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“One More Accuser and the Restaurants Would Be at 125%”: In Cuomo’s Loosening of COVID Lockdown, Some See a Ploy to Save His Own Skin

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The only thing I remember from college statistics class is that correlation is not causation. The principle often applies in other realms too. So the fact that a barrage of sexual harassment allegations against New York governor Andrew Cuomo has been followed by an expansion of indoor dining capacity for restaurants; a tripling in the permitted number of wedding guests; the abolition of quarantine for domestic travel; and the welcoming of some fans to Yankees and Mets games…well, that’s all a coincidence, right?

“The dark joke around Albany,” a Democratic elected official says, “was that one more accuser and the restaurants would be at 125% capacity.” Okay, so maybe there are some politics involved: Cuomo is eager to generate some good publicity to counteract the pounding he’s been taking in the press, and to try to slow the decline of his public approval numbers in the polls. At least the governor is relaxing COVID restrictions at the same time case numbers are finally falling, right?

“Last July we had 200 to 300 positive cases per day. Now we have about 4,000 new cases in the city each day, and the positivity rate in tests is above 6%. And it’s not budging,” says Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology and the director of its global public health program. “We have been easing the rules week by week by week, while at the same time the data are telling us that we are not in a good place.”

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The governor points to different metrics. On Monday, Cuomo cited a statewide, seven-day average where the percentage of positive cases was down to 3.57%. He issued a stern warning: “As people relax with COVID, it’s a problem. This is a formidable enemy. You put your hands down at your side, you think it’s over, the enemy attacks.” Then Cuomo erased an 11 p.m. curfew for casinos, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and fitness centers. “The governor is implementing the same reopening plan that he announced in early January, a smart, science-based approach to restarting New York’s economy with a robust expansion of rapid tests while simultaneously working to vaccinate as many people as possible,” his spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, says. “As he has said before, we’re slowly turning the valve while other states are flipping a switch overnight. Yes, we are catching positive cases because we have the most robust testing system in the nation, but our focus has always been on hospitalizations and deaths, which have been decreasing as the most vulnerable among us have been given vaccination priority for months.”

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Those same months have seen Cuomo under siege, first for shuffling the number of nursing home patients who died from the virus, then as current and former female aides described being on the receiving end of unwanted touching and creepy conversations (allegations he denies), and most recently because of reports that Cuomo cashed in on his 2020 pandemic popularity by being paid at least $4 million to write a self-congratulatory book. But after appearing to be on the ropes in mid-March, Cuomo is still standing, still calibrating. Instead of dominating state budget negotiations, as he has in years past, Cuomo has ceded enormous ground on progressive issues he long resisted, including billions in tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations. He is aggressively staging photo ops across the state to promote vaccine availability. And a pair of investigations are moving slowly. “The governor is getting time to do his thing,” a top adviser says, meaning time to make it seem as though government is functioning. “And that’s going to help him.”

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Perhaps with a crucial segment of the New York public. Inside Albany, however, the view of Cuomo as deeply cynical hasn’t dissipated. “It has been like clockwork: Every time a new credible accusation comes out against him, all of a sudden, the ages for people eligible for vaccinations went down; the percentage of people that could be inside restaurants went up,” says Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who is the head of the State Senate’s committee on health. “It is consistent with how this guy has operated his entire political career, with every decision driven by politics. I’ve been in the Senate for as long as he’s been in the governor’s mansion, so I know this dude well.”

“Nonsense,” Azzopardi replies. “The legislature has always had the power to overturn a pandemic order and is now given five days’ notice on any changes. To date, no order has been overturned.”

Laurie Garrett, a journalist who lives in New York and whose expertise is infectious diseases, has a more measured analysis. “I’m not a defender of Andrew Cuomo—he certainly has made a long list of mistakes,” she says. “But I don’t think opening up New York is some political ploy. We have some real problems—a unique New York variant that appears to share some of the antibody escape capacity of the South African variant, which is the worst one out there right now—but it’s a very complicated problem, because there are a lot of unknowns. We don’t actually know in any kind of hard, empirical way how much risk the variants pose. And it’s been a long, ugly winter, with the entire arts slash entertainment slash restaurant industry desperate to see reopening.”

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