De Blasio's plan: a steady voice in time of Ebola

AP News
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Posted: Nov 02, 2014 1:05 PM
De Blasio's plan: a steady voice in time of Ebola

NEW YORK (AP) — Within hours of New York City's first confirmed Ebola case, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a point of following in the patient's footsteps: riding the subways, eating at a meatball restaurant, even visiting the hospital's isolation chamber.

De Blasio's actions in the first week of the city's Ebola crisis were aimed at calming a jittery New York, the result of what administration officials say was a studied, carefully planned strategy put in place weeks before.

That game plan — to make frequent public appearances, to calmly repeat how difficult it is to catch the disease and to stress how prepared the city is — has apparently worked. At least so far, there have been no reported incidents of full-blown hysteria. De Blasio has received high marks from experts who applauded his consistency, which stood in sharp contrast from the up-and-down rhetoric espoused by the region's two governors.

"This is what you really pay a mayor to do," said Bill Cunningham, former communications director for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "Do we want him to pick up garbage and shovel the snow? Of course. But it's times like this when the public gets a real image of their mayor."

The command center at the city's Office of Emergency Management had already come to life the morning of Oct. 23. Though at that moment the only confirmed cases of Ebola in the U.S. were in Texas, the de Blasio administration had spent months preparing and selected that morning to practice what would happen were there a diagnosis in the nation's largest city.

After the drill, the command center was supposed to shut down. It never did.

An ambulance was summoned that morning to the Harlem apartment of Dr. Craig Spencer, who had recently returned from treating Ebola-stricken patients in Guinea. Though there had been other false alarms in the previous weeks, Spencer — due to his symptoms and background — was quickly assessed as a high risk to have the disease.

Results from an Ebola test take more than six hours to complete, and in the interim, de Blasio dashed to a Queens hospital where a police officer was recovering from a hatchet attack and then to a union's dinner dance in the Bronx. He was there when the call came to confirm the positive diagnoses.

That night at Bellevue Hospital Center, flanked by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and city Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, de Blasio stressed that "there is no reason for New Yorkers to be alarmed."

"A panic here would be a disaster," said Robert Shapiro, political science professor of Columbia University. "De Blasio has chosen to go with the science and not restrict the liberties of any people."

The plan went awry the next afternoon. Shortly before 5 p.m., the phones started ringing in the mayor's press office with reporters asking about the new quarantine policy just announced by Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Confused, City Hall staff quickly checked the TV and their Twitter feeds and found that the governors had announced a stricter policy at the area's airports and had not informed the mayor's staff.

Moreover, Cuomo had done a turnaround from his measured tones the night before, criticizing Spencer's movements and claiming that "hundreds and hundreds" of people could be infected by riding on a bus with an infected person.

A series of angry phone calls between the governor's and mayor's staffs soon followed, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. Frustrated, the de Blasio team opted to double down on the strategy to calm the public and scheduled the mayor's lunch at The Meatball Shop the next day.

That was followed by a rally at Bellevue on Sunday in which the mayor cheered the nurses working there and denounced any attempts to criticize Spencer or nurse Kaci Hickox, who had been quarantined in New Jersey after returning from West Africa and subsequently drew Christie's ire.

"While other leaders have zigged and zagged, de Blasio has repeated factual information over and over," Cunningham said. "The public is looking for those assurances."

After enduring a weekend of criticism from public health groups and some quarters of the media, Cuomo scheduled a Sunday night news conference to fill in the details of the policy. There was debate within the de Blasio camp as to whether the mayor should appear with him "to bail out" the governor as he softened his policy and tone, according to the person.

The mayor did appear, prioritizing the need for the government to speak as once voice and hoping that his presence would prevent Cuomo from more fear-inducing statements. And de Blasio walked into the news conference fully cognizant that his administration would need support from Cuomo when it unveils its ambitious legislative agenda next spring, the person said.

After the event, a few members of the de Blasio staff went out for drinks and others caught a few innings of the World Series, reveling in a moment of calm.

It would not last. The next morning, a 5-year-old was taken to Bellevue with Ebola-like symptoms and the operation sprung to life again. But hours later, the boy was cleared.

"Thank God, this young boy is Ebola-free" de Blasio said. "That is a very good piece of news for all of us."