Monday, March 29 update

(As we set off on covering our second (!) year of the pandemic in Central New York, I’m just going to pretend that I was doing these daily updates all along.)

New York State update: The state Supreme Court has ordered the Cuomo administration to be a little less medieval and get prisoners vaccinated. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s enemies — who are coincidentally on the side of most sensible and ethical New Yorkers at least twice a day — continue to load silverware into the cannons. This week, the Post has discovered that Upstate has counties, with county governments and health departments, such as Steuben and Onondaga, which were trying to do the right thing all last year and get people tested, including nursing home employees.

While the Albany press is daily coming up with new ick on Cuomo, I thought I would go down memory lane and bring up my own charges against the Dear Leader and his administration. Exhausting. Here’s just a fragment.

April 26, 2020: Depraved indifference to the basic economics of the fourth-biggest U.S. dairy state. “You know, these stories about dumping milk, I don’t really understand what the economic forces are where they have too much…Milk dumping, I don’t get it.”

April 30, 2020: Failure to communicate . Neglects to communicate promised guidance to hospitals about the resumption of elective surgeries, throwing medical facilities into confusion.

May 3, 2020: Governing by press conference. During a presser, Cuomo issues an edict that all hospitals must have a 90-day stockpile of PPE. Hospitals scramble to comply. Cuomo never actually issues the executive order and later calls it a “guideline.”

May 4, 2020: Missing the point entirely. Visited Rochester to make an appearance, not with local officials or hospital staff or essential grocery workers, but with… Danny Wegman, who would later go on to “not cover himself in glory” over mask enforcement.

This is a work in progress requiring a deep dive into the archives. But the beauty of it is that, no matter how much I procrastinate and no matter how many crimes against governing Cuomo has committed… I’ll still get it done well in time for the impeachment hearings.

Onondaga County update: Now that the state has thrown open vaccinations to everyone over 16, CE McMahon is “excited” again to be moving on to the next phase, which he anticipates will include a massive state-sanctioned drive to vaccinate all college students (SU, ESF, Le Moyne) and then perhaps county-run vaccination clinics in the school districts for high schoolers. The next phase of the master plan is to reach the 75-80% vaccination goal that will lead us to the fabled afterlife of herd immunity.

Now, at last, we can get on with “giving shots to the willing,” which in turn will help serve to isolate and reveal that most elusive of populations: white vaccine refusers. (That’s not McMahon’s way of putting it, but when he mentions “political ideology” as a factor in vaccine hesitancy, obviously he means those guys.)

I have a favorite saying, “Find the edges,” which means don’t just sit there and fret about the general things that general types of people generally do, or bemoan the impossibility of ever having an impact when large entrenched forces seem to hold sway. In any ossified situation, there are specific soft spots that exist, in the form of certain individual people who remain persuadable. Finding these people can be like finding needles in a haystack, but find them you must. They are the true edges of the tectonic plates. If you want to pull anything up, they’re where you have to place your crowbar.

So it’s not “people in the exurbs” or “rural people” that are shying away from the vaccines; it’s specific people, possibly in specific localities in Onondaga County, who are doing it. Who are they? Where do they live? Who do they listen to (locally, not on Q boards)? Without a massive drive to vaccinate the willing, leaving behind only the unwilling, this population will only exist unexposed in the heart of anecdotal darkness. (And that’s where they like to live, around here. You don’t see them out demonstrating or burning masks. Not here in Onondaga County, the heterogeneous heart-shaped heart in the middle of Central New York.)

At the end of the day, you could get every homebound senior and every Black resident and every New American vaccinated and you still wouldn’t be able to reach 75% (maybe) because of these specific people. It sounds like McMahon and the health department see them as data points, to be isolated and studied, like a virus in a lab.

If only the never-Trumpers had taken such a scientific approach to their own party’s internal rot years ago… but I suppose they have to start somewhere.


We all know someone who died of COVID, whether we know it right now or not; or at least, someone whose someone died. We’re all somebody in a chain of someones.

