Future chapters far from written on N.Y.’s response

Staff reports
The Chronicle Express

It was announced last week that Governor Andrew Cuomo has a book coming out in October on New York State’s COVID-19 response.

N.Y. Senator Tom O'Mara

The publisher teased the governor’s forthcoming book in a statement last Tuesday: “In his own voice, Andrew Cuomo chronicles in ‘American Crisis’ the ingenuity and sacrifice required of so many to fight the pandemic, sharing his personal reflections and the decision-making that shaped his policy, and offers his frank accounting and assessment of his interactions with the federal government and the White House, as well as other state and local political and health officials.”

There’s plenty to unpack in that statement and about the governor’s book project overall.

First and foremost, it’s questionable timing, isn’t it?

Even a book critic for the liberal-leaning Washington Post commented, “I didn’t realize this whole thing was over and elected officials had time to write books and reflect on it now.”

That’s fair criticism. It’s on target.

We remain smack in the middle of this COVID-19 response. The hardship and sacrifices continue. Some businesses, like gyms and bowling alleys, have just been allowed to begin a limited reopening. Many businesses remain shuttered. Many workers are still out of work. There’s uncertainty surrounding the reopening of schools. Healthcare workers remain fearful of a second wave.

There’s incredible, ongoing uncertainty, period – including uncertainty about Governor Cuomo’s response and its short- and long-term consequences.

I agree with many that there’s no time or place for victory laps now, or in October when this book is being released, or at any time in the foreseeable future.

We still have a lot to confront. Keep in mind that New York State has recorded more COVID-19 deaths than any other state in America. More than 32,000 New Yorkers have died. New York State accounts for nearly 20% of deaths in the United States despite a state population of less than 6% of our country.

Former gubernatorial candidate and current Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro reacted this way, “As many lives have been turned upside down – and too many taken from us too soon – Governor Cuomo apparently found time to write a book telling us what a great job he did.”

Furthermore, there are chapters about the Cuomo administration’s response that are far from done being written and that can’t be fairly completed until some time far down the road.

Look no further than our ongoing examination of what happened, and why, in New York State’s nursing homes and other residential care facilities. At least 6,500 nursing home residents have died. Their families and loved ones are still seeking answers about what happened and why. I have joined many legislative colleagues in public hearings to try to get them answers, as well as the insight New York government needs to try to ensure that a tragedy like this will not happen again. 

Governor Cuomo and his administration have been less than forthcoming. In fact, it’s fair to say that up to now, there’s been nothing but stonewalling from the governor and his top health officials, including Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Howard Zucker. Outside of a self-serving, in-house DOH report, there’s been no honest reassessment.

A recent analysis from the Associated Press found that the reported death toll in state nursing homes could be double the number that’s been recorded by the Cuomo administration. On August 11, the AP reported, “Unlike every other state with major nursing home outbreaks, New York only counts resident deaths that occur in the home, not in hospitals. That could make New York’s official toll … a significant undercount.”

Bipartisan calls for an independent investigation into this nursing home crisis have been dismissed out of hand by Governor Cuomo as “all politically motivated.” Not true. The calls for an independent investigation have come from across the board, out of both sides of the aisle, as well as from media across the spectrum of opinion – right, left, center, take your pick.

I have said repeatedly that an independent investigation is not a political witch hunt, it is a search for what happened in our nursing homes and why. Thousands of lives have been lost and too many questions have been raised, and remain unanswered, to have in-house Cuomo administration reports be the last word.

Governor Cuomo and his top officials continue to stonewall on providing additional information and insights that could help the Legislature gain a fuller understanding of how state policies and directives impacted the spread of the coronavirus within nursing homes and other residential care facilities.

Additionally, we haven’t even begun to compile a full and transparent accounting of the economic and fiscal consequences of Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 response on local economies, local governments, local hospitals, local property taxpayers, local workers, and so much more.

Let’s not forget that the Democratic leaders of the state Legislature effectively gave up the Legislature’s decision-making authority in March, at the onset of the COVID-19 response, and New York government has proceeded solely by executive order. Over the past six months, Governor Cuomo has issued more than 50 Executive Orders that have allowed the governor to unilaterally change upwards of 300 laws. Despite Senate and Assembly Republican efforts to put an end to this government by executive order, it continues to this moment. 

Yes, the executive needed the ability to respond quickly to a rapidly changing crisis at the outset of the COVID-19 response. Six months later, however, it’s time to put an end to this government by Governor Cuomo executive order. It’s past time to restore legislative checks and balances.

I have been highly critical on this front too. As the ranking member of the Senate Investigations Committee, at the appropriate time, I will urge an investigation into the actual costs of New York’s response – what was spent by the Cuomo administration, where it was spent, why, and what the long-term impact will be on future generations of state and local taxpayers.

These chapters of New York State’s COVID-19 response cannot be written by October.

This crisis is far from over.

It has been an excruciating road that we all have been on since March. It will be, as I have also said time and again, a long road back.

There’s no time or place now for victory laps.

There should be no place for what appears to be a self-serving assessment from Governor Cuomo of a COVID-19 response that continues to impact all of our lives in fundamental ways.

There’s only time, it seems to me, to stay focused on the work still facing us.

From where I stand, I can tell you that the communities and businesses and workers I represent throughout the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions don’t need a new book, we need a new commitment to fairness, flexibility and common sense out of Albany.