For more than a week, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that Sunday April 5th was “D-Day.” He said the city was facing critical shortages of supplies and personnel as COVID-19 cases in NYC continued to increase, and the complexity of the crisis could not be overstated.
“We have to think about all of the pieces that we need to get through this important challenging moment in the history of this city. And I want everyone to understand that – it's not just one thing that we need at this point. We have to pull together all the pieces if we're going to save every life that we can save,” de Blasio said on Sunday.
The D-Day analogy and the plain talk about the enormous challenges have been key elements of the mayor’s pandemic preparedness effort. But they also expose how de Blasio has scrambled to manage the local impact of a global crisis, hamstrung by the very aspects of the job as the city’s chief executive that have frustrated him most.
This is the crisis that will define his legacy, but ultimately he is not in control of key levers of power. For one, he needs help from the state and federal leaders with whom he does not always get along. He’s spent weeks urging President Donald Trump to use the full powers of the Defense Production Act to help address the city’s exponential need for supplies. He’s also been repeatedly bigfooted by the governor, from the decision to postpone the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to closing city schools and playgrounds.
Even in the areas where he had control, the mayor has struggled to make decisions in a way that felt timely and consistent—bringing renewed focus to his management shortcomings and his inability to understand the dissonance New Yorkers experience when his actions are out of step with his public messages.
Listen to reporter Brigid Bergin's radio story for WNYC:
The good news, if you want to call it that, at his Sunday briefing was spare. On supplies, the top concern remains acquiring enough ventilators. Based on the city’s current projections, they have enough to last through Tuesday or possibly Wednesday. About 4,000 people are currently intubated; the city only has 135 full-service ventilators in stock. The city is relying on a midweek resupply of surgical gowns as part of its personal protective equipment inventory, after just receiving a delivery of N95 masks.
For medical personnel, he said the city was nearly sufficient, but noted that people are going to need to be relieved and replaced. Since last week, and in a NYTimes op ed, de Blasio urged the federal government to enlist all available doctors and healthcare workers. Invoking war-time rhetoric, he said the city needed the whole nation to be on a war-time footing, arguing that while New York City is the epicenter now this crisis soon will blanket the nation.
The mayor has ideas about what should happen. He just can’t enact them on his own. We’ve already seen him float ideas, like a shelter in place order for the city, only to have the Governor criticize it and essentially co-opt it days later, calling it by another name. In this case, there’s no question more medical personnel are needed. What’s not clear is if the mayor will be the most persuasive messenger for the kind of national program he’s seeking.
All levels of government have offered shifting guidance about the pandemic. De Blasio has said it's a new disease, with new information coming out all the time. But he also undermined his own efforts, such as when he resisted closing the schools, but then ultimately shut them down suddenly, along with restaurants, bars, and gyms—only to go work out one last time at his favorite YMCA gym the day everything was closing.
“There's a reason we talk about leading by example. And there's a reason we talk about why optics are important,” former mayoral adviser Rebecca Katz told Gothamist / WNYC last month.
This past weekend, he was spotted walking in Prospect Park with his wife, without face coverings, right after the city and the CDC came out with guidance last week urging people to wear them in public.
Asked about it on Sunday, he brushed aside the question and stressed the guidance applied when you were in close proximity to others. Still, people saw him at the park and it was an opportunity to show New Yorkers that even the mayor is wearing a face covering outside -- no big deal, you can do it, too. Instead, de Blasio lost another opportunity to lead by example.
"Both the Mayor and the First Lady had scarves with them when they were in Prospect Park," de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said in statement emailed on Tuesday afternoon. "They were using them whenever they approached people and could no longer maintain 6 ft. of distancing. When it was just the two of them and everyone else was farther away, they had them down. This is consistent with how DOH has advised NYers to use them and consistent with how he’s used them at our two public press conferences since."
“The City Council needs to examine what went wrong,” City Councilmember Ritchie Torres told Gothamist’s David Cruz last week. “What were the failures that led to the catastrophic outbreak of the novel coronavirus outbreak in New York City?”
Another criticism focuses on the city’s reluctance to share clear, consistent statistics on COVID-19. The mayor has said he wants to make sure the information was accurate. Yet, a month into the full-on crisis, basic demographics about the disease were not available.
Asked about this on Sunday, the mayor said the city would try to provide better data, acknowledging that there was a “striking overlap of where this virus is doing the most damage and where we've had historic health care disparities.”
Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot noted that one of the challenges was the quality of the information the city was getting from hospitals. Still, other elected officials like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams argued that the city needed to do better with reporting the racial demographics of COVID-19 cases.
The irony is the de Blasio has long made addressing inequities central to his agenda. Just two months ago, Mayor de Blasio delivered his annual State of the City speech with the prophetic theme #SaveOurCity. At the time, he was speaking to the persistent sense of anxiety among New Yorkers that problems of affordability and inequality would force them out of the city they loved, “people are afraid that New York City won’t be New York City anymore.”
The mayor had already held his first briefing on the looming threat of the coronavirus two weeks earlier. In the speech, there was no mention of it.
Still, all those challenges de Blasio spelled out while standing at the center of an audience of hundreds—an image that’s eerie to imagine today—have grown worse during the outbreak of the coronavirus. And, in the midst of the crisis that will define his legacy, it’s clear the mayor does not have the power to make the changes he would like to make.
“I mean, do I think he cares about New York City? The residents of New York City? Absolutely,” said Fordham Professor Christina Greer. “Do I think that he has all the tools he needs to save our city? I don't think he has those tools.”