Earlier today, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo was a guest on the The New York Times' The Daily podcast with Michael Barbaro to discuss New York State's response to the novel coronavirus crisis.
AUDIO is available here.
A rush transcript of the Governor's interview with Michael Barbaro is available below:
Michael Barbaro: As one of the earliest states with confirmed cases of the coronavirus and with the most confirmed cases so far, New York State has begun to aggressively move to control its spread. Taking a series of increasingly drastic steps over the last few days. Today, a conversation with Governor Andrew Cuomo. It's Wednesday, March 18th. So, I want to thank you for letting us...
Governor Cuomo: I'm just examining the microphone.
Michael Barbaro: That's a window screen, it will keep your...
Governor Cuomo: Keep the wind down.
Michael Barbaro: So Governor, I want to thank you for letting us in in the middle of an extraordinary crisis and tell you how much we appreciate it. I want to start this conversation by asking you where New York is in this pandemic. It's Tuesday afternoon around 3pm, how many New Yorkers do we understand have the coronavirus at this point?
Governor Cuomo: We have, right now, over 1,000 cases. It's a little misleading because we're talking about these tests as if it's taking a random sample, right? But it's not. The test results are purely symbolic of how many tests you're taking. We are now taking more tests than most states and we're finding more positives, which would make sense also because we are the most dense state and this is a function of density at the end of the day. You're getting on a subway train, on a bus, you're in a crowded restaurant, you're in a crowded office space, and this transfers in the crowds. So that it would be here first is not surprising. That is would communicate most easily here is not surprising. And that we would have the sophisticated health system that would detect it here first is not surprising.
Michael Barbaro: So, if these are the front lines of this epidemic, and I've heard you describe this as a kind of war that we're in right now, what stage of the war are we at in a place like New York?
Governor Cuomo: We are seeing the enemy on the horizon and they are approaching very quickly. And we don't have our defenses in place.
Michael Barbaro: We don't?
Governor Cuomo: We don't. Testing was the first level of defense. Right? The testing was slow nationwide. We're now ramping up in this state because the federal government, I think, made a wise decision. We were the first to ask for it, I asked the president for it directly. Basically I said, "Decentralize the testing, leave it to the states." We have 200 laboratories in this state. I said, "Decentralize it, let the states do it."
Michael Barbaro: But you weren't allowed at first. To do it.
Governor Cuomo: Right. The federal government was controlling it and you were running all the national tests through the CDC which was then sending them to Atlanta. So, we're now ramping up on testing. That's why our numbers are high. But testing is no longer going to keep the genie in the bottle, right. The genie is out of the bottle now. Where this all comes down to, is when they talk about flattening the curve, flattening the curve. They're trying to slow the advance of the enemy until we can get enough of our defenses in place. What are the defenses? A healthcare system that can handle the injured, to torture the metaphor. And we're not there. If you look at the speed, the increase in the rate, the spike in the increase of the number of cases, we're looking at a possibility of an apex being about 45 days away.
Michael Barbaro: The peak of this pandemic here.
Governor Cuomo: That's one projection, 45 days. Needing 110,000 hospital beds. In this state you have 50,000 hospital beds. Needing 37,000 intensive care unit beds, and having 3,000 ICU beds.
Michael Barbaro: Needing 37,000, having three. That's a pretty extraordinary gap.
Governor Cuomo: Yeah, because the injured here are going to be predominately senior citizens, compromised immune systems, underlying illness. And those people need ICUs. When they're coming to the hospital, they don't need a normal bed and moderate healthcare. They need an ICU.
Michael Barbaro: So, I want to talk about your leadership in this war, to similarly torture the metaphor. The work you've done in the past few days to flatten the curve. Because, you've made some extraordinary decisions in the past 72 hours or so. Efforts to start essentially, kind of start shutting down systematically elements of our life here in New York. So, help me understand the information that you've been receiving, the calculations that you've been weighing, and the very real trade-offs that you understood would have to be made.
Governor Cuomo: I'm watching the increase in cases, and you take one measure and you see what the effect was. You take another measure, and you see what the effect was. And nothing was having an effect. Nothing we were doing.
Michael Barbaro: What steps did you take that were not effective?
