For those who’ve watched him closely, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo exists largely in two modes. There is the dominant governor who takes credit for everything, declares “I am the government,” and is in full control of its transit network, public schools, housing laws, and the flawed response to the pandemic.
But there is another Cuomo—the disingenuous bystander. The same governor can proclaim, on another day, he doesn’t really control the city’s subways and can’t do anything about who gets to arrive in New York from overseas. Over the weekend, as news emerged that a new strain of coronavirus was circulating in England, Cuomo defaulted to the role of sideline pundit, railing against President Donald Trump’s outgoing federal government for failing to protect New York while insisting there was nothing he could do about this as arguably the nation’s most powerful governor.
Don’t believe him.
“We have about six flights a day coming in from the U.K. And we have done absolutely nothing” to stop them, Cuomo said on Sunday. “To me, this is reprehensible,” he said, “because this is what happens in the spring,” when he blamed New York’s unchecked early coronavirus spread on travelers from Europe, rather than directly from the initial epicenter in Wuhan, China. “One hundred twenty countries require testing. We don’t. Other European countries have done a ban. We haven’t. And today that variant is getting on a plane and landing at JFK.” On Monday, Cuomo asked British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Delta to add New York to a list of places passengers must take a negative coronavirus test before flying to. Again, he assailed federal “incompetence” and assumed that variant of the virus was already in New York.
What can Cuomo do to stop this? Basically nothing, he claimed. “The Port Authority has no authority to ban passengers, health-monitor passengers. It’s federal,” he said. “Doing nothing is negligent. It’s grossly negligent.”
But Cuomo is not a desperate activist railing against Trump from beyond the barricades. Along with the governor of New Jersey, he controls the Port Authority, the entity that oversees all major airports in the area. Both of New York City’s airports, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy, are under his direct oversight. The airlines are private businesses, but they are landing on New York soil. Once those passengers disembark, Cuomo doesn’t need assistance from the federal government to keep the virus in check.
Cuomo claimed there are at least six flights a day coming from the United Kingdom. Though he shared this information to support his thesis that there are far too many people from Europe streaming into New York, this is actually a very manageable influx. If passengers aren’t tested for the coronavirus before getting on a flight, they can be rapid-tested, upon arrival, when they enter New York.
New York officials don’t have the power to reject any European passengers, but they can easily direct every single one to a vacant hotel room near the airports. Since tourism has fallen off so much in 2020, hotels bordering New York’s major transit hubs have plenty of room. The hotel occupancy rate in the city has been estimated to be less than 10 percent.
Instead of dithering, Cuomo can act—and probably should have acted already. The state can buy up hotel rooms near the airports, specifically reserving them for international travelers and requiring them to quarantine there. If there’s concern about conducting tests at airports, swab or saliva tests can be administered at the hotels themselves. Private transportation can be secured so these travelers aren’t crowding onto buses and trains.
If Cuomo truly feels the threat is dire, he can move to shut down the airports altogether. The variant of the coronavirus appearing in England probably doesn’t warrant such a drastic measure. But it’s worth noting how Cuomo never exercised such power in the most crucial days of the pandemic, in early March. Back then, Cuomo was downplaying the threat of the coronavirus and dismissing the need for a shelter-in-place order for New York City. As PBS’ Alexander Heffner has pointed out—one of the few observers to do so—a Port Authority shutdown could have headed off disaster, curtailing travel into New York.
Right now, passengers from the United Kingdom present a traveler history form to the National Guard. Passengers include their phone number and where they are staying, along with proof of a coronavirus test conducted elsewhere. For the following few days, they are texted and asked if they are showing symptoms. Three days of quarantine are now required, though not facilitated or enforced in any meaningful way, before taking a coronavirus test in New York.
In November, Cuomo made a show of deploying National Guard troops to airports to ensure travelers showed proof of negative coronavirus tests. A traveler arriving without proof of a negative test won’t be stopped from entering the state but must quarantine for 14 days.
Beyond that, Cuomo abdicates all authority. The quarantine exists on an honor system. The testing doesn’t, but it isn’t performed in New York. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for a passenger to be infected on an airline.
Trump isn’t governor of New York State, though sometimes it can feel like Cuomo is pretending he is. If Cuomo feels so strongly about the new coronavirus variant, he should wield the state’s power now to stamp it out. New York has the testing, the hotels, and the legal authority to stop the spread. Cuomo can either be the governor he claimed to be or court disaster again.