Early in the pandemic, the New York state legislature granted former Gov. Andrew Cuomo extraordinarily broad emergency powers that allowed him to dictate the statewide response to COVID-19. Lawmakers later rescinded those powers amid the scandals that led to Cuomo's resignation this summer, but coronavirus cases are once again surging in several counties and a new variant of concern is beginning to spread internationally.
Now, the question is what powers does the current Gov. Kathy Hochul still have and what is she willing to use?
Politico's Albany reporter Anna Gronewold joined All Things Considered host Sean Carlson to discuss what Hochul can and has been doing to shape pandemic policy. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Thinking back to spring 2020, can you remind us just how expansive Cuomo's emergency powers were at the beginning of the pandemic?
You know, they were pretty unprecedented. That's the word that we use a lot, but truly just as the pandemic started to bear down on New York, Cuomo pushed the legislature to pass a whole host of additional powers.
Governors have always had the power to suspend laws during a crisis, but Cuomo allowed it so that he could pass new laws unilaterally. That was not only incredibly unique for him to do, but something that he began to use almost immediately and continued to use even after the worst of the crisis had passed.
State legislators did roll back a lot of those powers back in March of this year. And now we have a new governor, Kathy Hochul. Does she still have any of these emergency powers? What powers does she have when it comes to the pandemic response?
She doesn't have nearly as many just because Cuomo's situation was so specific and unique. He knew what he wanted to do and then gave himself the power to do it, it seems.
The powers that Hochul still does have are the ability to suspend certain laws that may be prohibiting faster action.
If she would like to enact new laws through decrees, it's my understanding that that's something that she would need to discuss with the legislature.
How has Hochul’s response to the pandemic been different or similar to Cuomo's?
It's very interesting because it almost goes without saying that they are two entirely different politicians for many reasons.
Especially because I think Hochul realizes that the way that Cuomo approached the pandemic, and especially in retrospect, some of the things that are coming out now about how that actually played out was the cause of his political downfall, or at least contributed to it.
On one hand, she is going to want to do many things that she can to distinguish herself from him. But also to be fair, we're in a completely different place than we were a year-and-a-half ago because there are now proven things that Hochul knows are recommended, and she has people that she will lean on to give her those answers.
Whereas in March of 2020 Andrew Cuomo wasn't the only one who was just throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck. I will say that I've been struck by how specifically she has brought on public health experts to some of her COVID briefings. She does really want to set a tone that she is not making these decisions by herself.
In fact, she is hoping that she is not the one who is recommending specific steps. She is listening to people around her. And I think that's very much part of the perception that she would like to project right now, not only as the current governor, but as one who is running for reelection next year.
That's something we wanted to talk about. Hochul is running for a full term as governor. Do you think that there is a political calculation that she's making that's influencing her approach to the current surge?
I would never presume that a politician is not being political, but I do think that she is going to follow the science and recommendations to the best of her ability. She also has said that she, to the best of her ability, will be conferring with the local officials to guide these decisions.
I have heard from both Republicans and Democrats who are local leaders who have said that she has followed through on that so far.
Part of that is definitely the collaborative approach that she said she will embody as governor, but there's another part of that that means that she's also not the one you can blame unilaterally.
The legislature would have to approve any new emergency powers for Hochul. So what are you hearing from them?
So far there hasn't been too much chatter about what that sort of situation might look like, but I don't think that would be extremely popular. It seems to me like Hochul is waiting to see some metrics over the next couple of weeks. The legislature isn't set to actually reconvene until January, but you know, that's when potentially a holiday surge could come up.
And if Hochul did try to take some actions that the legislature deemed inappropriate, that would set up a very interesting struggle because we haven't seen Hochul take on legislative forces yet.
I don't know how much political appetite there is on any level to have that sort of battle right now.