Earlier this week I met my someone. She’s a person I don’t see very much, since I currently work in the office only one day a week and from home the rest of the time. She works in my building, and while I don’t often talk to her, when I do it’s in-depth about what’s going on in the world today. (She was a Trump fan, but she felt he really needed to stop the nonsense and get off the stage after the election.)

I hadn’t seen her very much at all since Christmas, but that wasn’t surprising because everything was utterly desolate in our building during the winter anyway. But we ran into each other and I let her know that she’d soon be seeing more of the rest of us because SUNY is (currently) scheduled to bring its employees back after Easter. We chit chatted for a while and then she said, “My mom died of COVID.”

She was having a bad day. In another lifetime I might have been unsettled or not have quite known what to say, but we got to talking about how losing a parent is something that happens to almost literally everyone in the world yet no one ever talks about it. (I personally don’t get why this is so. It’s like Life is a big campaign or personality cult that everyone is supposed to support 150%, and if you talk about Death, or even acknowledge its existence, you’re being disloyal, and the whole four-billion-year project will collapse.)

But not talking about COVID deaths is an especially unfair order. We agreed that there needed to be much more openness about these losses. She told me about how her mom, an extremely active lady, was out and about almost until she had to admit something was very wrong and go to the hospital, where she was diagnosed, was treated and sometime in February died. She was buried somewhere in those stats that the county executive recites every Monday.

March 16 is the date that has been adopted by the media as the “official” start of the COVID experience in Central New York. Syracuse’s annual end-of-winter debauch (cloaked in St. Patrick’s Day) follows on March 17. What a powerful one-two punch! It makes you wonder if we should keep observing March 16 as a way to keep our already well-established spring festival that much more meaningful.

Certainly, a hundred years ago, our community dropped the ball on memory. Syracuse had one of the worst outcomes nationally during the influenza pandemic, especially during the fall wave of 1918. Then we promptly buried all memory of it for over a century. I think we can safely say that this time around, thanks to a cast of thousands, we did a lot better. That alone is worth commemorating every March 16th. But we also need to do much more to acknowledge the damage done and weaknesses revealed. What should next March 16th look like?

I heard on the news last night that Syracuse is the fifth-most-Irish city in the U.S., something we take for granted, but which is apparently not all that common any more. It seems likely that the association between St. Patrick’s Day in Syracuse and the onset of COVID will continue in our memory for some time, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Maybe our St. Patrick’s Day will become (for a time) something akin to Easter in Dunkirk (see comments).

I’m betting that next year’s celebration will be one hell of a parade. Let’s not leave all of our memories on the sidelines.

Albany unplugged

It’s interesting to me how generally innocent of basic political processes Americans have become, and yet everyone in America (including me) considers themselves a political expert. By “political processes” I mean the basic “laws of power” – what it is, how it develops, how it moves from person to person and group to group, and even how it dissipates (according to Alan Ehrenhalt, “power is perishable” – at least, it can actually vanish from a system). Many Americans, though, simply believe that someone has power merely because they were voted into office by a democratic process. The democratic vote adds legitimacy to someone’s assumption of power – ideally, the ultimate legitimacy, but it doesn’t always work that way.

The ugly process of de-horning Andrew Cuomo is ongoing. Cuomo can take temporary solace in a stale Siena poll that shows an impressively high number of New York voters don’t want him to resign, but this was before this weekend’s fresh barrage of headlines, few of which were particularly meaty, although Cuomo’s pal Larry Schwartz suddenly became a household name, which I’m sure he didn’t like.

Biden has also demurred from getting directly involved, although the matter has breached the White House press room already and hasn’t just been confined to the White House helicopter lawn. The Assembly is regrouping and promising a very long impeachment process which is probably going to be our 2021 and 2022 right there. Everyone in Albany is settling in for a long and public scrum.

However, there is hope: it actually may be a long and public scrum. They all may not be able to keep this in a room (although Carl Heastie is trying).

