New York is the epicenter of the epicenter, with nearly half of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the country and about a third of the deaths

By Sean Neumann
March 27, 2020 12:09 PM
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NY Governor Andrew Cuomo
Credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

For many Americans today the country has never seen a more uncertain time or been a more uncertain place, as health officials and all levels of government scramble to contain the new coronavirus pandemic.

Until the disruptive cloud of the coronavirus fades from daily life, numerous offices and schools sit empty — their workers and students sent home — with restaurants, bars, theaters and other public places shuttered to encourage social distancing that will slow new infections.

The virus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, has killed more than 1,000 people in the U.S., which overtook China this week as the epicenter of the outbreak worldwide.

New York is the epicenter of the epicenter, with nearly half of all confirmed cases in the country and about a third of the deaths, according to available data on Friday.

As such, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become the face of the nation’s state leaders, holding daily press conferences with a tone that borders somewhere between blunt and brutal, strict but realistic: capable of explaining what must be done but clear about the threat as well — and the scale and length of the response required from everyone in the state.

This approach has drawn a contrast with President Donald Trump, who downplayed the virus compared to the seasonal flu and claimed it was being politicized as a “hoax” before sharply reversing his rhetoric last week.

Still, Trump has openly waffled about how long and how seriously the virus may upend society and, especially, the economy — despite health officials urging caution.

Cuomo and Trump have also been at odds over the virus, even though the resources needed to fight it require them to coordinate and Trump has insisted they work together.

“YOU have to do something! You’re supposed to be the President,” Cuomo tweeted at Trump on March 16. On Thursday, Trump suggested he didn’t think New York needed the tens of thousands of additional ventilators it had requested.

“We were looking at a freight train moving across the country. We’re now looking at a bullet train,” Cuomo said Tuesday. That same day, Trump said he was “hopeful to have Americans working again by that Easter” even though health officials continue to warn against rushing back to normalcy as they learn more about how and how fast the virus spreads.

“We haven’t flattened the curve,” Cuomo said, “and the curve is actually increasing.”

He has drawn raves for his leadership style during the virus so far — in some ways overshadowing a more complicated reputation as New York’s governor. Some news outlets have labeled him “America’s governor.”

Here’s what you know about Cuomo and his national spotlight moment.

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo addressing the media at the Javits Center in Manhattan, where state and federal emergency workers are constructing a temporary field hospital to aid coronavirus patients.
| Credit: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty

Who Is Andrew Cuomo?

The 62-year-old father of three was born into politics and his life has largely been molded by it: Gov. Cuomo’s father, the late Mario Cuomo, became the state’s lieutenant governor when Andrew was in his early 20s and then went on to serve three terms as the state’s governor from 1983 to 1994. Andrew served as his dad’s campaign manager.

The younger Cuomo took a position in President Bill Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993 and eventually became the Housing secretary in 1997 before turning back home to New York and becoming the state’s attorney general and eventually its governor in 2010, following in his father’s footsteps.

His rough and tough personality has often ruffled feathers within the Democratic Party, according to a New York Times profile on his rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Times view, “He was too much of a pragmatist for his party’s progressive wing, too self-focused for party leaders and too brusque for nearly everyone.”

New York Attorney General Elect Andrew Cuomo (L) joins hands with his father former New York Governor Mario Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo (left) raising the hand of his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo at a campaign rally in 2006.
| Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty

But with a Republican president in the Oval Office and social distancing efforts relinquishing the Democratic Party’s likely presidential nominee to video messages from his own basement, Cuomo “is emerging as the party’s most prominent voice in a time of crisis.”

“He’s competing with the administration,” political strategist Scott Levenson told New York TV station WPIX. “This is a governor going against a national, presidential leader who is just not able to get out of his own way.”

In addition to growing up to eventually help his father become the state’s governor, Cuomo was married for 15 years to Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he shares three daughters: Cara, Mariah and Michaela.

The union with a Kennedy was highly publicized between 1990 and 2005, after which Cuomo began a longterm relationship with TV chef and famed lifestyle personality Sandra Lee (which ended last year).

His younger brother, Chris Cuomo, is a CNN anchor. Chris’ interviews with the governor during the pandemic have gone viral in large part because of their familial banter.

“Thank you for coming back to the show,” Chris said in one recent segment.

“Mom told me I had to,” his brother quipped in response.

Cuomo’s Coronavirus Messaging

While President Trump has, at times, continued to deliver nonchalant messages about the coronavirus — comparing it to the seasonal flu as late as this week, though experts say it is much more dangerous if it also infects millions of people — Cuomo has changed his tune along with new information from health officials and has been direct with New Yorkers, at times being patronizingly intolerant about what he sees as shortcomings with the federal government’s response to the outbreak.

On Tuesday, Cuomo criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency after he said he learned it was sending the state 400 ventilators — a respiratory machine that helps pump oxygen into coronavirus patients’ diseased lungs.

Without the ventilators, Harvard-trained physician William Li told Health magazine, “the virus infection causes pneumonia and severe inflammation that cripples the lung’s function.”

“You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators?” Cuomo said Tuesday, indirectly addressing the federal government and its COVID-19 response. “What are we going to do with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000 ventilators? You’re missing the magnitude of the problem and the problem is defined by the magnitude.”

Earlier that day in a virtual town hall hosted by Fox News, Trump coronavirus task force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx painted a grim picture for New York’s metro area when she explained the rate at which the virus is believed to be infecting people in the city is “four to five times [more than] any other place in the country.”

