Andrew Cuomo & Daughters Look Back at 3 Months in Center of COVID-19 Pandemic: A 'Silver Lining' in Heartache

"We were all doing everything we could do to make it better," Cuomo tells PEOPLE

The worst part of Andrew Cuomo’s day comes around midnight with the ping of an email from New York state’s hospitals tallying the number of sick and dead from the novel coronavirus.

“You’re wondering, when will it stop? People keep dying,” the governor tells PEOPLE. “You can’t stop thinking about it.”

Slowly those tallies — at their worst, 799 dead in a day — have bent back toward zero as New York, ravaged like nowhere else in the U.S. by the coronavirus disease COVID-19, emerges from the darkest period of a terrible spring that killed more than 25,000 people in the state.

After months of lockdowns and overcrowded hospitals, “we are on the other side of the mountain,” Cuomo says now. “More people would have died, but for what we did. I get it. But it’s still a hollow rationale. You make the best judgment you can at that time.”

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The life-and-death decisions of a pandemic have been Cuomo’s alone to make: ordering New Yorkers to stay home, closing one of the biggest economies in the world, mandating face masks. But he’s grateful to have not been alone to make them.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his residence in Albany earlier this month. Courtesy Governors Office

In March the three daughters he shares with ex-wife Kerry Kennedy — twins Mariah and Cara, 25, and their sister Michaela, 22 — moved in to the governor’s mansion in Albany to quarantine together, like so many other families rejoined in isolation in the plague. “If there’s a silver lining to any of this,” he says, “that’s one.”

Otherwise it’s been an agonizing three months, the three-term governor, 62, freely admits; and he has not been immune to criticism and dissection of his choices. Could he have acted more quickly? (Could anyone?) What should nursing homes have done with coronavirus patients and should patients have been sent back? How will the state reopen without a resurgence of cases?

“There were,” he insists, “no preventable deaths. Everyone who passed away, we did everything we could.”

For 111 straight days, in a series of press conferences that made him the country’s most-watched politician not named Trump, Cuomo updated New Yorkers and millions of others on the pandemic. He turned into a virtue the longstanding view that he can be too aggressive, a control freak, domineering.

“Government is an art form,” says the oldest son of the late Mario Cuomo, New York’s former three-term governor and nationally prominent Democrat. “I’ve studied it all my life.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
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At the same time, the governor opened a window into life at the center of a plague. He was stern and determined; he was wry; he was worried.

His daughters sometimes joined him and brother Chris, a CNN anchor who contracted the virus in late March, beamed in from his home studio. He shared family stories, gave advice on coping in quarantine and ribbed Mariah’s boyfriend, Tellef.

“Nobody knows when it’s going to end,” Cuomo says now. “Neither do I. I think people listened because they felt that I understood where they were.”

He wakes each morning before the sun (and "is typically at the office before anyone in their right mind is even awake," says Cara) then proceeds to a whirling schedule of briefings and updates and strategy sessions and media appearances.

He returns home at night to have dinner with his girls, when he can. "They just activate a different piece of my mind," he says. "When you're doing the same thing 20 hours a day, the diversion is helpful."

Cara was the last of her siblings to arrive in Albany and, while in isolation, “I had some of the best conversations with her that I have ever had,” Cuomo said at a press conference in March.

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From left: Michaela, Cara and Mariah Kennedy Cuomo with Andrew Cuomo at the New York governor’s mansion in Albany in 2020. Courtesy Governors Office

Cara tells PEOPLE: "Being able to see and more deeply understand what that work ethic he and his team share has made me so much more appreciative of, and grateful for, all the times growing up when Dad has stepped away from that work to support me — whether coming to every one of my soccer games in middle school, or taking me to dinner after work when he is in New York City for the day." (And yes, Mariah adds, the governor "really does like 'the boyfriend.' ")

The three all also play a role in the state’s pandemic response, juggling that with school and work.

RELATED VIDEO: NY Governor Cuomo on America's "Self-Portrait"

Cara worked on tracking down masks and gowns for hospital workers. Michaela worked with support groups. And, before his daily briefings recently ended amid New York’s shrinking infection rate, Mariah (who led a mask-wearing PSA campaign) watched each one, texting feedback and suggesting follow-up tweets he might post.

“Got it! Stay with me!” he wrote back to her recently. “Need u love u.”

“We were all doing everything we could do to make it better,” he says. “You try to find peace in whatever situation you're in, and that was the best we could do to find peace.”

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