The one interesting thing about this moment is that — for once — the nature of power in New York State is on the table for everyone to see and think about. We’re not really talking about personalities, or politics, or policy, so much as power itself, and how it is used and abused. From nightly cable news discussions of how Big Men use their power over 25-year-old women, to local officials wondering when they can get their power back from Albany’s control, the state is having a power crisis.

I prefer this to “power struggle” because “struggle” implies everyone is fighting for control of an agreed-upon “thing.” It’s hard to say exactly what that thing is when the pandemic has blown such a hole in business as usual. The outcome of the election has also blown some holes in New York’s model. We have a president who can and will contrive to get money to individual communities that they can use with their own discretion. We also have a president who groks the Inland North (why, he even knows where Syracuse actually is). And it’s not just a senator from New York who is now the Senate’s leader, but Chuck Schumer, man of 1,000 press releases who (allegedly) can draw Yates County on a napkin, while Cuomo can’t even figure out his cell phone.

“He cannot govern,” an agitated Zephyr Teachout tried to explain about Cuomo on CNN the other night, but it’s a felt fact that is impossible to explain in sound bites. When someone like Ryan McMahon, who carefully walked the center line and refused to criticize Cuomo’s “experts” all year, firmly says “Give us our power back,” and you can’t imagine Cuomo ever even acknowledging the work of local officials much less responding to a demand to give up power… you just wonder if there’s anything left to work with in a threat-based government.

And with no power to run the beautiful machine — who will keep the weeds down? When Republicans muse on the upstate-downstate divide by calling for agricultural workers to get vaccination privileges (as McMahon did at Monday’s presser), rather than complaining about taxes and business climate, there may be some strange weeds poking up in the future.

Clearing the cobwebs

I haven’t paid much attention to this blog during the winter wave of the pandemic. It’s hard for me to write anything meaningful about people running around doing the same old stupid things while being invaded by an alien force. Even in Onondaga County, where the response has been plucky, there wasn’t too much authorities could do except hold on and pray the hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

As vaccines became available (seems like a million years since October’s entry when there were no vaccines approved), the county and state had various strategies for defining eligible populations and getting them their shots, a process which is still ongoing, especially with underserved communities. (One of those bright ideas here was something called OnList, which was irrelevant almost the moment it went live — seniors were supposed to sign up and wait to be chosen randomly for a vaccination slot, which was a great idea when vaccines were scarce; but the more available they became, the more seniors gave up waiting and went to the state or pharmacy sites. This meant that county personnel had to waste a lot of time contacting people who never responded.)

Oh, and there was a violent failed coup, too.

A lot has changed. Biden is president. John Katko is a somebody. My mom got her first vaccine shot. My year of working from home (four out of five days a week) is swiftly coming to an end. And Andrew Cuomo is a political dead man walking. Spring has sprung!

I’m actually incredibly disappointed that #metoo has contributed so much to Cuomo’s demise. After all, there is so much else that is wrong with the guy – don’t get me started on his terrible aesthetic sense. And because after a decade I’d dejectedly tuned Cuomo out, I just assumed that the badness of the state’s COVID response — the decrees from on high, the contempt for local governments, the opacity, the air of feudalism — was a New York State thing. I was amazed at how badly the local governments were treated, but I didn’t really question it. Now that outsiders are learning more about the sick way that Cuomo’s Albany works, we’re also learning more about the nature of personal political power and how quickly it can just vanish.

Back in late May, during the Phase 2 Crisis, some of the county executives showed that they perfectly understood what loss of political credibility means — as small fry, they aren’t immune. They intimated that Cuomo was beginning to lose his, at least in the hinterlands. Nationally, some observers from outside the state are puzzled. Surely, the fall of Andrew Cuomo must be some sort of twisted Trumpist plot! We can forgive these bizarre takes on Cuomo’s current situation by remembering that most of America is deeply entrenched in total political war, where everything can and must be reduced to an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil. This total war will continue to steadily sap all sense of reason from the American people who are trapped in battlefield states. But here in New York, politics are still just operating normally.

