ALBANY, N.Y. - Gov. Andrew Cuomo this month has held events at the 60-acre Angry Orchard Cider House in Orange County, in a large gym at the Yonkers Police Athletic League and inside the Javits Center — the midtown Manhattan convention center that's the largest in the nation.
Big spaces. Plenty of room. Numerous elected officials and local leaders in attendance.
But no press allowed.
Amid myriad scandals that threaten his future as governor, Cuomo has barred reporters from attending his public events in recent months, citing ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols.
Instead, he answers questions from the media via Zoom at some, but not at all events. And by using Zoom instead of having in-person reporters, it allows his staff to handpick the journalists and limit follow-up questions.
The restrictions are a far cry from his 2020 press conferences, when he won an Emmy and national acclaim for his daily COVID briefings that included lengthy questions and answers from reporters at the state Capitol's ornate Red Room.
The latest move has drawn criticism from media organizations and good-government groups, who knocked the three-term Democratic governor for limiting press access amid his struggles.
"Every public official, including the governor, should subject themselves to questions from the media because that’s the public’s surrogate," said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
"The media is there to ask the questions that the public wants to have asked and wants to know the answers to."
For his part, Cuomo said he is simply following state guidelines that bars large gatherings. He contended that reporters could overwhelm the spaces where he attends events.
"When will reporters be back in the room? That is purely a function of the COVID safety requirements," Cuomo said Tuesday when asked about the restrictions.
He added that by using Zoom or holding conference calls, he is able to take questions from a wide swath of journalists from around New York.
"So this is actually an effective medium. But when we get back to normal with COVID, then we’ll get back to normal with press conferences," Cuomo said.
Horner, however, said the argument is inconsistent with Cuomo's policy during most of last year: A limited number of reporters were allowed to attend his events during the pandemic, with social distancing and masks required.
Now Cuomo is holding events outside and in public spaces, and many attendees are also likely vaccinated — including the governor.
From the governor’s perspective, Horner said, the goal is "whatever message he’s trying to get out that day isn’t muddied by questions that he may not want to talk about."
On Friday, Cuomo was asked again about keeping the press out of his events, and he suggested he might hold more outdoor events as early as next week that could include reporters.
The policy from Cuomo's office comes as he faces calls to resign from lawmakers over sexual harassment allegations from former and current female staffers that is under investigation by the Attorney General's Office and the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
They are also investigating his potential use of state resources to write a lucrative book about COVID last fall.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Cuomo's office for the underreporting of COVID deaths in nursing homes, which the Assembly is also probing.
The limited access has drawn the ire of the media organizations. Cuomo hasn't held an in-person news conference since December, according to the Associated Press.
"This practice is an affront to the public that the governor serves, a public that is represented by journalists when they are covering the activities of elected officials," the Journalists Association of New York wrote in a statement earlier this month.
"These restricted-access events are a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars in an attempt to bolster the governor's image while at the same time attacking the public's right to know."
The Associated Press reported that few governors are still holding virtual-only news conferences.
It noted that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is still doing virtual press briefings, but those are usually four times a week, sometimes for an hour or more.
The policy for Cuomo has led to testy exchanges.
On Wednesday, a reporter was disconnected mid-sentence when he pressed Cuomo if the governor would resign if the Attorney General's Office found he did sexually harass his aides.
Cuomo said repeatedly it was too soon to say.
"Let the review go on," Cuomo said.
"At the appropriate time, I will have a comment about the review and about the facts and about the truth. And I’m looking forward to that, but now is not the time."
NY's governor hasn't held an in-person press conference since December.
Why is today's announcement “closed press” if it is outdoors?
What is the justification for blocking the media from attending? @NYGovCuomo https://t.co/3IuNUqQKMH pic.twitter.com/5WgTV28rti
— Marina Villeneuve (@ReporterMarina) April 22, 2021
Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Amid scandals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo bans reporters from public events