COVID-19; Ch. 1: Bring Us Less Cuomo, More Oprah

Bob’s former Home Page Essay; March 20 – April 8, 2020

March 20, 2020

“I like opening airports. I like cutting ribbons at construction sites. I like passing legislation. This isn’t happy, it’s adrenaline. When a bear is charging at you, if you are not energized, you are dead…. This is government at wartime.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo, discussing COVID-19, quoted by New York Magazine, March 16, 2020

“I practice empathy when I not just see myself in another person or see that I want to relate to someone or walk in their shoes.  I practice empathy and compassion when I feel with them, when my heart beats with theirs.”

Oprah Winfrey, on World Kindness Day, Nov. 13, 2017

Back around the Ides of March, I needed to share with you, my people, my Enfield constituents, some fresh thoughts.  So that weekend I placed on my mental front burner a new essay, one that addressed the impending passing of the torch in Enfield Town Government.  The prior Wednesday night, our Supervisor, Beth McGee, had revealed to us, our Town Board, her intentions to resign.  She’d likely leave at the end of April. 

For some reason, my cranial orchestra refused to play; writer’s block.  I’d sought to draw forth words that would be charitable to our departing leader, yet honest as well.  Beth and I often disagree.  Words carry impact. And I couldn’t resist borrowing that priceless, memorable snippet our presiding officer had conveniently handed off to the Ithaca Times, the one about P.T Barnum’s chosen profession and the peppy primates that perform within it.  

I won’t use those words now.  Why?  Because this past week happened.  COVID-19 happened.  America’s and New York’s commercial and social shutdown happened.  A sea-change in our day-by-day existence happened.  Better we forgive and forget, ignore our occasional indiscreet outbursts.  We’ve got more important fish to fry, both for ourselves and for our neighbors.  Better we give our brothers and sisters at Enfield’s head table a figurative handshake and a collective hug; though, please, at a distance of no fewer than six feet.

In any event, our Supervisor has placed her impending departure on indefinite hold.  Her updated status, shared with me three days after her first: 

“Through this state of emergency I will continue to serve the town of Enfield as is my prerogative in order to provide consistency and confidence that our municipality can protect residents as they expect,” the Supervisor clarified as State-ordered COVID-19 containment measures that weekend first began to proliferate and overtake our lives. 

Town Hall: Closed Til Further Notice

We’ve since closed the Enfield Town Hall.  Our road superintendent has sent home his highway staff for all but emergency duty.  Our next Town Board meetings will likely be via Zoom videoconference.  Best advice:  Take life—and Enfield government—one day at a time.

I could leave it there.  Click “Save” and then “Publish.”  Website fed; essay online; mission accomplished.  But I cannot.  Too much else is gnawing at my mind—and I sense, on everyone’s minds.  Our anxieties and our disruptions stretch far beyond the boundaries marked off by Buck Hill and Van Ostrand Roads.  This is not an Enfield problem.  This is an America problem.  And until we address not just our exigent emergency, but also the psychological wounds its preventive measures have carved into each of our lives, we’ll never get a handle on our current state of mind… or seek first aid to bandage our mental wounds.

Let’s start here.

Sorry, diehard Berniecrats, but Joe Biden will win the Democratic Presidential nomination.  Why?  Because in this national crisis, Old Joe has become the only major politician to take up the mantle of National Father Figure.  He’s calm.  He’s reassuring.  He says we will get through this.  He cares.  He speaks from the heart. If there’s a choreographed script, he conceals it. Biden’s a little bit Franklin Roosevelt; a little bit Walt Disney; a little bit Robert Young (from “Father Knows Best,” for those of you too much of a kid to remember). In a word, Biden exudes a much-needed, magic quality we all hunger for right now; more than just leadership; something exceptional: Empathy!

Bernie Sanders does not exude empathy.  He shouts and promotes long-term remedies, like Medicare for All, concepts which will take too long to address in this emergency; and judging from Europe’s troubled experience, may actually do more harm than good.

Governor Cuomo’s the same way.  His daily-compounded Executive Orders and the gubernatorial admonitions that accompany them carry a stern, cold, patriarchal “Eat your peas” tone to them:  Adrenaline flows in the Chief Executive’s veins. Power gets wielded with gleeful abandon.  Do What I Say.  Don’t ask why.  And don’t ever come to me for a virtual hug.  Reassurances Cuomo makes that his plans will succeed only fall back on worn-out platitudes.  (“Yes, people are anxious.  But that’s New York at its best.  That’s the challenge we rise to.”)  Sigh.

What’s more, the Cuomo “fight the charging bear” mindset filters down to local authorities.  A government in panic is a government that puts action before thought.  On Sunday, the 15th, Tompkins County’s Legislature, ostensibly “out of concern for the health and safety of the public,” bolted the door of Legislative Chambers, denying public access to its meeting two days later.  The County’s cited authority, the Governor’s Executive Order of the day before, merely permitted such action.  The Governor did not require it.

But what social-distancing standard did the county employ?  Fifty people?  The room is large.  Public turnout seldom reaches a large number; and if it did, police could limit admission.  Maybe just ten people?  Please, count noses.  The Legislature itself is a party of 14.  Administrators and support staff add another half-dozen.

