Albany

As Cuomo cedes the spotlight, who will fill the vacuum?

Regional communication approach remains unclear
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

Categories: News

ALBANY — It was short by Cuomoian standards, a brisk 10-minute speech followed by a highlight reel featuring pictures of mask-clad New Yorkers paired with a gubernatorial voiceover and swelling strings. 

Following 111 straight days of press briefings, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed off, doing so in an Oval Office-type address from his office on Friday. 

“Today, we have done a full 180, from worst to first,” Cuomo said. “We are controlling the virus better than any state in the country and any nation on the globe.” 

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For the past three months, Cuomo’s daily briefings morphed into daily rituals that gripped the state — and, during the pandemic’s peak in early-April, the nation — offering a blend of facts, lectures, and at times, celebrity guests, briefings that initially drew widespread public acclaim as ballast in a storm, particularly amid mixed messaging at the federal level.

The governor said he’ll still give briefings when the need arises — just not daily. 

“I will still do what I do,” Cuomo said. “We just don’t have to do it every day and that’s a good thing and let’s hope it stays that way.”

But despite an infection rate that is the lowest in the nation and the number of hospitalized patients hovering in the single digits in Saratoga, Schenectady and Albany counties, Cuomo is ceding the spotlight when the state is venturing into an unknown new chapter. 

The Capital Region is just three days into Phase 3, which allowed restaurants, bars and personal service providers to open with strict capacity and social-distancing requirements. 

But the virus is still here. Eight states are experiencing their highest seven-day averages of new coronavirus cases per day since the crisis began, according to CNN, including Texas, California and Florida, which had its biggest increase yet in coronavirus cases on Thursday. 

Cuomo acknowledged a possible second wave and blamed the Trump administration’s whiplash messaging. 

“The federal government’s attitude is an undeniable mistake when dealing with COVID,” Cuomo said. “The White House from Day One has been operating on a purely political ideology.”

Keeping the virus contained in New York requires a level of personal responsibility paired with strict enforcement efforts by local officials, Cuomo has repeatedly said.

“The function of local government gets more difficult as we go through these phrases because it gets more complicated,” Cuomo said on Thursday, “and more people are coming into the system.” 

CONTROL ROOM COMMUNICATION?

Reopening in each of the state’s 10 regions is guided by control rooms, or a group of elected officials from each county who monitor data and will ultimately determine if they should hit the pause button. 

Barring a setback, the Capital Region is poised to enter Phase 4, which would allow casinos, movie theaters and large event venues to gradually reopen, on July 1. 

The Capital Region Control Room has a daily afternoon conference call with state officials, a practice Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman envisions will continue well into the summer. 

But there’s no sign that the group, which is led by Major General Patrick A. Murphy and includes Fluman, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig, among others, will designate a spokesperson and communicate daily, filling the void left by Cuomo’s decision to scale back. 

“As far as the control room itself designating a speaker for the whole region, I would say no,” Fluman said on Thursday. “But obviously we have a lot of good, strong, passionate people that are in that room.”

Cuomo himself has acknowledged questioning from reporters drove the dialogue and shaped coverage of the pandemic as much as his prepared talking points and PowerPoints, which ultimately reached 59 million people.

 

“The questions, the dialogue was as informative to people as my briefings,” Cuomo said. “You were asking the really probative, direct questions that got info the people needed.”

A spokesman for the governor’s office didn’t respond for comment on Friday asking if the state would issue guidance to control rooms on communicating with the public or compel them into doing so. (“I gave everyone today off, and I can handle this last daily COVID briefing alone,” Cuomo quipped.) 

The state does, however, maintain an online dashboard outlining the metrics guiding reopening, including the seven-day hospitalization and infection rates, number of contact tracers and hospital capacity. 

And while the eight counties individually release daily statistics, the extent to which the virus is prevalent in the community and how rigorously state mandates are being enforced is contingent on how well each county communicates, leading to a patchwork picture.

Fluman, for instance, holds twice-weekly Facebook Live briefings, appearing solo and reading the latest statistics and fielding questions from the public, most of them asking about when certain activities will be allowed to resume. 

Saratoga County holds occasional Facebook Live events with local officials. 

Perhaps the closest to the Cuomo blueprint is Albany County, where McCoy and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen appear daily amid a rotating cast of county officials and community members. 

McCoy’s briefing on Friday was his 100th — and his last daily appearance before downshifting to Tuesdays and Fridays. 

His office didn’t directly answer if he would take on a more regional communication role and speak on behalf of the control room.

But daily email updates will continue, outlining data, new guidance from the state and other information from the regional decision-makers. 

“County Executive McCoy’s strong leadership has been a guiding force for the last 100 days and he will continue to work with all levels of government and community partners to navigate what’s next because COVID-19 has not gone away,” said Mary Rozak, the county’s communications director. 

Fluman also demurred when asked if the control room would hold briefings to discuss the pandemic from a regional standpoint.

“Traditionally for the Capital Region, there hasn’t been a single entity that talks for the Capital Region as a whole outside of a congressman or a senator who can have that ability,” Fluman said. “As far as the control room itself designating a speaker for the whole region, I would say no, but obviously we have a lot of good, strong passionate people that are in that room.”

MESSAGE FATIGUE 

When it comes to how the public has navigated the crisis, trust in elected officials has been a key component, according to communication experts.

Cuomo has been a credible and consistent messenger in articulating the severity of the crisis and the path forward, said Brad Horn, professor of practice in the public relations department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. 

“The communities have had a road map to success,” Horn said. “In other states where that has not happened, much has been left to interpretation.” 

The governor’s decision to nix the daily briefings comes at the confluence of two paradoxical factors: 

Government has the responsibility to care for the welfare of its citizens, Horn said. But at the same time, past studies have determined prolonged public health crises run the risk of “message fatigue,” or when talking points fail to hit their mark on an increasingly exhausted public. 

“Considerable research shows excessive message exposure can in effect render a message ineffectual in terms of persuasion,” Horn said. “There’s a national fatigue when it comes to hearing about COVID-19. That format of everyday addressing the public with the same template and the same key points creates a paradox.”

McCoy acknowledged as much on Friday, recounting an interaction with a constituent lamenting he was simply “done” with the virus.

“I hear you, pal,” McCoy said. “But it’s not done with you.” 

The fatigue paired with Cuomo’s departure and inconsistent messaging at the federal level could lead to other actors coming in to fill the information void, Horn said — not all of them well-intended. 

Public perception on the virus could also be blurred by corporations like AMC, who announced Thursday that they would not require patrons to wear masks at the risk of being “drawn into a political controversy,” a decision they walked back on Friday following backlash.

However the method, clear communication with the public will be critical to reinforcing directives and containing the virus’ spread, said Horn, who acknowledged a change in format may be beneficial.

Local officials don’t necessarily have to deliver the information themselves: One option could be delegating the responsibility to local hospitals or other credible messengers. 

“The information still has to flow, but has to be done in a way people can still get information,” Horn said. “Those at the regional and local level have to fulfill the moral obligation the state has set.”

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