But why didn’t we notice how weak Cuomo’s position had actually become? Why are we surprised that as of this week, we’re simply arguing about the best way to dispose of his political corpse? Who knew that the sequel to Patton would be Weekend at Andy’s?

Because, in hindsight, it seems clear that once the drama of the failed Trump coup was overcome, once the winter wave had been survived, that day follows night: nobody is afraid of him any more.

It’s hard to even think of anything constructive Cuomo has actually accomplished over the last year. The Empire State Trail, I guess. That’s something — an ambitious project of the sort that often gets bogged down in red tape and delays. It really has been completed and, like the draining of the Pontine Marshes, may live on after Il Duce is gone, for better or worse. Generations of future recreational bike riders will thank Cuomo for the elimination of the notorious Syracuse Gap.

I once feared, back in pre-pandemic times, that Cuomo planned to blast high-speed rail through the state, perhaps obliterating the Thruway or Erie Canal (or worse, bypass the corridor altogether). But apparently I credited him with too much ambition or capital. I feared it also because Cuomo has a pattern of seizing on New York’s heritage glories or genuine future opportunities, but somehow only grasping them in a harsh, unpoetical, permanently destructive way, always missing the point. Imagine New York’s future rendered like his awful paper mache mountain at 1:1 scale.

And really, that’s why Cuomo sucked so bad: he thought so small. (I feel the need to invent a special new tense conveying a political figure’s continued existence and future elimination at the same time. I’m sure they have a word for it in one of the Haudenosaunee languages…)

There was little sense or structure in how he operated. Over a decade or more, Cuomo wove a tight but ultimately fragile net made out of threats and toxic interpersonal behavior, which conveyed menace efficiently to far corners of the state through unsettling vibrations. But this structure perhaps was not made up of truly meaningful political relationships, as he’s now finding out. (During the pandemic last year, the county leaders didn’t have much, but they at least had each other as colleagues.) Cuomo just sits in the middle of it all, with no evident desire to navigate toward bigger and better things, perhaps because he sensed he’d have to re-spin the web at a national level.

As for the sexual allegations, it has been unfortunate that the Attorney General has been swiftly crowded out of the picture over the past week — it’s blatantly disrespectful to her. But Cuomo’s alleged behavior lends an especially creepy new meaning to “One Man in a Room.” The idea that any of this alleged behavior should get some sort of nod-and-wink pass — when these women say they were subjected to it by the most powerful man in one of the most powerful states in the most powerful country in the only world we know?

At least Spitzer paid for his dates.

Thursday, Oct. 1: That ticking sound

Uptick is the word of the moment in New York State. Now that we seem to actually be entering the much-discussed “second wave” of the virus — which is actually the “third wave” because “we” (the rest of the U.S.) already had the second wave during the summer — this is a good time to catch up.

Yesterday, I tuned in to the Oneida County briefing by their CE Anthony Picente, last seen on this blog banging his shoe the night of the Phase Two Crisis. Unlike Onondaga, which is still getting two short Q&A sessions a week, Oneida County doesn’t hold televised briefings very often. So when this one was suddenly announced I wondered what was going on. Was it a general response to the rising warnings from Albany about Downstate, or was there a horrible new outbreak?

I actually wonder if this briefing had numerous prompts and that one of them may have been the “Dark Days” news special recently aired in the Syracuse market about the virus response. The special — which I thought could have easily filled an hour instead of the half hour it got — interviewed a few of the key people at Upstate and in Onondaga County about how the virus response developed from March to summertime. It may have been a filler program, but I thought it actually was important to get out there: if this story is going to go on and on for the foreseeable future, maybe a recap of Chapter One was the right thing to do. We’re not going to get through this unless we pause to tell ourselves our own story.

