomo, of calm, control and compassion.

His poll numbers and national profile soared, even as the scope of the epidemic and questions about his handling of it grew: Was New York too slow to close down? Was his administration’s guidance on nursing homes fatally flawed? Can a state with more than 30,000 deaths claim success?

Definitive answers won’t be known for years, but one thing is clear: His marathon media appearances both intensified my focus on Mr. Cuomo and deepened my understanding of him.

Watching him early on in the pandemic, I saw the same assured and sometimes combative politician. But as the weeks passed, and the streak continued, a more human Mr. Cuomo emerged. He spoke with empathy about the loss of life and the courage of front-line workers. He worried aloud about his family, including his mother, his three daughters, and his brother Chris Cuomo, a television anchor who contracted the coronavirus.

And while the governor insisted he was merely relating news and data — if you took a drink every time he said “facts,” you’d be sloshed by noon — he also pleaded for collective good will, finding some of the common-prayer poetry mastered by his father, the former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

“This diverse community of New York, people from all over the globe, different languages, we acted as one,” he said on May 30. “Many of those people gave their lives for us during that time. They gave their lives because we asked them to show up for us. And they did.”

Some of this might have smacked of political grandstanding, but I thought the pleas for unity and understanding seemed genuine.

It seemed telling, too, that he quoted famous thinkers — Lincoln, Maya Angelou — letting them lend him gravitas. His own truisms he sneaked into briefings by quoting a person who didn’t exist, A.J. Parkinson, an inside joke and old trick of his father’s, but also a tactic I found revealing: Here was a man who wanted to make maxims, but didn’t necessarily want to be credited — or criticized — for trying to sound profound.

The press conferences also illustrated the governor’s sometimes hot-and-cold political style. Like his father’s, Mr. Cuomo’s time in the limelight has led to talk of presidential ambitions, something he has consistently denied. Except when he is feeding such rumors by opining on big issues: calling for federal legislation, touting his own past experience in Washington and presenting himself as a principled opponent to President Trump. Over and over, he said he didn’t want to fight or play politics. Except when he did.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 16, 2020

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


2020 seems to have offered Mr. Cuomo what many politicians crave: a national platform, without the messiness of a national campaign.

The daily briefings also reinforced some of Mr. Cuomo’s personality and rhetorical tics — bingo cards and parodies have been made — as well as his dismissive approach toward questions and questioners he doesn’t like. Like many politicians, Mr. Cuomo strives to be familiar and friendly with reporters, using their first names and joshing about things like baloney. With stakes and stresses high, the back-and-forth between Mr. Cuomo and the Albany press corps, including me, sometimes got chippy.

“This is why words matter, Jesse,” Mr. Cuomo said to me one day in March, during an exchange over a shelter-in-place order, a phrase he disliked. As a writer, mind you, I already knew that.

And as the M.C. of his daily show, Mr. Cuomo was allowed to decide whom to answer and whom to ignore. The only day in Albany I didn’t get a question in happened to come a day after I wrote a critical story about his casting of blame on others.

As the state’s coronavirus crisis passes into recovery, and the daily news value of the conferences has dimmed, Mr. Cuomo’s remarkable run is coming to a close. Last week, with just a smattering of reporters on hand and the cable networks no longer broadcasting his words, Mr. Cuomo struck a reflective tone.

“It’s a time worth pausing to look at all the progress we’ve made, thank all the people who’ve worked so hard,” he said, adding, “It’s been a long 101 days, but it has also been extraordinary in many ways.”

On that point I couldn’t agree more.

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