De Blasio Spent Weeks Readying to Lead NYC Through Ebola Moment

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to quell fear of the Ebola virus began weeks before the disease appeared in the metropolis, at an Oct. 9 City Hall gathering of top aides to plan response protocols.

He went to Washington the next week, seeking help from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, then showed up to praise 5,000 health-care workers at an Oct. 21 Ebola-training conference in Manhattan. He called the Oct. 23 news briefing reporting that Craig Spencer, a 33-year-old doctor, had returned from Guinea and tested positive for the virus. This weekend, trying to calm New Yorkers, he stopped by the Meatball Shop, the Greenwich Village eatery Spencer visited before falling ill.

“He has done very well, showing in his press conferences that he’s got competent people in place and done the work to understand this disease and what needs to be done,” said William Cunningham, who advised former U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, former Governor Hugh Carey and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

In his 10 months as mayor, de Blasio faced an earlier challenge in July, when a black man died after police placed him in a choke hold, an incident that risked either angering minority voters or the 35,000 officers sworn to protect the city. The current predicament demands a show of competence without being as fraught with political complications, and de Blasio has made the most of it.

‘Get Ahead’

“The Meatball Shop, it sent the message to the public: ‘Don’t be afraid,’” said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant who was press secretary to former Mayor Ed Koch. “He showed he cared about small business. It’s the first test of leadership: Get ahead of the crisis.”

It’s a trial that mayors sometimes get right and sometimes get wrong, Arzt said. He recalled as a triumph the day Koch cheered on New Yorkers trekking across the Brooklyn Bridge during a 1980 transit strike, and as a failure the former mayor’s late recognition of the AIDS epidemic as one of the most severe public-health emergencies in city history. That mistake hurt Koch’s legacy and haunted him for the rest of his life, Arzt said.

Former Mayor John Lindsay ran for re-election having to apologize for failing to manage the clean-up of a 1969 blizzard that paralyzed the city and killed dozens, contributing to the sense that the city was ungovernable. Community leaders had previously credited him with stopping a race riot in April 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated, when he walked the streets of Harlem asking residents to stay calm. In other cities, black neighborhoods burned.

Sept. 11

Like Lindsay, Bloomberg also faced criticism about his handling of a blizzard. His aides apologized to the city council for not declaring a snow emergency after a 2010 post-Christmas storm dumped 20 inches (51 centimeters) and left some streets unplowed for weeks.

Meghan Womack, a spokeswoman for Michael Bloomberg, declined to comment on de Blasio’s performance.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had spent much of his second term mired in spats with taxi drivers, artists and pet owners, earned the moniker “America’s mayor” as he emerged from the site of the collapsed towers covered in debris and told the world, “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear.”

More Deadly

Almost 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11, and so far no one in New York has died from Ebola. The number of U.S. deaths from the flu ranges from 3,000 to 49,000 a year, depending on the severity of the flu season, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that looked at cases from 1976 to 2007. Even chicken pox may be more likely to kill you in the U.S. than Ebola, with about 100 to 150 deaths a year.

It may be too early to determine whether de Blasio’s actions dealing with Ebola will help or hurt his political career, said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University professor. Yet the mayor has demonstrated that he appreciates the challenge facing Ebola care workers returning from Africa.

“We see the mayor putting his faith in science, while also caring deeply about the civil liberties of health-care workers faced with quarantine and detention,” Shapiro said.

At a news conference yesterday, Nate Link, chief medical officer at Bellevue Hospital Center, where Spencer is being treated, praised de Blasio for requesting three months ago that Link start planning to develop the facility as the city’s treatment site with an isolation ward for Ebola patients.

Be Prepared

“The mayor ordered us to prepare,” Link said. “So we created a hospital within a hospital, trained our staff and procured equipment.”

De Blasio, a 53-year-old Democrat who worked as an aide to former Mayor David Dinkins in the 1990s, has said he considers himself a student of the city’s mayoral history, naming Fiorello LaGuardia, who served from 1934 to 1945, as his favorite.

At a briefing at Bellevue yesterday, he declined to criticize Governor Andrew Cuomo, who without consulting de Blasio or city health officials imposed quarantines on health workers landing at area airports from West Africa.

“When you enter into a crisis, there is an extremely important value placed on coordination and communication,” de Blasio said. “It’s a time for everyone to get on the same page and protect our people.”

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