“I think part of it is density, part of is the spread that may have happened on metal surfaces like in the subway and people that were in the subway,” Birx said. “Part of it may be a large number of people came back after Christmas from Asia that didn’t get caught up in the closure.”

Trump interjected: “Do you blame the governor for that?”

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As New York City looks more and more like a warning to other parts of the country, Cuomo’s rhetoric has responded to what’s happening at a national scale as well.

“Facts are empowering. Even when the facts are discouraging, not knowing the facts is worse,” he tweeted Thursday, seemingly explaining his different approach to the outbreak than Trump’s. “I promise that I will continue to give New Yorkers all the facts, not selective facts.”

“Thank you Mr President…sorry, I mean Governor Cuomo,” one user responded with a photoshopped image of Gov. Cuomo speaking from the White House briefing room where Trump often delivers his messages.

Both Cuomo and Trump, like many government officials around the globe, initially labeled the virus “low risk,” but their respective tones on the situation changed weeks apart.

In early February, before there were any confirmed cases of the virus in New York, Cuomo tweeted that “the risk to New Yorkers from the novel coronavirus remains low, but we are taking every precaution.”

Once cases were confirmed there starting on March 1, however, Cuomo responded with daily press briefings, statewide orders to quell price gouging on sanitation items and pushed Vice President Mike Pence to loosen federal restrictions and allow private labs to administer their own coronavirus testing kits in lieu of the delayed and faulty federal testing kits which were criticized by governors around the country for taking too long to arrive.

Once the tests were more widely available, as health officials expected, the number of confirmed cases around the country (and particularly in New York City) skyrocketed by the thousands.

On March 2, Cuomo directed all New York health insurance companies to waive costs for coronavirus tests, including emergency room, urgent care and office visits.

“We can’t let cost be a barrier to access to COVID-19 testing for any New Yorker,” he tweeted.

Trump announced a similar directive in his Oval Office address nine days later, saying on March 11 that private health insurance companies had “agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing.”

On March 3, Cuomo thanked New York legislators for granting $40 million in emergency relief to the state’s response efforts on the same day the state confirmed its second case of the virus.

The next day, Congress passed an $8.3 billion coronavirus aid package that was dwarfed this week by a historic $2 trillion aid bill the government hopes will buoy the economy after more than three million Americans filed for unemployment in a single week in the middle of March.

Cuomo and Trump have made comparisons between the coronavirus and the flu — though Cuomo last did so publicly on March 6 while Trump continued to compare the viruses late into March, though the coronavirus is more contagious and deadly.

The governor has worked with federal emergency officials to transform the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into a pop-up hospital with thousands of beds to help reduce the number of patients in the state’s hospital system.

Cuomo “never wants to be the one who breaks,” a profile in The Atlantic noted last year.

Part of his increased profile owes to how closely he adopts the conventional style of a leader in crisis: decisive and stern and assessing — the tough guy as governor, but one who relies on data and expert opinion.

“In this time of crisis, with little concrete information available, I need Cuomo’s measured bullying, his love of circumventing the federal government, his sparring with increasingly incompetent city leadership,” wrote Jezebel’s Rebecca Fishbein in a blog post characteristic of some New Yorkers rallying to a more moderate, career politician they may have once vilified.

Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media on March 13 after touring some of the state’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing locations.
| Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty

Cuomo’s Criticisms

Much of the coverage of the governor’s coronavirus response may be rose-colored — but that’s not true of his whole time in office.

“We shouldn’t sanctify Andrew Cuomo right now,” Rolling Stone columnist Jamil Smith wrote while criticizing the governor’s action on criminal justice reform.

Jezebel’s Fishbein recognized the conflicting emotions some New Yorkers have when it comes to admiring Cuomo now, riffing on the contradiction in sardonic terms.

“Andrew Cuomo, Dear Leader, will take care of me. He loves me. He is the only one who is here for me. He will help me get through this,” Fishbein wrote. “And when I finally do, I will need an endless amount of anti-brainwash therapy so I can rightfully yell at him for using prison labor to make hand sanitizer.”

As Fishbein noted, Cuomo was criticized earlier this month when he introduced the state’s plan to make its own hand sanitizer to fight off price gouging and nationwide shortages, but with a catch: It was being made by prisoners who sometimes work for less than $1, according to The Washington Post, and don’t have access to it themselves.

Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a progressive, called Cuomo’s plan “demeaning, ironic, and exploitative.”

Before the coronavirus changed the conversation, Cuomo was also facing backlash for getting in the way of rehabilitation efforts for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which ultimately led to the resignation of Andy Byford, a long-beloved president of the New York City Transit Authority, who clashed with Cuomo about how to fix the city’s beleaguered subway system.

On Byford’s final day, crowds gathered in the subway to send him off in effusive style, with selfie lines, signs bearing messages of support and a chorus of bagpipes.

Cuomo’s reported resistance to playing nice with other government officials has also not disappeared. He and N.Y.C. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a regular foe, have argued publicly about what they each believe is the best way to handle the virus.

De Blasio led the criticism against Cuomo for dragging the decision to call for a statewide shelter-in-place order similar to other states like California and Illinois. Cuomo eventually reversed himself and made an executive order last week, which went into place on Sunday night across the state.

But nationwide, Cuomo’s decisions have repeatedly been framed side-by-side with President Trump.

“For the past several days, Americans have heard two public officials’ very different ways of speaking and learned why fluency and persuasion are so critical in times of crisis,” read a recent column. “This is true not only of content but also of bearing: How do the words and poses chosen by our leaders inform morale as we hunker down in our homes?”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.