“We should not be focusing, in my view, on anything looking back on any level of government right now,” de Blasio responded.
The idea that politicians should not be judged by their comments early in a crisis is, of course, not how it works. Politicians should have future decisions judged in light of how they have handled a situation in the past. But it’s understandable why de Blasio does not want to turn back the clock.
Throughout the crisis that has now hit New York City harder than any other area of the country, de Blasio offered comments that, like Trump’s, downplayed the threat and suggested that the city was ready for what lay ahead. The mayor also repeatedly told people that transmission of the disease was very unlikely in casual encounters and in public places.
The mayor said Feb. 26 of the city’s 1,200 hospital beds: “We’ve got a long time to ramp up if we ever had anything like that [kind of crisis]. So, the capacity we have right now is outstanding given the challenge we’re facing right now.”
He added: “We can really keep this thing contained.”
Today, a little more than a month later, the resources of New York City hospitals are stretched, and both de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) are pleading with the federal government for more ventilators and other medical equipment.
In the weeks in between, de Blasio repeatedly said the coronavirus was transmitted through prolonged, close exposure and played down the idea that it could travel via casual encounters or touching surfaces that an infected person had touched.
“Occasional contact, glancing contact, temporary contact does not, from everything we know about coronavirus, lead to transmission,” he said March 3. “It needs to be prolonged, you know -- if not intimate, at least prolonged, constant contact.”
He added March 8: “Certainly, on most surfaces like metal, plastic -- you know, a desk, a kitchen counter, a subway pole, it’s only a matter of minutes before the disease dies, the virus dies in the open air.”
On March 9, he suggested that transmission was likely to take place only if people were engaged in lengthy contact involving a “direct hit."
“Two people deep in conversation for a half-hour, animated conversation,” de Blasio said. “The best thinking of the medical personnel is that, in animated conversation, sometimes people project some saliva and that may have been the contact. Obviously, another option is someone sneezed or coughed, like looking right at the person they were deep in conversation with."
He added: “So, that’s the evolution -- that is still close proximity, and you need that direct hit, with the exception, again, of right to the hand, right to the face, in fast proximity. Because otherwise the virus just wouldn’t live that long.”
He said people in crowded areas shouldn’t worry.
“It’s not people in the stadium, it’s not people in the big open area or a conference and all,” de Blasio said. “It’s people close up to each other, deeply engaging each other to the point that the inadvertent spitting that comes with a conversation sometimes, or a sneeze or a cough, directly goes at the other person in close proximity.”
Even as de Blasio was giving that advice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was offering less-definitive recommendations about such situations.
“It is not clear the extent to which touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes contributes to transmission,” the CDC said on March 7.
It added at the time that “brief interactions are less likely to result in transmission,” but it did not say they were risk-free. It defined brief interactions as “briefly entering the patient room without having direct contact with the patient or their secretions/excretions” and “brief conversation at a triage desk with a patient who was not wearing a facemask,” among other things.
A spokesman for de Blasio, Freddi Goldstein, defended de Blasio’s commentary on the coronavirus.
“It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and have an opinion,” Goldstein said. "The mayor carries the responsibility of 8.6 million New Yorkers. He must think about their safety, their livelihood, their education. Every decision he has made has been deliberate and thoughtful. That’s what you need in a crisis.”
De Blasio on March 9 also downplayed the option of closing schools, saying: “Is it anywhere near to where we are now? No.”
Six days later, he announced that the largest school district in the country would close.
The next day, he went to the gym mere hours before such facilities in the city would be shut down, drawing a backlash even from his own former aides.
On Sunday, de Blasio reflected on the situation. “This is just about how we save lives going forward,” he said. “This was a very different world just a short time ago.”
For de Blasio, perhaps, more than many.