Disgraced former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press conferences masked an atmosphere of chaos and confusion during the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as state health administrators were forced to find ways to work around the former governor’s “impossible requests” and “ridiculous demands,” according to a report from Politico.
New York State health officials and employees resigned in droves because of a work environment that was described as “frantic” and “based in politics, not science,” the report detailed. Officials said they often worked from early in the morning until midnight, while dealing with severely low morale due to the mounting death toll and resources that were stretched thin. One health official, whose testimony was included in the New York Attorney General’s investigation into Cuomo’s handling of the COVID-19 response, reportedly told investigators that working conditions at the Department of Health had so deteriorated that they asked one of the largest public-sector unions in the state, the Public Employees Federation, if they had legal recourse when it came to matters like unpaid overtime, which they were told was “not illegal during a public health crisis.”
Politico noted one instance where Cuomo, seeking to draw attention to the number of tickets issued for non-compliance with COVID guidelines at his nationally-televised daily press briefings, “suggested that the state health department deploy half its roughly 5,000 employees to check restaurants for their compliance with the state’s mask-wearing and capacity limit rules.”
“He was like, ‘You could use them like an army,’” said the official, who spoke to Politico on condition of anonymity. The official, who was on the phone call where Cuomo suggested the idea, described it as “an impossible request,” but said that no one could turn the governor down. “[T]he call ended and no one said ‘no’ to him … No one could explain to him how bad the idea was,” the official said.
Officials were forced to come up with a workaround to satisfy Cuomo, the same official told Politico, which involved recruiting about 50 agency staffers who would post pictures of their enforcement actions on Twitter. The plan “became just one of several subterfuges state health officials concocted to deal with demands from the governor’s office they believed to be based in politics, not science,” Politico reported.
Officials were also allegedly forced to meet Cuomo’s “ridiculous demands” first, taking precedence over the Department of Health’s priorities and judgment. Important decisions, including those about where to send Personal Protective Equipment, which areas would be included in various enforcement “zones,” and which data was to be shared with officials in the Trump White House, were decided or overruled by members of Cuomo’s inner circle. The governor’s office would even hold up official communications, like press releases and directives, over grammar issues, the report added.
The press conferences themselves took up much of the time and effort of public health officials as well, Politico noted. Staffers were working round the clock, developing and creating Cuomo’s daily PowerPoint presentations. In many cases, staffers would finish the last slides after the governor’s briefings had already begun. One official told Politico that Cuomo would often request other slides while on his way to the briefing. While drafting the next day’s presentation, another official noted that they would often be caught off guard by impromptu announcements or reactions to press coverage. The briefings, an official noted, “diverted people’s attention to service the press conference instead of servicing the running of the state,” an anonymous former staffer said. “It became more about the press conference and about the issue that he was talking about at the press conference.”
The report from Politico comes in the wake of an official impeachment report conducted by the New York State Assembly, that found evidence that Cuomo committed sexual misconduct with 12 different women, unethically utilized state resources, including state employees’ time and resources to “further his personal gain” in the publishing of his book about New York’s COVID response, and misrepresented data on COVID deaths in nursing homes to “combat criticisms” of the state’s pandemic response.
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