A year ago today, Mayor Bill de Blasio took a rare subway ride, boarding a crowded C train at Fulton Street and getting off one stop later at High Street in Brooklyn. His bare face grinned for a photo-op while other maskless straphangers casually breathed all over one another in the background. As the tabloids pointed out, the mayor prefers to travel by SUV, but that day he wanted to reassure New Yorkers that, despite growing concerns about the coronavirus, there was “nothing to fear.”
Studies have since found that the subway may not be a major source of spread, but that wasn’t known then, and telling people they should continue about their crowded rush-hour commutes as if everything was fine may not have been the right message to send. Roughly 24 hours later, the mayor said the virus only lasted on surfaces for two to three minutes. This turned out to be imprecise, too.
These episodes came just a few days after de Blasio suggested New Yorkers head to the movie theater. At that time, the pandemic was tearing through urban centers in China and Europe and had already made its debut in New York.
Three days later, the mayor softened his endorsement, saying people should find an alternative way to get to and from work, if possible. Or if not, at least look for a less crowded subway car. This advice was aimed at minimizing crowds. But New Yorkers could still go out to eat, de Blasio said, since the virus “does not transmit through food and drink.”
It’s hard not to look back and cringe, but, of course, hindsight is 20/20. Could these early pandemic missteps really have been avoided? According to public health communications experts, the answer is yes. Despite all the uncertainty back then, they say, there was a better way.
“I don’t know what [the city’s health experts] were telling the mayor at the time, all I know is they were not front and center with the messaging,” said David Abramson, a clinical associate professor at NYU’s School of Global Public Health who researches crisis communication strategies.
Longstanding public health wisdom dictates that scientists and trusted health officials should take the lead in delivering messages during a crisis—something that was missing at all levels of government, from the mayor to the president, early on in the pandemic.
“There’s always going to be tension,” Abramson said. “Politicians always want to take the driver seat and use the moment to show strong leadership and direction. All of those things are going to contribute to their image. And public leaders are important, no doubt about it. But the lesson remains, fine take the podium first and show the leadership, but show you can also delegate.”
It’s a lesson de Blasio seems to have learned over time. In his press conferences, he now frequently defers to city leaders such as senior adviser Dr. Jay Varma, health commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi, and NYC Health + Hospitals CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz.
But in the days and weeks leading up to lockdown, de Blasio and other politicians tried to demonstrate their capacity to govern while armed with limited information about the coronavirus and the outbreak’s rapid spread through New York. It’s not clear what city and state health experts were saying behind the scenes, but the announcements doled out to the public changed at a dizzying pace and often conflicted with one another.
Even last March, scientists and medical professionals were raising alarms about the messy communication across the country. The day of de Blasio’s subway ride, public health experts published a commentary on the National Academy of Medicine website urging more coordinated messaging, ideally from a trusted source such as the surgeon general.
“The rapid escalation of the virus has been associated with confusing and sometimes contradictory communication about its spread and what individuals need to know and do about COVID-19,” the commentary said. “These sometimes contradictory messages are confusing to the general public and may undermine both the public health response and public trust in official information sources.”
One of the commentary’s authors was Dr. Scott Ratzan, a distinguished lecturer at the CUNY School of Public Health. He says surveys he conducted early in the pandemic showed New Yorkers were more likely to get information from the state than the city, but adds that people would have benefited from a coordinated briefing from a public health official who could “help make sense of reality and the preponderance of evidence or lack of evidence and say why we’re making a recommendation.”
President Donald Trump’s alienation of the CDC and public health officials might also have influenced other politicians, even as they sought to distinguish themselves from him.
“I think that had ramifications up and down the line,” Abramson said. “I’m sure that other politicians were looking at the fact that, ‘Oh, I see Trump is leading the messaging. Maybe we need to be similarly aligning ourselves with our own messaging because that’s what’s happening now, rather than turning it over to key scientists.’”
De Blasio offered gestures of reassurance while implicitly acknowledging how few details he had to back them. The day of the subway ride, only 22 cases had been confirmed statewide, although we now know the real number was likely in the thousands. The mayor said the “batting average” for coronavirus test results was good. In the same breath, he said widespread testing was impossible and implored the federal government to send more tests.
The mayor and governor generally did not take the crisis as an opportunity to get in sync, publicly battling over whether to close schools and who had the authority to do so. When they did display a united front, it was not always on the most helpful takeaway.
“Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers — I speak for the mayor also on this one — we think we have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said on March 2. “So, when you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”
Abramson says beyond putting health experts front and center, it’s also important to be clear about what is known and unknown, what is being done to get answers, and how all that will affect decision making.
“This is something that is often very hard because people don’t want to hear uncertainty,” Abramson acknowledged. “They would prefer to hear a certain message: ‘It’s OK’ or ‘Don't do it’ or ‘Here’s the exact reason to do it.’ But in those early days, we didn’t have exact science. We had assumptions.”
Abramson noted that all this is “Monday morning quarterbacking,” which can sometimes be unfair. “[The mayor] was obviously thinking about the economic heartbeat of this city when making those claims, like ‘Yes, it’s fine to ride the subway,’” he said.
“Any communicator is going to make missteps,” he added. “On the other hand, there is clear guidance on better ways of doing this, especially in a rapidly evolving situation.”