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New York’s Disastrous Failure of Governance

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This is a really good article about the contrast in how Seattle and New York handled the pandemic and the massive consequences thereof. Public officials and business leaders in Seattle did things (mostly) right, preparing the groundwork for stay-at-home orders:

On February 29th, Constantine held a press conference. He had asked Riedo, Duchin, and Kathy Lofy—another E.I.S. alum and the state’s top health officer—to play prominent roles. Duchin spoke first, and it was as if he had prepared his remarks with the Field Epidemiology Manual in hand. “I want to just start by expressing our deep and sincere condolences to the family members and loved ones of the person who died,” he said. He explained what scientists knew and did not know about the coronavirus, and noted, “We’re in the beginning stages of our investigation, and new details and information will emerge over the next days and weeks.” He predicted that “telecommuting” was likely to become mandatory for many residents, and repeated several times an easy-to-remember sohco: “more hand washing, less face touching.” Duchin told me that his words had been chosen carefully: “You have to think about managing the public’s emotions, perceptions, trust. You have to bring them along the path with you.” Since then, Washington State politicians have largely ceded health communications to the scientists, making them unlikely celebrities. “Hey people!! Jeff Duchin is the real deal,” one fan tweeted. A newspaper hailed him as “a bespectacled, calming presence.”

Constantine told me that he understands why politicians “want to be front and center and take the credit.” And he noted that Seattle has many of “the same problems here you see in Congress, with the partisanship and toxicity.” But, he said, “everyone, Republicans and Democrats, came together behind one message and agreed to let the scientists take the lead.”

By the time Seattle’s schools were formally closed, on March 11th, students and teachers were already abandoning their classrooms. The messaging had worked: parents were voluntarily keeping their kids home. Cell-phone tracking data showed that, in the preceding week, the number of people going to work had dropped by a quarter. Within days, even before Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, issued official work-from-home orders, almost half of Seattle’s workers were voluntarily staying away from their offices. When bars and restaurants were officially closed, on March 15th, many of them were already empty. Constantine himself had been working from home for a week. He was giving interviews all day, and always underscored to reporters that he was speaking from his bedroom, and that the noises in the background were coming from his children, who were home from school. After he heard that the county’s basketball courts were still being heavily used, he ordered them closed.

[…]

Today, Washington State has less than two per cent of coronavirus cases in the U.S. At EvergreenHealth, hospital administrators have stopped daily crisis meetings, because the rate of incoming patients has slowed. They have empty beds and extra ventilators. The administrators remain worried, but are cautiously optimistic. “It feels like we might have stopped the tsunami before it hit,” Riedo told me. “I don’t want to tempt fate, but it seems like it’s working. Which is what makes it so much harder when I look at places like New York.”

And while factors such as density and reliance on public transportation played a role in the much worse results in NYC, pace Bret Stephens local leaders taking a Stephens-like initial approach also played a major role:

It’s also true, however, that the cities’ leaders acted and communicated very differently in the early stages of the pandemic. Seattle’s leaders moved fast to persuade people to stay home and follow the scientists’ advice; New York’s leaders, despite having a highly esteemed public-health department, moved more slowly, offered more muddied messages, and let politicians’ voices dominate.

[…]

In early March, as Dow Constantine was asking Microsoft to close its offices and putting scientists in front of news cameras, de Blasio and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, were giving speeches that deëmphasized the risks of the pandemic, even as the city was announcing its first official cases. De Blasio initially voiced caution, saying that “no one should take the coronavirus situation lightly,” but soon told residents to keep helping the city’s economy. “Go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus,” he tweeted on March 2nd—one day after the first covid-19 diagnosis in New York. He urged people to see a movie at Lincoln Center. On the day that Seattle schools closed, de Blasio said at a press conference that “if you are not sick, if you are not in the vulnerable category, you should be going about your life.” Cuomo, meanwhile, had told reporters that “we should relax.” He said that most infected people would recover with few problems, adding, “We don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”

[…]

Today, New York City has the same social-distancing policies and business-closure rules as Seattle. But because New York’s recommendations came later than Seattle’s—and because communication was less consistent—it took longer to influence how people behaved. According to data collected by Google from cell phones, nearly a quarter of Seattleites were avoiding their workplaces by March 6th. In New York City, another week passed until an equivalent percentage did the same. Tom Frieden, the former C.D.C. director, has estimated that, if New York had started implementing stay-at-home orders ten days earlier than it did, it might have reduced covid-19 deaths by fifty to eighty per cent. Another former New York City health commissioner told me that “de Blasio was just horrible,” adding, “Maybe it was unintentional, maybe it was his arrogance. But, if you tell people to stay home and then you go to the gym, you can’t really be surprised when people keep going outside.”

It is not, contrary to what people like Stephens keep asserting in the teeth of the actual evidence, “wishful thinking” to think that people will put their lives over day-to-day conveniences. When properly informed, people will generally adhere to social distancing even before it is formally required, and the exceptions can be monitored and dealt with. But there’s a very real danger that public officials taking a cavalier or defeatist attitude will create a self-fulfilling prophecy with deadly results.

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