Governor Cuomo: The testing was supposed to be step one. That was supposed to slow the spread. That didn't work. Ok, the enemy keeps coming. You start moderate social distancing. Businesses, voluntary basis, work from home. That didn't make any difference. The numbers have kept going up, regardless of everything we did. When you keep seeing those numbers increase, your efforts have to become more and more dramatic. Yesterday, we went to the point of closing bars, restaurants, gyms and schools, with the precaution of providing childcare for essential workers, especially nurses, healthcare workers. The next level of efforts to control density, control the spread, would be to start closing, mandatory closing of businesses.
Michael Barbaro: Let me focus in on that decision. Bars, restaurants. Because that is billions of dollars in lost revenue, it's tens of thousands of people out of work. On my way here, I got a text from a friend who said he had just laid off 90 employees, and he was crying the whole time he had to do it. So let's talk about how you made that decision because of that impact that that is immediately going to have. It's a huge part of the economy in the state. So how did you get to that decision?
Governor Cuomo: Michael, you are past the point of monetizing these decisions.
Michael Barbaro: What do you mean?
Governor Cuomo: You are at the point of deciding, how many people are going to live, how many people are going to die. That's where you are. Closing restaurants reduces the spread of the disease. The disease transfers very quickly, not just in the coughs or the droplets, etcetera. There are some studies that say the disease can live, the virus can live up to two or three days on a surface.
Michael Barbaro: Like a table at a restaurant.
Governor Cuomo: Just think about that. Like a table in a restaurant. Like a sink. Like a handrail in a bus. Two or three days. I mean it's why this virus is so vicious. And we know the trajectory right now overwhelms the hospital system. Three or four-fold. It's not even close. People will die because they can't get the healthcare service they need.
Michael Barbaro: You're reducing the number of people who die because they can't get into a hospital bed, for every restaurant you close and every transmission you prevent in closing that restaurant?
Governor Cuomo: Yes.
Michael Barbaro: Those are pure numbers.
Governor Cuomo: Yes and it's not even just New York. The whole nation is past the point of let's try to save money, right. You look at the damage on the market, you look at all the businesses that are closing. This is now a national phenomenon that this economy is going to be very badly hurt. The recovery of this economy is going to be an economic feat never seen before. You're going to have to go back to the Great Depression to come up with a revival plan for the economy like we're seeing now. You're going to see mortgage foreclosures. You're going to see bankruptcies. Massive unemployment - claims across the board.
Michael Barbaro: I don't see you sugar coating this at all.
Governor Cuomo: No. This is going to be -- our state finances are decimated. How does the state work? The state is just a percentage of every other business. Those businesses are all closed or they're revenues have been cut by 50, 60, 70 percent. But I think the good thing is as a nation we said, "So what?" So what? What value on a human life? If I can save here, 5,000 lives, 10,000 lives, I don't care what it costs, Michael. That's what I'm going to do.
Michael Barbaro: I wonder what you want to say to somebody who has just lost their job, because there are a lot of them, who may not be able to pay their rent, who may not be able to pay their mortgage, may lose their housing and are really scared because of these economic consequences. What do you want them to hear you say?
Governor Cuomo: I would say, first, I hope no one in your family or no one you know dies because of this. Because that's what we're trying to accomplish. I hope no one in your family dies. Second, we all understand the economic consequences. It's not just you, it is everyone. And by the way, take solace in that fact. Because maybe if it was just you, you could be forgotten and left on the side of the road. It's not just you. It's everyone and it's everywhere. The Italians have an old saying that the rich man is the man who has health, right. If you have your health, you can figure anything else out. And it's true. We'll figure out the economy. You know I went through 9/11. Oh downtown Manhattan is devastated, we have to rebuild, how are we going to do this? We're alive, first of all. And if we are alive, we'll figure out the rest. We'll figure out the money. It's making sure we live through this.
Michael Barbaro: Governor, I want to understand how you're thinking about something else which is, hospitals, supplies and readiness. You started to signal that there's a major shortage of ICU units. What about respirators? What does the picture start to look like in a couple of weeks and are we ready for it?
Governor Cuomo: We are not ready for it, certainly today. The picture looks like you have tens of thousands of people coming to the hospital. These are respiratory illnesses, they can't breathe, they need an ICU bed with a ventilator. Okay, buy more ventilators. Okay, you can't.
Michael Barbaro: You can't?
Governor Cuomo: Because the entire world is trying to buy ventilators.
Michael Barbaro: So you tried to buy ventilators?
Governor Cuomo: We try every which way to buy ventilators, we're trying to go to China, which is now over it, trying to buy their ventilators. I mean it is a global competition to buy ventilators. The federal government has an emergency medical stockpile, I reached out to the president, federal cooperation is everything, Michael, because it's whatever the federal government has in that stockpile is going to be our main access point.
