Cuomo's out, thankfully. NY's COVID crisis needs urgent attention

USA TODAY Network New York Editorial Board

The curtain has come to a close. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will depart office in 14 days. The dark political clouds that could have shrouded the corridors of power in Albany for months appear to be moving off as we will all be spared a protracted impeachment crisis.

Cuomo's departure comes none to soon as the Empire State enters a new chapter of crisis as the pandemic mounts its latest assault.

As we began the week, 48 of our 62 counties were experiencing the highest levels of community spread. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that New Yorkers — even vaccinated New Yorkers — wear masks indoors to combat the rapid escalation of spread. Eighteen counties, reaching from the suburbs around New York City north toward Albany and its Capital District suburbs, are demonstrating the highest rate of transmission. 

Alarm bells are sounding.

The delta variant of COVID-19 is threatening the unvaccinated with breakneck speed. 

But the political crisis in Albany has superseded much-needed leadership from the Executive Chamber. Cuomo, facing impeachment in the wake of a blistering report from the state Attorney General's office that detailed and substantiated claims of sexual harassment and assault from as many as 11 female accusers, hunkered down and focused on his political survival.

In so doing, he appears to have abdicated his powers to impose basic precautions.

“We have a leadership void right now because of what’s happening in the state capital in the middle of a pandemic,” said Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties.

The worst example of this abdication came late last week when state Department of Health officials, after promising guidance for weeks, announced that New York's school districts could chart their own courses on mask mandates. 

Chaos begot chaos.

NY school districts left to fend for themselves

School districts across New York are now in a scramble to take COVID-19 precautions weeks before classroom doors will open. Boards of education and school district administrators face groups of angry, mask-wary parents opposed to CDC guidelines issued in late July that advised K-12 students to wear masks.

Instead of a united approach to combatting the threats the delta variant clearly poses to unvaccinated populations of schoolchildren, our school districts seem likely to create a patchwork of masking policies that could expose students, teachers and staff to considerable risk.

“Do I envision that will become a problem? Yeah, I do,” said Jay Worona, general counsel of the state School Boards Association. 

“We’re not scientists,” he said. “We’re educators.”

Frustration is not limited to educators. The state Department of Education has asked its colleagues in the Department of Health to step forward into the breach.

“There is an urgent need for timely advice and supervision flowing from the state Department of Health to local and school officials as they navigate these uncertain times,” state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said.

What needs to happen

Incoming Gov. Kathy Hochul must take immediate control of the state's COVID-19 response.

With Cuomo's departure now certain, we call for the vacuum of leadership in Albany to end as we brace for a fresh struggle against the surging delta variant. It's imperative that incoming Gov. Kathy Hochul immediately take the lead in spearheading the state's efforts. We don't have two weeks to wait.

What else?

  • First, leaders in the state Department of Health should answer calls from their colleagues in the Department of Education and school districts across the state. New York needs mandatory mask mandates to protect students, teachers and staff.
  • Second, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker needs to emerge from the shadows to lead county health officials in a coordinated response to the skyrocketing rates of transmission.
  • Third, the full force of the state's pandemic response capabilities must retrench around continuing to vaccinate vulnerable populations and the vaccine-resistant.

Our leaders in Albany must redouble their efforts to address the growing COVID-19 crisis. New Yorkers will tolerate no less. We demand leadership — now.