How a feud between Cuomo and de Blasio led to a chaotic virus crackdown

By Jesse McKinley, Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Dana Rubistein and Joseph Goldstein

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had barely finished a fairly routine coronavirus briefing earlier this month when he got word that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had just blindsided him.

The mayor unexpectedly announced that he intended to close down schools and nonessential businesses in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, where the coronavirus was surging in communities with large Orthodox Jewish populations. De Blasio asserted that he had been in contact with the state, whose approval was needed.

It took less than 24 hours for Cuomo to fire back.

He halted the mayor’s plan to shutter businesses, calling it imprecise and incomplete, and sped up the closure of schools. By the next day, the governor unveiled his own plan: another phased-in lockdown, complete with color-coded maps and a barely veiled message for de Blasio.

“A law doesn’t work if you’re too incompetent or too politically frightened to enforce it,” Cuomo said last week.

The governor and mayor, both Democrats, have feuded for years, and their reluctance to work together closely has become a critical issue during the pandemic. De Blasio, who needed Cuomo’s approval to act, pushed out a plan without the state’s blessing, only to have the governor override that plan with one of his own, causing unnecessary confusion for thousands of business owners and school parents.

Restaurants and other businesses were left wondering if they were meant to be open or closed; parents wondered the same about their children’s schools. Tricolor maps set boundaries in the middle of city blocks and public parks. Some rules resembled past restrictions; others were completely new.

For observers of New York politics, the governor’s actions were no surprise. For the last seven years, Cuomo has overruled de Blasio again and again, seeing himself as both more capable and constitutionally correct: The city is, after all, a creation of the state, and, as Cuomo likes to remind people, the governor outranks the mayor.

But that penchant for control over city affairs may have spawned a new set of problems. Cuomo’s crackdown sparked angry protests, federal lawsuits, and accusations that the governor was castigating Orthodox Jews, whose leaders urged more sensitivity toward a community once cast by Nazis as purveyors of disease.

The protests in Brooklyn even became political fodder for President Donald Trump, whose campaign signs were visible at some of the demonstrations. On Wednesday, the president used Twitter to suggest that the police response was emblematic of the “radical left.” Two days later, Cuomo accused the Trump campaign of instigating the protests.

Whether Cuomo’s plan would work was still an open question: The city issued some 60 summonses and more than $150,000 in fines over the weekend, as some congregants continued to gather in large groups.

“I understand these are difficult acts to enforce,” Cuomo said last week. “These are state laws. Blame me. I have no problem with that.”

De Blasio’s initial plan called for closing schools and nonessential businesses in nine areas defined by ZIP codes; a city official familiar with the city’s planning process said that the mayor did not use more specific boundaries, partly out of concern for stigmatizing the Orthodox community. ZIP codes were also thought to be generally easier for people to understand, and cover more ground.

In the week before de Blasio’s announcement, city and state officials had regular discussions about the rising virus numbers in Brooklyn and Queens.

“As recently as Friday of that week, we told them we were open to shutting things down,” said Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor. “They were resistant, they said it wasn’t necessary and they could control the situation without a shutdown. Then they make the announcement on Sunday.”

De Blasio admitted that his announcement, without warning Cuomo, was a tactic to publicly pressure the governor to act quickly.

“We want the state to know, in a very public manner, what we believe will allow us to contain the situation,” the mayor said last week. “The thing I’ve learned now over these seven-plus months is that it is very important, once we have come to a conclusion of what is needed, to be very public about it.”

De Blasio’s initial plan called for closing schools and nonessential businesses in nine areas defined by ZIP codes; a city official familiar with the city’s planning process said that the mayor did not use more specific boundaries, partly out of concern for stigmatizing the Orthodox community. ZIP codes were also thought to be generally easier for people to understand, and cover more ground.

The mayor, citing a court order, also shied away from imposing attendance limits at synagogues, beyond the 50% capacity restrictions already in place.

That omission — as well as de Blasio’s unilateral decision to announce a plan — stunned and perplexed Cuomo’s team. Robert Mujica, the governor’s budget director and a member of his coronavirus task force, said that not limiting mass gatherings flew in the face of advice of public health officials “everywhere, around the world.”

The following day, Cuomo held a conference call with de Blasio and Michael Mulgrew, the head of the teachers union, which had been pushing for the mayor to close schools in the hot-spot neighborhoods.

That phone call was the only conversation Cuomo has had with de Blasio all month, a City Hall official said.

As Cuomo’s staff worked feverishly to finish their own plan, Cuomo tried his hand at diplomacy, gathering Orthodox leaders on a conference call Tuesday.

The governor asserted that local officials like de Blasio wanted a “total close-down” of synagogues, while he wanted to work with the Orthodox community to cap the occupancy at 50%.

“I don’t want to do it in an adversarial way,” the governor said, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by The New York Times. “I need you to tell the community, ‘We have to comply.’”

Cuomo also said to the leaders that “we’re going to enforce the rules, but the 50% is OK.”

“And no more than 50 people at an outdoor gathering,” he added.

But just hours later, the governor then put forward rules to limit attendance to 25% — or 10 people, whichever number was lower, at some houses of worship. Cuomo’s aides acknowledged that the governor had not disclosed those plans on the conference call because he had not finalized them; they said that epidemiologists later convinced him to institute a new cap.

Cuomo’s “cluster action initiative” included a three-tiered, color-coded stratagem that involved a series of varying restrictions governed by often hard-to-read maps that initially cut streets and city blocks in two, leading to confusion about the new boundaries.

Among those apparently confused was Bill Neidhardt, the mayor’s spokesman, who posted a video image on Twitter of Kermit the Frog futilely trying to decipher a map.

Cuomo’s restrictions were quickly rebuked by Orthodox Jewish lawmakers, all Democrats, who said the new rules unfairly targeted Jews and included a “duplicitous bait-and-switch” on new rules surrounding synagogues. In a statement, they described the governor’s rhetoric in recent days as “irresponsible and pejorative, particularly to a community of Holocaust survivors and their descendants.”

On Thursday, Agudath Israel of America, a prominent Orthodox group, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn each filed suit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated.

By then, protesters had already been demonstrating for two nights in the streets of the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, lighting fires, burning masks and attacking a local journalist. In remarks on Thursday, Cuomo decried the lack of enforcement from the New York City police.

“If we had enforced the law,” he said, “we wouldn’t be here.”

Two separate judges later upheld Cuomo’s new restrictions.

City officials worried whether the governor’s actions might alienate and discourage cooperation in a conservative Orthodox community where some members look askance at dictums from secular governments.

“I am very worried that we have completely lost trust with the most impacted communities and that it’s going to undermine our public health efforts,” said Mark D. Levine, a Manhattan councilman who leads the health committee. “The rollout of this policy, which was going to be extremely sensitive in the best of circumstances, only further eroded that trust.”

In announcing his plan, Cuomo, a Catholic, said he had taken the action against the communities because he loved them and wanted to protect them, quoting the Torah about “how certain religious obligations can be excused, if you are going to save a life.”

“This is about saving a life,” the governor said.

State Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who has also worked closely with Republicans over the years, said he had no opinion on the governor’s sense of Judaic teaching, but had another piece of scripture in mind.

“I highly recommend the governor read the Bible’s story of David and Goliath,” Felder said. “It really doesn’t end that well for Goliath.”

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