Every Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio calls in to the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC for an Ask the Mayor segment, a conversation that all New Yorkers are invited to join by calling 646-435-7280, or tweeting a question with the #AsktheMayor hashtag. The show airs 10 a.m. to noon on WNYC 93.9 FM, AM 820 and wnyc.org.
In his final radio appearance on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show as mayor, de Blasio reflected on his time managing the pandemic, considered one of the biggest crises the city has faced. He outlined the lessons learned, the threat of the new omicron strain, and his insistence that the city will not shut down so long as the rate of vaccination continues to rise.
Below is a transcript, as well as the audio, of this week's segment, where de Blasio fields questions specific to the pandemic.
Brian Lehrer: It’s Brian Lehrer on WNYC. And now, our final Ask the Mayor segment. At least, our final one with Mayor Bill de Blasio, as he, of course, is term limited out 15 days from today. Our topic for this final edition, being Mayor during a pandemic. You know, he ran for office on the core New York concern about inequality – inequality in the workplace, in education, in housing, in the criminal justice system. You all remember that. He probably never expected that he would soon have to get into a big debate about out quarantines and travel restrictions over a virus that came from a faraway continent.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: We want to state at the outset, there is no reason for New Yorkers to be alarmed. Ebola is an extremely hard disease to contract. It is transmitted only through contact with an infected person's blood or other bodily fluids, not through casual contact.
Lehrer: So, that was Mayor de Blasio during his first year in office, 2014, when the Ebola virus had broken out in parts of West Africa, a few people had it here, and an early rift had broken out between the Mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo over how to respond. So, listeners, I know that's not the virus you thought I was setting up, but let's take that as a prelude to the conversation we're about to have, the unexpected job of being mayor during an actual pandemic. And, good morning, Mr. Mayor, welcome back for your last Ask the Mayor segment.
Mayor: Well, it is very good to be here, Brian. And I'm going to talk about what this whole experience with you has been like at the end and with real thankfulness. But boy, that was – it was a real flashback to remember those days, and what a shock that was at the time. And it came and then suddenly it was gone, and so different than what we've gone through now for two full years.
Lehrer: How did you as mayor in your first year, when that came upon us, gauge the threat to the city and were there lessons that you learned from that for gauging the threat at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mayor: Well, I'll say two things that really strike me. The first is that, what I experienced during the Ebola crisis was extremely clear, consistent federal leadership. I remember I went to Bellevue Hospital where the one case – Bellevue was handling it. And it took a tremendous effort by the team of doctors, and nurses, and support staff at Bellevue to handle an incredibly sensitive situation. They did it beautifully. And I had been there multiple days during the crisis. And I was leaving one night, I get a call on my cell phone, and it’s President Obama. And he was calling to check in to see if there’s anything we needed, to talk about the latest information, you know, how the federal government wanted to coordinate. And it was the exemplary moment in terms of the federal government leading. We talked to the CDC all the time. We got clear, sharp instructions from the CDC. Here was an international challenge, it was being handled by our national government. And we had the ability to follow good, clear guidance from Washington. That was the first thing. And I think, in some ways, that was the – the reality later was so starkly opposite that, that caught me and everyone off guard, when there was so little federal leadership with COVID. The second lesson was the importance of communicating to people early, often, and really trying to separate, sort of, myth from reality. And COVID, it's been really tough, because COVID – you know, the scientific community only knew so much and it kept changing all the time. But there were some moments along the way where I certainly thought back about that experience with Ebola, about how important – remember, Brian, at one point people thought the subways were all infected because the individual who had Ebola – the doctor who had Ebola, who had come back from West Africa, had been on the subways. And some people were fear mongering and saying, well, if you go on the subways, you're going to get Ebola. That was absolutely outrageous and ridiculous. And that clip was part of me trying to say to people, hey, wait a minute, this is a very specific disease, very specific way it transmits. And I think learning to try to clear the air as often as possible was one of the things that came out of Ebola, for me.
Lehrer: By clear the air, talk to people and just keep putting out –
Mayor: Yes, that was not a statement on ventilation.