Michael Barbaro: Did you ask to tap into the stockpile and what did the President say?
Governor Cuomo: Yes, he has said he will be very helpful. We are looking at the Army Corps of Engineers to try to build additional hospital beds, convert hospital beds, etc., because you are overwhelming the capacity of the healthcare system by two or three times. You need back up staff, back up nurses, back up doctors, and more space, more equipment, more gloves, more food, more everything.
Michael Barbaro: Is there a version where hospitals can handle this influx or is it just a matter of how short they fall?
Governor Cuomo: There is no way they can handle this.
Michael Barbaro: So then do you accept that some incredibly difficult decisions are going to need to be made inside hospitals in the coming days - decisions of who lives and who dies, who gets a bed and who does, who gets a respirator and who does not, who to prioritize? Is that something doctors should be deciding or is that something government should be playing role in?
Governor Cuomo: It will be a question of triage. Remember, most of these people will have serious underlying conditions already. And in some ways it will become self-selecting depending on how ill you were when you came in.
Michael Barbaro: Right, but when the decision has to be made, do I put the 85 year old with underlying conditions in the ICU who might have a 50-50 chance, or do I put a 45 year old in the ICU who has come in with respiratory problems who has a 60% chance? We just talked to a doctor in Italy who had to make these choices. Do you want to be the one issuing protocols? Do you want the President to be issuing those protocols? Who should be guiding those kinds of awful decisions?
Governor Cuomo: Well, I pray that we don't get there. It should be a medical decision unless God intervenes and God makes the determination first.
Michael Barbaro: What is the ideal role of the federal government right now in your mind?
Governor Cuomo: Right now, crank up the Army Corps of Engineers which does have building capacity. Add to hospital capacity in the states that need it, New York would be at the top of the list. That is what they do, right? They build the infrastructure for war. They go into a country where nothing exists and they cut down trees, they build roads, they build camps, because the states don't have the capacity or the resources. I don't have a workforce. Mobilize FEMA, which has tremendous potential when it works well, right? FEMA did Hurricane Katrina which was FEMA not doing a good job. FEMA can be extraordinarily good when it's staffed and funded. So we need them fully deployed here.
Michael Barbaro: So, are they doing that?
Governor Cuomo: The President has now, I believe yesterday, the President's tone was 100% serious. He showed more sobriety on this issue than he has shown. I spoke with him twice today already. I know he has his team working. I was on the phone with them late last night, early this morning. So, I believe he is fully committed and he understands the role and he understand the severity, and that is good news.
Michael Barbaro: Let me ask you directly, what do you think of President Trump's leadership in this moment? It began with some skepticism about the severity of the situation. It has changed like you just signaled. Is the President your partner here?
Governor Cuomo: Let me say this. I have had a tumultuous relationship with this President. I have opposed many of his policies vociferously. You can probably say there has been no governor in the country who has been as aggressive in his opposition to the President as I have, both ideologically and practically. And I probably have sued the President more than any governor in the United States. So, having said that, I said to the President again this morning, look forget everything. Forget Democrats, forget Republicans, we are Americans and that always came first and that is where we are. I put out my hand in partnership. I need your help. I am grateful for your help. I'll be a committed partner. Let's get this done. Let's save lives.
Michael Barbaro: Did he say anything to make you feel like that was to be reciprocated?
Governor Cuomo: Yes, he said yes - exactly. You know the country has gotten itself into this hyper-partisan hype, this ideological intensity. And I understand why, it has been for me too in truth. But then something happens and it changes your whole perspective, right? You can be fighting with your family and your siblings, and I am not going to go to your birthday party. And then the parent dies and you say to each other, what have we been doing? What a waste of time.
Michael Barbaro: Do you think we're at a moment that may transcend?
Governor Cuomo: You're talking about Americans dying here - that's what you're talking about. Americans dying. Forget everything else. Life is as life and death and that changes your perspective. We can have the arguments another day. It also changes by the way, your perspective on government. Think about this - when was the last time this country actually needed government? Needed it to be competent and qualified and needed leaders to be real leaders - not celebrity leaders, not good-looking, handsome, charismatic leaders. "I like this one, this one's sexy, this one's funny." It's a totally different lens - no, this thing called government is very serious. It's a serious business. You have to know what you're doing - you have to mobilize - what is this Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA and how do you build a hospital in 45 days and how do you triage and how do you make all these things happen and state-local relations and passing emergency appropriations and how do you get emergency funding for purchasing and emergency orders. "Wow I didn't know government did that."
