New York's Nursing Homes Controversy
For a time in 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was considered one of the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic for his steady and focused daily briefings when national leadership was lacking.
But recently, the governor has suffered a reversal of fortune, as a scandal over the suppression of the number of nursing home deaths dominates news coverage of his administration.
Additionally, a new poll finds the majority of New Yorkers now think the governor did something wrong.
It’s been over a decade since a New York governor was skewered on “Saturday Night Live,” a late-night show with cold open skits that have become a cultural touchstone. Eliot Spitzer was satirized for his involvement with prostitutes, and David Paterson blamed “SNL” parodies for his slide in approval ratings.
Cuomo had been largely exempt from the ribbings, until a report by the state’s attorney general found that he significantly undercounted the number of New Yorkers in nursing homes who died of COVID-19.
On Saturday’s show, “SNL” cast member Chloe Fineman, playing Britney Spears, asked Pete Davidson, portraying Cuomo, about the scandal.
“Some of the people who died in the nursing homes were not counted as nursing home deaths, they were counted as hospital deaths,” Davidson said. “Which is basically what happens at Disney World, OK?”
The skit goes on with Davidson’s Cuomo saying he is sorry.
In real life, Cuomo did not actually apologize, but he did admit it was wrong for his health department to withhold the actual numbers for nearly a year. He said he should have been more forthcoming with the tally of 15,000 New Yorkers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities who died of the virus so far.
He said his failure to provide the facts led to a vacuum.
“The void we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories, which furthered the confusion,” Cuomo said on Feb. 15.
The controversy deepened after the transcript of a private meeting between Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, and top Democratic lawmakers was leaked to the New York Post.
In it, DeRosa said that the administration withheld the nursing home numbers from lawmakers because they “froze” when the federal justice Department, under former President Donald Trump, began an inquiry.
Her statements raised questions about potential obstruction of justice, and led the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York to begin a probe.
A Marist College poll finds the issue is resonating with the public, with 60% of surveyed New Yorkers saying they believe Cuomo did something wrong in his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. Of that group, 41% said he likely did something unethical, and 19% said the governor might have done something illegal.
Lee Miringoff, Marist’s director of polling, said Cuomo’s job approval ratings, which were high in the summer and fall of 2020, have now dropped back to pre-pandemic levels, with 49% saying that he’s doing a good job in office.
“This is a damaging story,” Miringoff said. “People are focused on the pandemic, the nursing home issues are something people were very much aware of at a time when things were very chaotic.”
A spokesman for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, countered that Cuomo’s approval rating is 57% in a poll conducted by Morning Consult.
Miringoff has conducted surveys on state and national politicians since the days when Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, served as governor in the 1980s and 1990s. He said the best advice for an elected official who becomes caught up in a scandal is to be as transparent with the public as possible to avoid a daily trickle of damaging information.
He said, unfortunately for Cuomo, that time has passed as the state withheld the actual nursing home numbers for nearly 10 months.
“The idea from a strategic standpoint is to contain it, and get everything out there, so there doesn’t have to be a second day and a third day,” Miringoff said. “What’s happening now, is he’s experiencing a little bit of a pile-on.”
The attacks are coming not just from Republicans in state and national government, who have called for his impeachment. Several Democrats are calling for a fuller investigation, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has had a rocky relationship with the governor.
“I do not accept his explanation. There needs to be a full investigation,” de Blasio said on Feb. 22. “Thousands of lives were lost. Families deserve answers.”
Democratic state lawmakers plan to curb the governor’s sweeping emergency powers granted to him by the Legislature earlier in the pandemic.
Queens Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim has accused the governor of a bullying phone call where he said Cuomo threatened to “destroy” him if he didn’t stop his criticisms.
Cuomo aides deny that occurred, but the governor, during a coronavirus briefing with reporters, accused Kim of running a pay-to-play “political racket” with nail salon owners in his district.
Kim relayed his story on CNN, MSNBC, and ABC’s The View.
“Cuomo is an abuser,” Kim said on the show on Feb. 19. “He has abused his powers.”
Cuomo has said he wants to seek a fourth term as governor. The Marist poll finds just over one-third of voters, 36%, said he deserves that chance.
Miringoff said it’s a long time until the next gubernatorial election in November 2022. And he said other politicians have overcome scandals in the past by keeping their noses to the grindstone and focusing on what’s important. And right now, he said, that’s guiding the state out of the long pandemic and taking steps to revive the economy.
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