Which I believe in. I also believe in ventilation. No, it was about constantly communicating and trying to separate myth from truth, because this has been – you know, although it's been an ever-changing dynamic, there were always some essential truths that we had to get across. And, for the last year, the most essential truth has been the power of vaccination. And it was literally a year ago at this time – I will remember another powerful moment where I was fighting with then-Governor Cuomo for the freedom to vaccinate the first responders and the health care – not just the health care workers, the senior citizens of this city, trying constantly to educate people how crucial vaccination was and how we needed the right to be able to do it our way so we could reach more people. So, you know, this is the communications challenge here, the strategic challenge of, with our health care leadership, figuring out how we could break through to people with a clear set of information and how we could fight all the misinformation. That, again, has been something I started to understand with Ebola and I've had to, you know, work on every day during these two years of COVID.
Lehrer: And when this started March of last year, once again, you had to decide how much to calm people's fears and how much to say, hey, let's do things really different right away. And, you know, you basically said, and I think Governor Cuomo also basically said, be careful, but go about your business. And you both got criticized by those who saw San Francisco shutting down schools and issuing stay-at-home orders more quickly and having fewer cases. So, how did you even know how to decide in those earliest days of March 2020, sort of, for the historical record, how much action was right?
Mayor: Well, I think the first point is, the decisions have to be made on data and science and we didn't have any data. This is what's so painful. We now know, in retrospect, because the studies have proven it, that COVID was here in February of 2020. We didn't know that. We had no evidence until March 1st that it was even here. We didn't have our first death till March 14th, and I shut down the schools on March 15th. And I called for shelter in place. And this is, I think, one of the things that most saddens me looking back. I spoke to the Mayor of San Francisco, and shelter in place is a radical, radical step. I mean, you're really shutting down an entire city of over 8 million people. But after I talked to Mayor London Breed, who I think did an absolutely outstanding job during this crisis, you know, and I talked to others about how it was working for them. You know, the next day, I called for shelter in place for New York City. And you will remember very vividly the then-Governor likened it to “imprisoning New Yorkers.” And, you know, I'm very, very troubled that he didn't take that idea seriously for days. And if he had acted quicker, I think we would've all been in better shape. But, you know, Brian, the decision to go from a normal functioning society to a total shutdown is not an easy one. And it was made much harder by the lack of consistent data to tell us what was really going on.
Lehrer: So, how is your experience from back then informing any final COVID decisions that you're having to make just when we thought things were easing again, here comes omicron in your final days. And we've had conversations and other segments the last two days on the show from people really not knowing what to do in their personal lives, how many additional things to cancel in their personal lives. And we're already getting competing tweets – we talked about this last hour – from people saying shut down the schools now, shut down some other kinds of businesses now, again, because omicron is so spreadable, and other people saying that's crazy.
Did we lose the Mayor? Mr. Mayor, are you there? I think we have his line connected, but I can't hear him. Can other people hear him? Is this a problem with the feed to me? No. Nobody can hear the mayor. Okay. So, we will get that fixed. And, in the meantime, I guess we'll put our first caller on the line and at least set up that question. Even though, let's see – do we have him back? No, I guess we're reconnecting the Mayor's line. I apologize folks. 212-433-WNYC. I think we have the line back. Are you there, Mr. Mayor?
Mayor: Yeah. And I heard most of your question. I heard the part about schools and then I lost you.
Lehrer: Yeah. So, people are already saying, well, what do we do now? Do we shut down schools? Do we shut down businesses again, because Omicron is so spreadable?