Michael Barbaro: Right, this is what government is actually for and every so often we have a moment that demonstrates why government exists.
Governor Cuomo: And it doesn't matter, until it matters.
Michael Barbaro: Is there more coming, Governor? What kind of measures should your constituents - all New Yorkers - maybe even people beyond New York be taking to get ready to take on? As we walked into this room, we got word, for example, that it looks like New York is essentially going to order a shelter in place condition, which means basically you can't leave your house. What more is coming?
Governor Cuomo: Yes - that is not going to happen, shelter in place, for New York City. For any city or county to take an emergency action, the State has to approve it. And I wouldn't approve shelter in place. That scares people, right? Quarantine in place - you can't leave your home. The fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus.
Michael Barbaro: It is?
Governor Cuomo: Yes. And I shut that down immediately. The density control measures would be more - we're going to close businesses or close -
Michael Barbaro: You're going to close all businesses?
Governor Cuomo: Potentially. Potentially - Italy took the most drastic density control that only essential businesses, grocery stores, first responders, pharmacies, et cetera. But I am against quarantines, "You must stay in your home." You can come out of your house. Just don't be in a crowded situation. Don't cause more density. Don't sneeze in someone's face within six feet. Go for a walk in the park. I mean that as a nice thing - that's a positive suggestion, "Go walk in the park."
Michael Barbaro: No I appreciate the suggestion. I try to take any walk I can.
Governor Cuomo: In the old neighborhood, they used to say, "Go take a walk in the park." That was a bad thing.
Michael Barbaro: In Queens?
Governor Cuomo: Yes. In Queens.
Michael Barbaro: If we're at a moment where it's too late to look back and say, "If only we had done this, if only we done that," and instead we're at a moment where the government steps up in every way we want it to, everyone now has to do their part as well. What's your message to them?
Governor Cuomo: First of all, welcome to life - "If I had only done this, if I had only done this, if I had only done this" - that's life, my brother. That's all of us. I forget that - you're here now. What do you do now, and that's all that matters. The enemy has not advanced to a point where they are in the foxhole, right? We still have some time.
Michael Barbaro: Not much.
Governor Cuomo: Not much. But what we do between now and then matters greatly. Do everything you can. Do everything you can to flatten that curve. Yes your friend who owns the restaurant I'm sure is very angry at us, but you know what, I did it because I believe it was necessary to save lives. We're going to have to take more actions like that to reduce density and flatten the curve. Do everything you can to build more hospital beds in 45 days. "Well it's impossible" - yeah well I'm going to try my damndest to show you it's not impossible. Do everything that you can humanly, possibly do - extend your imagination in a way you never thought and extend your ambition beyond yourself because it's not about you. It's about us, it's about the collective, it's about society. Don't expose yourself to other people. Don't indulge yourself. Yeah, I know you really want to go out and go shopping - yeah I know you do, but don't think of just yourself. Save as many lives as you can. Be responsible. Be civic-minded. Be kind. Be considerate. Think of one another. Yes, we're going to have an inconvenient period for a few months. We are. Deal with it and deal with it gracefully and deal with it with kindness and intelligence.
Michael Barbaro: Governor, I really appreciate your time. Thank you for having us in and good luck getting through all this.
Governor Cuomo: Thank you.
Michael Barbaro: We're going to walk into this office but we're going to keep our space.
Lisa Tobin: Can I just ask a quick question? If it says New York City tells 8 million people to be prepared to shelter in place, that is not going to happen?
Governor Cuomo: No.
Lisa Tobin: But it's playing on the television right now.
Governor Cuomo: Yeah, I know. I don't know anyone at CNN.
Lisa Tobin: What are you going to do?
Governor Cuomo: Yeah, but see how scary that is?
Lisa Tobin: Yes.
Michael Barbaro: Your brother is an anchor on CNN.
Governor Cuomo: That was a joke. Bada boom, bada boom. I normally hold up a little sign that says, joke coming.
Lisa Tobin: No, but I'm sorry to interrupt, but in all seriousness, if that's on CNN.
Dani Lever: We already put a statement out that said we're not considering it so it will be clarified hopefully in the next five minutes.
Governor Cuomo: But that's why the fear, why the panic - because you watch things like that all day and everybody, somebody says something and then it's on the screen right away, "Oh my God, I'm going to be locked in my home, I better go to the store and buy stuff now."