Tuesday, March 31, 2020

De Blasio’s coronavirus failures: Let’s count them


Poor grades.(Luiz C. Ribeiro/for New York Daily News)

As New York has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor de Blasio has become emblematic of a different type of dysfunctional governance. Although no one can deny that he is genuinely committed to helping the poor and marginalized, the mayor has made New Yorkers pay the price for his grandiose vision of himself as a moral leader.

There had already been signs that de Blasio was not prepared to deal with the gritty realities and hard choices of governance. His short-lived run for the presidency was as buffoonish as it was delusional. He was absent from the city during a paralyzing summer blackout in 2019. And he hired a schools chancellor who has needlessly pitted Asian-American families against African-American and Latino ones.

In each case, there was an unlikely blend of grandiosity and incompetence. He has set himself up as the liberal standard-bearer who stands for all that is good in progressive politics. In his own mind, accomplishments apparently mean less than intentions. The very righteousness of his ideas is all that counts.

Now, in as stark a crisis as New York City has ever faced, the mayor managed to all at once deny the pending dangers of the coronavirus and then to overreact.

To start, whether it was his reluctance to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or close Broadway theaters or shut down restaurants and bars, the mayor dithered when he needed to be decisive. It appears he could not let the coming pandemic ruin his own vision of a prosperous, progressive city.

His mishandling of the need to close the schools was an almost predictable outcome of his personal rigidity. The mayor had convened with emergency management officials as early as January to discuss how to handle potential school closings. But in March, as cases of the virus grew exponentially, the city still did not have a plan to accommodate the city’s 1.1 million students.

As pressure mounted, de Blasio insisted that the schools were necessary to provide food and other essential services to the hundreds of thousands of students who lived in poverty. He became so fixed on an image of himself as a man who helped needy children that he failed to see how many staff members and family members he placed at risk by maintaining packed cafeterias and overcrowded classrooms. The problem grew so serious that city health officials threatened to quit and the governor had to step in to order the schools closed.

Once the mayor was forced to accept the inevitable, his entire tone began to change. He switched from downplaying the pandemic to nearly panicking about it.

He declared that a shelter-in-place order might be imminent, conjuring images of families huddled in fallout shelters. He went from encouraging New Yorkers to celebrate the Chinese New Year in crowded parades and restaurants to threatening to permanently close places of worship that continue holding religious services. In increasingly impotent tones, he is blaming the federal government, including a president he calls “Herbert Hoover,” as he seeks to deny personal accountability for the city’s delayed response to the crisis.

De Blasio’s failure of leadership is a direct result of the flaws in his personality. While his ideals and aspirations are admirable, his unwillingness to concede that the necessities of life can supersede our grander ambitions has left the city in a state of anxious uncertainty. While the mayor tries to present himself as a self-styled Winston Churchill, his unreliability has given him all the credibility of a church mouse.

Fishbane, a writer, lives in Brooklyn.