Mayor: No, no, no. What did I learn? Don't do that. That's what I learned. First of all, there's this, there's this truism – never fight yesterday's war. This is not March of 2020. We are one of the most highly vaccinated places in the United States in America. As of this week, 90 percent of adults in this city have had at least one dose. We've got 1.5 million people with boosters already. We need to get a lot more, of course. But, you know, we are in such a better situation than much of the country, but the key is more and more and more vaccinations. So, we're going to implement these mandates aggressively. We're sending out inspectors. We need people to do this. We need all of these mandates to be followed. The more we vaccinate, the more we can get through this. And the great danger here is shutdowns and restrictions, because that would really destroy in so many ways people's livelihoods. And it would, I think, after everything people have been through, it would be traumatizing. We need to focus on vaccination radically, you know, use the mandates to the fullest. That's not just here, that's all over the country. Now, to the schools – the positivity level in schools as of this morning is 1.02 percent compared to over five percent for the city. The schools are actually one of the safest places to be in the city. We need to keep our kids in school. It is the safest place for them to be. They also need to be in school after all the disruption. So, no, the key here is to vaccinate. If parents are concerned about their kids, go out and get your younger kids vaccinated. That's an area where this city needs to do better. By comparison, Brian, 81 – almost 82 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated. Only 20 percent of five- to 11-year-olds. Parents have got to really focus here on the health and safety of not just their own child and family, but the whole community, and get their kids vaccinated quickly.
Lehrer: One follow up on schools. Our news department is reporting that principals are saying they're having trouble staffing classes, because so many educators either have COVID, or have the cold, or flu, or because their kids are in quarantine. Some principals have said they may have to close individual schools simply because of staffing shortages. Some private schools we hear are closing early for Christmas break. So, what is the range of possible policies that you might be forced into by Monday?
Mayor: Well, I'm not hearing that at all. I mean, I want put aside private schools, religious schools. Whatever their reality, I care about them, but I don't get the same information flow, obviously, from them as from our public schools. We are not hearing that in a systematic way from our public schools at all. Our schools, obviously, are open at this point. Only four out of 1,600 are closed because of contact tracing. We've got today. And then, we've got four more days next week. And then, of course, there's a break. There's a winter break until the beginning of January. So, I feel very confident about our ability to support our school, support our kids. We have a lot of substitute teachers. We developed a very strong corps of them, vaccinated substitute teachers. So, no, we're going to get through next week for sure. And then, I'll certainly be working with the Mayor-elect to prepare him and his team on any decisions they have to make for the beginning of January.
Lehrer: Tracy in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Tracy. Tracy, are you there? We may have – we may be having –
Mayor: No Tracy –
Lehrer: No Tracy, but we may be having a problem with the audio on our phone bank. Let's see if Kevin in Sunnyside is hearable. Kevin, you there? No. Okay. We are having – we are having a phones problem. So, listeners, tweet, you're Ask the Mayor questions at Brian Lehrer. Use the hashtag #AsktheMayor and we'll get to your questions via Twitter ... But, in the meantime, with 2020 hindsight, Mr. Mayor, why did New York City get hit so hard at the start of the pandemic? Why were we the epicenter? And what lessons can future mayors and public health officials take from that?
Mayor: The answer is one word, globalization. We are now one of the great global capitals. We have a huge amount of travel through here, more than almost any place else in the country. We know COVID reached us from Europe. We are densely populated. We have lots of multigenerational housing. We have, as with so much of this country, way too much poverty. And we've done a lot, I can say honestly, to reverse some of that in this city, but there's still way too much poverty, and way too many people haven't gotten enough health care in their lives, because healthcare is based on who has money in this country. You know, we're trying to change that here, but there's a lot of reasons and they all unfortunately collide in why this place got hit so hard. But I want to emphasize, you know, out of those ashes, you know the phoenix, is that we need to be the public health capital of the world going forward. We can now protect ourselves in entirely different ways because of what we've learned. We need to be the life sciences capital to this country and the place where a lot of the cures are created. We need to learn the lesson of COVID both locally and nationally to build up our own supplies of PPE, ventilators, all the things we need, not be dependent on a global supply chain that doesn't work anymore and didn't work during COVID. We need to use the Defense Production Act, federally, to if necessary take over production lines of different types of industries to create the medicines and the supplies we need. We need a strategic reserve, and we've set one up locally, but we need it nationally. There's so much that's come out of this crisis that actually arms us to never have to go through something like this again. But we were right in the crosshairs from the very beginning. But also New Yorkers responded, they listened to the instructions of the doctors, they got vaccinated, they did all the tough shelter in place, the masking, the distancing and the response to New Yorkers is actually a textbook on how cities and countries need to respond in the future.
