There comes a moment as you’re listening to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rant when you realize it all seems so familiar. Oh, yeah, you think—this guy sounds like the dictator in the movie Bananas who ordered everybody to speak Swedish and wear their underwear over their clothes. Only Cuomo isn’t intentionally a joke, and his commands have serious consequences.
This week, Cuomo announced another closure of New York schools that have already left families floundering through the pandemic and threatened to shutter synagogues and churches if their congregations don’t bend to his will.
“I am not going to recommend or allow any New York City family to send their child to a school that I wouldn’t send my child to. We’re going to close the schools in those areas tomorrow,” Cuomo announced on October 5, in a command that applied to private schools as well as public ones.
Since places of worship have been resistant to restrictions on gatherings, the governor got specific about penalties. “I have to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, if you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues,” he threatened.
The targets of Cuomo’s ire fired back.
“A picture that [Cuomo] said showed an unlawfully large gathering of Hasidic Jews from recent weeks turned out to be a picture of a major rabbi’s funeral in 2006,” pointed out Ari Feldman at The Forward.
“In the three Catholic Academies and one Parish School located in the affected areas, enrollment totals 1,070 students, and there has only been one confirmed COVID case,” pointed out the Diocese of Brooklyn. “These statistics prove that the Diocesan COVID-19 safety policies are effectively protecting our students and teachers.”
The diocese might also have emphasized the fact that its schools have been doing something else better than the competition: educating. New York City completed reopening its public schools only last week after two delays caused by disputes with the teachers’ union. Many families have fled to private education options precisely because they’ve proven themselves more responsive to a range of preferences, and less susceptible to arbitrary policy decisions. Cuomo might not choose those schools, but the parents of the children attending them very clearly did.
Then again, raising fact-based objections to official mandates from on-high is probably beside the point. There is a sense in which the students, congregants, and other victims of Cuomo’s latest brainstorm are collateral damage in a turf war that has little to do with them.
“Local governments have not done an effective job of enforcement in these hotspot ZIP codes,” Cuomo tweeted October 4. The state “will be doing aggressive enforcement starting tomorrow. As we saw with bars and restaurants, when the state initiated enforcement actions compliance greatly increased.”
Observers of New York politics all understand that “local governments” mean New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city officials. The governor and the mayor hate each other and are engaged in a running feud, in which the lives and livelihoods of actual human beings seem to be nothing more than weapons to be used against one another. Are the latest closure orders just skirmishes in never-ending warfare between elected officials? That’s as good a bet as any given the personalities involved.
In fact, to listen to one of Cuomo’s regular and extended monologues—as he openly savors the sound of his own voice and directs verbal jabs at his political enemies—is to be reminded of yet another political figure, this one a little less fictional. The governor seems an awful lot like President Trump, who also takes pleasure in his time in the spotlight, and in petty sparring with political rivals—including Cuomo himself.
Then again, some nutty autocrats are more popular than others. While Trump’s Bananas impression has few fans in the media, Cuomo’s version enjoys the support of many journalistic fans, even after he ordered nursing homes in the state to accept patients who had been infected with COVID-19.
“Multiple states are considering adopting an order similar to what was issued in New York that requires every nursing home to admit hospital patients who have not been tested for COVID-19 and to admit patients who have tested positive,” the American Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group, warned in March. “This approach will introduce the highly contagious virus into more nursing homes. There will be more hospitalizations for nursing home residents who need ventilator care and ultimately, a higher number of deaths.”
Sure enough, months later, that dictate had resulted in a body count in the thousands, with researchers still counting the toll.
That fiasco by itself should give New Yorkers pause when their governor issues commands supposedly intended to curb viral outbreaks and keep them healthy during the pandemic. Maybe his judgment should be taken with a good-sized grain of salt.
And maybe parents who are desperate to see their kids resume their interrupted educations, and worshippers eager to find some solace during tough times, should place more weight on their own decision-making skills than on those of politicians. They, after all, are struggling to do their imperfect best by themselves and their families. They’ll make mistakes, of course, but those mistakes will be on a small scale, and made in the course of attempting to do the right thing.
By contrast, Cuomo seems best-skilled at consuming camera time while inflicting widespread pain and engaging in political combat. His track record necessarily casts a shadow over every word he utters and each new mandate he gives.