Indeed, CE Picente started off his briefing with an extended pep talk and congratulation to the community for its compliance with health orders, before getting down to what he seems to like to go on TV for: giving a specific someone a stern buttkicking. He called out a pastor/youth coach from a local church (a church not identified by him, but identified by a Utica OD reporter during the Q&A as a local Baptist church). This pastor, by continuing activities while symptomatic with what turned out to be COVID, managed to spread the disease to nine other people, including children. A colorful graphic was produced showing the impact that Patient Zero had on the citizens of Holland Patent. Patient Zero was not cooperative with contact tracers and it seems the church has lawyered up, and Picente commented that the county would also be looking into legal options. (“Did the church members talk about God protecting them from the virus?” one member of the Utica media wanted to know. They did not; no money quotes today.)

The good news is that the previously reported case of the errant church in Horseheads, whose members attended an (illegal) wedding reception in Oneida County and spread cases through six counties, has not produced any cases specifically in Oneida. Still, Picente was frustrated with “the lack of respect and lack of responsibility” and warned that community instincts about the virus were showing signs of growing dull: “People are drawing the wrong conclusions from our successes.”

While the U.S. at large is suffering from structural arrogance in almost every area, not just in virus (non)response, this warning can be applied to CNY in more ways than one. To put it in terms that hopefully any pastor can understand (and hopefully county executives as well), there’s always “the arrow that flieth by day” to be concerned about. What’s the challenge for the reasonably successful Upstate regions, and the quite successful ones like CNY, during the fall and winter?

I personally think the challenge has to do with the exponential increase in testing activity and innovation that has surrounded the return of students to colleges and schools. There is a daylight danger here in losing sight of the forest for the trees. The one thing that August and September have demonstrated is that our system of K-12 schooling really sucks even in the best of times. There haven’t been any wildfire outbreaks of virus in the schools — and here in CNY, there aren’t going to be, because there will just be this herky-jerky stopping and starting of virtual and classroom learning when even one person tests positive. The numbers here will always look good. If we’re just waiting for a vaccine to show up, maybe this can go on for a while, but it can’t go on indefinitely. The way we run our grade schools — a patchwork of local school systems scattered over highly unequal and inequal districts — is actually very brittle. Is it time to start “going long” on structural problems, and not just separating out data down to the atomic level?

Is it possible that we’ve done well because so far the virus has thrown situations at us that we do well at? Logistics, data, inter-stakeholder communication and dealmaking — these are things that Onondaga’s CE appears to be good at. The ability to inspire a broader vision, however, might be the challenge of the fall and winter, and may require different talents to come to the fore. (Incidentally, Picente strikes me as a much more effective public speaker than McMahon, though he seemed out of his element explaining the well-done chart he brought with him; rather the opposite of McMahon, it seems to me…)

CEs Picente and McMahon can point to the low positive numbers and new proactive testing strategies, and the health departments can point to efficient contact tracing efforts, but there’s no dashboard for how ordinary kids and their families are doing with all this. McMahon continues to give briefings every Monday and Thursday but they now tend to be 25 minutes or less and no one is really asking any new questions. One of the questions could definitely be: “Given the new upticks in the rest of the state, are we looking at the possibility of phase rollbacks — and if not, what local measures could be taken within your authority?”

Right at the moment, CNY hasn’t got any noticeable large outbreaks of unknown origin… but maybe this one is a local manifestation of what’s happening statewide.

F-M superintendent Craig Tice said how the four teachers and three staff members contracted the virus has been puzzling. Of the seven who tested positive, three met with each other and another two met together at school in small staff meetings, he said. He said they wore masks and social distanced. All seven did not meet together at once, and one didn’t appear to cross paths with any of the others he said.

Albany and New York City are ballpits of self-important infighting officials that are never going to handle this crisis with 100% or even 75% effectiveness. Places like Chemung and Steuben counties have limited health infrastructure resources to deal with big problems that their officials well recognize. But Onondaga County hasn’t got any of these excuses to fall back on (excepting being broke, which is true of every government in New York, so that’s not an excuse either).