Lehrer: Listener pushes back on you saying the great danger would be to shut down saying restrictions, listener tweets, not hospital system collapse?
Mayor: Well to the listener, with all due respect to them, so of course, I talk to our health care leadership daily and what we're seeing, again, this is do not fight yesterday's war. The hospital system in New York City, I want differentiate that from the rest of New York State or the rest of the United States of America, the hospital system in New York City is very strong and stable right now. The hospitalization level, which we talk about daily, has not increased in a way that can't be handled and that's important to recognize, that we have also much better ability to handle COVID than at the beginning of this crisis. The hospitals have much more in the way of treatment and protocols to support patients. So, right now we're at 1.47 – hospitalization rate of 1.47 per 100,000 New Yorkers. Higher than we want it to be, but a number that indicates that we can continue to maintain our hospital system well, and most of our hospitals have not had to think about stopping elective surgery or anything like that because the good news is so many people are vaccinated. And that's – it all comes back to this. The more people vaccinated, the more people get boosters, the fewer people who have a serious bout of COVID, the fewer people go into the hospital, the fewer people who die. So, our high level of vaccination is the differentiation between us and say upstate or many other cities in the country that have struggled. We need to double down on vaccination. That's why these next round of mandates to start on December 27th are so important. The private sector mandate has to be implemented aggressively as way to blunt the impact of Omicron and limit it so we do not need to go to shut down or restriction.
Lehrer: Now my screeners tell me that only one of our 10 phone lines seems to be working and the person who is lucky enough to be on that line, and let's see if it really works, is calling as Dr. Dan in Manhattan. Dr. Dan you're on WNYC with the Mayor, hello.
Question: Hello, can you hear me?
Lehrer: Yeah. We got you.
Question: Hi there, I'm a medical doctor. I'm not a television person. I don't have one at home, but I happened to be in front of a TV a couple of nights ago when there was a celebration on the steps of City Hall of a championship soccer team. I saw about 60 men standing shoulder to shoulder without masks on. I thank you for having the Atlantic writer on in the last hour, everybody, including the Mayor needs to listen very carefully and read his article because he is 100 percent correct. It is well known that COVID germs spread exactly in the same manner as cigarette smoke. The rule that people should follow is that no matter whether they're inside or outside, if they are close enough to others to smell smoke, if the others were smoking, then they are too close, and –
Lehrer: And so let me get a response for you from the Mayor. His point is clear, shouldn't have been allowed like that even outdoors on the steps of City Hall, what do you say to Dr. Dan?
Mayor: Well, I respect the doctor's point, but I'm obviously everything we did was at the – with the guidance of the medical leadership of the city. They fundamentally believe there's a difference, a profound difference between outdoor and indoor. We're talking about people who are required to be vaccinated, all around, everyone there was required to be vaccinated. So, I would differentiate the point, if you have an all vaccinated group of people and your outdoors, and many, many people were wearing masks, in fact, I think, you know, and based on what we knew at that moment, that was acceptable thing to do. I think it's something we're going look at every single day from this point on and follow the guidance of the medical leadership on how we handle things. But one thing that was even clear last year has become more clear this year, the decisive factors in both limiting spread and limiting the negative impact to COVID are vaccination first and foremost, and the difference between outdoor and indoor, which is profound. So, I would say it a little differently, get vaccinated, and when you're doing anything, - when you have a choice of where you can do it, if you can do it outdoors, it's always better. Those are real world guideposts, and if people were following those, we would have even less of a problem than we're having now, and we're doing a lot, lot better than most places in this country because we are so vaccinated.
Lehrer: I still can't put Kevin in Sunnyside on the air, but I know from our screener, he was asking, COVID crisis at Rikers, what is the solution? Because that's not over yet. People are still dying there, I know not just of COVID, not even primarily of COVID, but there's pushback on moving a number of women who are incarcerated there to further away and hire security state prisons. People don't like that they're being further separated from their families, but I think that was technically a COVID move. So what can you say to people still dissatisfied with conditions on Rikers?
