Call it The Cuomo Show.
Since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in New York State on March 1, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s much-anticipated daily news briefings on the latest efforts to combat the pandemic have catapulted the governor into the national spotlight as the New York Metro area became one of the hardest-hit COVID-19 hotspots in the world. Like any good show, sometimes the briefings are comical, other times they’re controversial, there are high-profile cameos — and viewers are always talking about it afterward.
“Your daily press conferences have become must-see TV for a lot of people,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is helping to coordinate the state’s coronavirus tracing program, told Cuomo on April 30 while teleconferencing into a recent briefing.
Don’t bother calling anyone between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., some say. They’ll be busy watching Cuomo for news on the case rate, school closures, and economic reopening. For his part, Cuomo regularly likens himself to Sgt. Joe Friday, the fictional detective from the 1950s TV series Dragnet, who’s oft-quoted catchphrase was “Just the facts, ma’am.”
“My daughter says nobody understands who Joe Friday is,” Cuomo said in one of his April briefings after again showing a black-and-white picture of the TV detective during the slide show that accompanies the governor’s briefings. “That’s their mistake. Dragnet was an underappreciated cinematic treasure, in my opinion.”
The governor’s not alone in his persistence with the daily briefings. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has been holding live-streamed video conference calls with reporters for the past two months, even for a few weeks while quarantined in his own home after coming in contact with top aides who were diagnosed with COVID-19. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has been holding briefings six days a week, taking Sundays off. And President Donald Trump has been holding near-daily news briefings on the topic, although he took a brief break after stirring controversy by saying “it would be interesting to check” if disinfectants could be injected inside people with the virus — a comment he later said was sarcasm.
Of course, while Curran and Bellone have nothing but praise for the governor, who’s a fellow Democrat, the contentious relationship between Cuomo and Trump, a Republican — both Queens natives — has at times boiled over on national television in real time.
SPOILING FOR A FIGHT
A flashpoint in the briefings came on April 17, when Trump criticized Cuomo on Twitter during the governor’s news conference and a reporter in attendance read the president’s tweet aloud so Cuomo could respond.
“Governor Cuomo should spend more time ‘doing’ and less time ‘complaining,’” Trump wrote. “Get out there and get the job done. Stop talking!”
Cuomo, who had said days earlier that he would not engage the often combative president in a fight that would be a distraction from solving the deadly health crisis that they’re facing, took the bait.
“If he’s sitting home watching TV, maybe he should get up and go to work,” Cuomo replied in a response that went on for nearly 20 minutes, with the governor, knowing the president was watching, taking the unusual step of speaking directly at the camera.
Although the two later met at the White House to discuss response efforts — off camera — a sticking point has been the Empire State’s requests for more federal assistance that Trump has sometimes been reluctant to deliver, such as with ventilators used in caring for the most serious cases.
Before the state’s coronavirus hospitalization rate peaked, Cuomo was chiding Trump to send more hard-to-find ventilators from the federal stockpile to meet projected demand to equip 40,000 intensive care unit beds and 140,000 hospital beds, about triple what the state normally has. Although the healthcare system was inundated with patients, the state neither hit the goal of securing enough resources nor reached that projected peak in cases.
As a result, a pair of temporary hospitals that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built for $250 million in Stony Brook and Old Westbury were mothballed, their completion coming just as LI hospitalizations hit a plateau and began declining to more manageable levels. The federal hospitals will remain standing, unstaffed, for the likelihood of a second wave of coronavirus later this year, officials said.
TALK SHOW HOST
While the Cuomo show has drama galore and more heartbreaking details than can fit in a single newspaper, it also has moments of levity.
There’s been the governor’s fatherly advice to never object to a daughter’s boyfriend, warning that daughters will instinctively side with their boyfriends. Quips about how tough-talking New Yorkers will make sure strangers abide by social-distancing and mask rules in public. But few days drew as many laughs as when the governor’s younger brother CNN host Chris Cuomo dialed into a couple of the April briefings while the TV reporter was quarantined in the basement of his Southampton home after testing positive for COVID-19.
“You look like you’ve been cutting your own hair,” Chris joked, before sharing details of a dream he had in which the governor was wearing a ballet outfit and dancing with a wand.
“Obviously the fever has affected your mental capacity,” the governor replied.
The banter is not uncommon to those who regularly watch the younger Cuomo’s show, on which the governor regularly appears.
“I know that sometimes we joke,” the governor said. “We’re not going to do that today. Rule one is never hit a brother when he’s down, and you’re literally in the basement.”
While the governor has widely earned high marks for his efforts, he is not without his critics — and not just the president.
Health experts have questioned if Cuomo waited too long to temporarily close schools and businesses, allowing the virus to spread “like fire through dry grass,” as he likes to say, before issuing the order on March 15, two weeks after the first confirmed case in the state.
Studies have since showed that coronavirus was believed to have spread among thousands of New Yorkers in February, with Stony Brook University Hospital saying its first suspected case was Feb. 7, a month before LI’s first confirmed case.
“You have to move really fast,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former commissioner of New York City’s Health Department, told The New York Times. “Hours and days. Not weeks. Once it gets a head of steam, there is no way to stop it.”
Cuomo, who said recently that he wished he or someone “blew the bugle” sooner, later criticized the media for not doing enough to alert the public.
“No state moved faster from the first case to total closedown,” Cuomo said when asked about the criticism, adding his frequent refrain that it’s not wise to Monday-morning quarterback while the game is at halftime.
Of course, if another wave is coming as predicted, The Cuomo Show will get renewed for a second season as the coronavirus war and the blame game head into overtime.
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