On Friday, the 13th, Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino declared this County’s own State of Emergency.  In that same message, the County’s Public Health Director, Frank Kruppa, twisted arms and—going beyond State dictates—pressured public schools to close.  Cornell suspended classes the same day.  We’re told Big Red instruction will resume three weeks later, in early-April, but only online.  On Wednesday, the 18th, the Law School locked its doors, even to its own students,.  Don’t try to use your key card.  We’re told it won’t work.

We’ll Meet Not Here; but rather Online

In Enfield, we’ve taken our own drastic measures.  Our Supervisor has ordered our Town Board to meet by video conference until the emergency passes.  It’s a stronger-than-required step that I might not have taken.  But she has.  Let’s not quibble; let’s just comply.  (I recall that one of our own members falls into a high-risk category, anyway.)  Only be sure that we find a way for all of you, our constituents, to view these proceedings in real time.  Some of you lack broadband.  Ouch!

Leaders acting in haste find individual trees blocking far-greater forests.  Mission obscures logic.  My tipping point came on St. Patrick’s Day when our well-intentioned County Administrator, in consort with the Health Director and a couple of child care umbrella groups, ordered the closure of all the county’s licensed child care centers.  His orders reached beyond the Governor’s dictates.  In fact, they may have prospectively breached the State Executive’s heavy-handed order of the next day, the one demanding that:

“No locality or political subdivision shall issue any local emergency order or executive order with respect to response of COVID-19 without the approval of the State Department of Health.”  (Don’t you just love gubernatorial micro-management?) 

I read the County’s four-paragraph, flack-sanitized, clinically-constructed Executive Order and exploded.  Then I cried.  Its cut-and-paste, endlessly-recycled “wash your hands; cover your cough” admonitions were bad enough.  But what struck me worst was what his message lacked:  Any warmth; any heart; any helpful advice to answer the obvious question, “What the Hell do I do with my kids, now?”

What if Mommy and Daddy can’t stay home?  What if they hold must-show jobs?  No school.  No day care, either. I envisioned this crisis’ first potential fatality; not an ailing octogenarian, but rather some animated six-year old plopped in front of the TV as Mom bolted out the door.  Only the kid later got bored and started playing with matches or teasing the Pit Bull.

Thankfully, here, reason won the week.  Two days later, after I’d cautioned County Administration about the Governor’s meddlesome decree, locals backpedaled.  The Administrator allowed two day care centers to reopen for “essential personnel.”  The order also encouraged independent home-based “nanny” services be set up for those lacking another choice.

Governors, public administrators, including health commissioners, are good at some things, terrible at others.  They can count coins, votes, masks and ventilators much better than they can warm hearts.  Joe Biden, like FDR, Clinton, and maybe Obama, is the rare exception.  When you find leaders of this rare breed, embrace them.  They stand out.  They show empathy.

At this writing, our county’s COVID-19 confirmed cases stand at a half-dozen.  No doubt, the number will grow, perhaps exponentially.  But please, County Health Director, when you hold your next news conference, do us all a favor.  You don’t have to tell us the names of our COVID-19 victims.  But please inform us, how are they doing?  Are their lives at risk?  Or are they all stable?  Might they be okay?  What’s more, how should we each adapt to self-isolation in a way that comforts our soul, not just safeguards our sinuses?  Maybe our Director should invite to his next news conference a minister, a priest, or a rabbi, not just the CEO of CMC.

For me, our current crisis brings me worse mental anguish than I had following 9/11.  I’m not the only one who’s observed the difference, but it deserves repeating.  In September 2001, we came together as a people.  Now, under strict social-distancing orders from learned authorities, we’re forced to pull apart.  Some say that once we “flatten the curve,” and ease the restrictions, life will resume as it was.  I doubt it.  Did it ever after 9/11?  If you think it did, visit the nearest airport to board the soonest flight. 

This very week, County and Ithaca City governments committed hefty sums to a $31 Million Downtown Ithaca Conference Center.  I opposed it.  I lost.  “I think you have to look past COVID-19,” one County legislator responded to my letter in open session. “We have to look at the long-term economic health of the County.”  That lawmaker referenced the Spanish Flu of 1918.  We survived it, didn’t we?  But that was more than a century ago.  The CDC claims Spanish Flu killed 50 million worldwide, more than a half-million in this country.  How many conference centers were built then?  Any comparison lacks context.

“Nine-eleven changed everything,” we’ve been told infinite times these past two decades.  So will this pandemic.  Maybe we’ll bounce back sooner than I expect.  I’d gladly be proven wrong.  But I’m one who views the past as prologue.  Until we find a vaccine, we’ll forever stand on guard.  And even when we do cure COVID-19, we’ll seek to employ the procedures of today to confront the pathogens of tomorrow.  My worst fear:  We’ll become a hunker-down society; germaphobes all, forever.  Hugs and handshakes will repeatedly become suspect, depending on what CNN feeds us that hour.

Only decades from now, just as with September 11th, will history prove us right or wrong in how we’ve managed this emergency.  But at some point we need to hug again.  We need to emerge from our cocoons and again share pancakes Saturday mornings at the Enfield Grange. We’ll each feel better when we do.  But what we need most at the moment is comfort, not conflict.  Today, reach out, even though you cannot touch.  Do as Oprah advises; feel with others.  Let your “heart beat with theirs.” 

And one final suggestion, if I dare reference our most recent conversion.   It wouldn’t hurt, for those of us who are willing, to put hand over heart and recite those 31 words of unity, loyalty, and national pride.  We are one people.  We are one America.  We are One Enfield.

Stay well.