Mayor: We're literally every day – and remember our Health + Hospitals run the healthcare at Rikers. Every day the healthcare leadership are deciding if any additional adjustments need to be made, we'll do ever is needed. The number one thing was to reduce the population, which we were able to do substantially over the last few months. In fact, getting some of the inmates over to that state facility was crucial to reducing population, getting people to a facility that was in better shape to handle additional people and is. We provide the transportation, the support for families to get there for free, obviously. So, no, I think the thing to focus on is the medical leadership telling us what is needed to stay ahead of COVID, and most importantly, keep reducing incarceration the right way, and there are many ways to do that. And remember, incarceration levels are well under half of what they are today than the day I took office, and we want to continue to do that in a responsible way, especially during the COVID era.
Lehrer: And here's another Rikers related COVID call from somebody who got through on our one line that's working, and it's Tracy in Brooklyn. You're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello Tracy.
Question: Hello, Mayor de Blasio. First of all, I would like to say that I think you did a, a fantastic job dealing with this coronavirus. And I also would like to say that on the day that they opened up a hospital at the Billie Jean King Center, you mentioned my son's name. My son was 34-years-old. He worked for the Department of Corrections. He was an IT, and you mentioned his name, and I so appreciate that. But what I want to ask you is, as Hunter worked for the Department of Corrections, as an IT he's not eligible according to the city for line of duty pay. And you had stated that the people who worked for the Department of Corrections and have died from COVID 19 should be eligible for line of duty pay, and I agree with you. My son was 34 years old. He left work on March the 19th of 2020 and he died March 29th, 2020, and he was 34 years old and he worked for DOC as an IT, and he was loved.
Lehrer: Tracy, thank you.
Mayor: Tracy I’m –
Lehrer: Mr. Mayor.
Mayor: And Tracy, I'm so sorry. It’s just I can hear the deep pain in your voice and as a father, you know, the thing we all fear the most is losing the child before we're gone, and I'm very, very sorry for everything you've been through. I want you please to give your information to WNYC, let me immediately see we can do to help you and your family. I'm going to actually ask our First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan to speak to you directly to see what we can do, because I want to make sure everyone gets every form of help we can provide. So very, very sorry, and you've – you’ve brought me back right there to just how horrible those for first days were and the good people we lost. And I got to tell you, I want to make sure every family lost someone that we're doing everything we can for, but I also think we got to remember, all of us, we can't go back to anything like that, and I don't think we ever will, but if we don't get people vaccinated more, we will lose lives we didn't need to lose. And I think this is the point where the whole debate over vaccination, we got to now recognize that even if folks have had qualms or concerns, this is a responsibility to everyone else to get vaccinated, to get everyone in your family vaccinated, to get the booster, because that is literally going to save lives in this city. These are lives that can be saved.
Lehrer: Let me jump in to make sure Tracy knows you can leave your contact information, a producer will pick up and get that from you. And as we have just a minute left in the show, Mr. Mayor, you got that one last opportunity to say, leave your contact information with WNYC and we'll get back to you, and we appreciate that you did get back to a lot of the people you told that. And I want to thank you one last time for being so accessible to my questions, but even more for the listeners questions since Ask the Mayor began during your first term, everyone knows you may be back sooner rather than later for a candidate interview for Governor. We've already had Tom Suozzi and Jumaane Williams. We'll see what your decision is. But after eight years of this intense job, that ends on January 1st, what are you going to do on January 2nd? And we have 30 seconds.
Mayor: Only to say I'm going to take a little break for sure, and then get back to public service, but Brian, thank you, thank you. This dialogue with the people of the city has been inspiring, and I just want to tell you in the end, even the tough questions, even the passionate questions, even the people who didn't agree, it has given me just real faith in how much people love this place and care and want to find solutions. And this has been a painful time the last couple years, but has also been a heroic time for the city. New Yorkers showed the world incredible strength and compassion for each other, and thank you, Brian. This show is a true public service and thank you for what you do and, and all your colleagues. Thank you for what you do for this city by making this dialogue possible.
Lehrer: Thank you again, Mr. Mayor. Talk to you next time.