Gotham Gazette Sat, 05 Dec 2020 12:16:26 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) MTA’s ‘Worst Case’ is Really a Massive $23 Billion Deficit Through 2024 govcoumo sub ob

Governor Cuomo at an MTA train depot (photo: governor's office)

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is facing the largest fiscal crisis in its history due to COVID-19. With more federal aid not forthcoming, the MTA has been buying time – quite literally, by borrowing up to $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve – before the axe will need to fall on service and its workforce. The MTA’s Chief Financial Officer, Bob Foran, said that layoffs would need to start in May of 2021, and fare and toll increase hearings start this month. The MTA Board could vote on fare and toll increases as soon as February 2021.

Unfortunately, the public and many of New York’s elected leaders still have not fully grasped the magnitude of the MTA’s potential “worst case scenario” losses: $23 billion from 2020 to 2024 according to the latest budget numbers. This is partly because the MTA’s November Financial Plan does not clearly show the worst-case possibilities to the public and MTA Board, but rather emphasizes this period’s mid-point $16 billion deficit – still a debilitating sum. 

A cumulative deficit of $23 billion is a massive amount: the equivalent of 15 months of pre-pandemic operating costs for the MTA. For comparison, the New York City Department of Education has a budget of $34 billion for the 2020-2021 school year to educate more than 1 million students.

When factoring in a worst-case scenario “adjustment,” the MTA’s deficit through 2024 balloons to nearly $23 billion, up from $16 billion, as shown in the chart below, an increase of $7 billion and 44% worse.


The MTA’s worst-case scenario “adjustment” assumes more depressed ridership than anticipated, and a significant “second wave” of COVID-19 accompanied by more lockdowns this winter, according to an updated analysis from McKinsey. In the worst case, McKinsey assumes an average “ridership recovery” of 27% for 2021, 54% for 2022, 71% for 2023, and 79% for 2024.

ChartThis means that the worst case would be only 27% of ridership coming back in 2021 compared to what the MTA had projected pre-pandemic. It is worth noting that these recovery rates are not pegged to 2019 ridership rates, which saw steady ridership gains that were expected to continue through 2024. The MTA/McKinsey assumption shows relatively larger revenue deficits than if 2019 were held as a “base” year for ridership, and therefore for fare revenue, based on expected growth. However, steadily increasing MTA ridership is certainly a positive goal for the agency and the New York City region as a whole, albeit one that may be harder to attain post-covid.

Overall, McKinsey predicts a reduction in ridership due to the following factors: remote work (-4% to -12%); reduced non-work trips like shopping or for tourism (-2% to -5%); mode shifts such as walking, bicycling, driving, etc. (-2% to -3%); and decreased employment (-.2%).

MTA’s November Doomsday Plan Doesn’t Close Either a $16B or $23B Deficit
The MTA’s August Doomsday plan showed a number of options to close the gaps, as seen in our prior analysis, which also showed a $1 billion gap even with brutal cuts. The MTA’s November plan repeats many of these bad options to close the gaps in the absence of federal aid and greater support from New York State. Together, these gap-closers make up $14 billion of the MTA’s $16-$23 billion deficit, and include borrowing that will need to be paid back.

This means that at least $2 billion more in cuts will be needed, and as much as $9 billion in a worst-case scenario. Our summary of the MTA’s latest budget gap-closing options is below. It includes the MTA using its Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) trust, which was intended to help pay future MTA retirement benefits, and borrowing $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) program, which will require the MTA to start paying interest in 2023.


Fare Hikes
In August, the MTA hinted at possible fare hikes beyond the regular increases planned every other year, for an additional 1% above the planned 4% increase. While the MTA’s November Financial Plan shows only 4% increases as originally planned pre-covid (as included in the chart above), some MTA Board members loyal to the governor have indicated that there should be no increases, or new discounts to lure riders back. No one will dispute that fare policies should consider the impact on ridership, as who wants to pay more for much, much less? Higher fares could deter riders from coming back, and 2019’s ridership gains already seem a distant memory.

The problem here is that the only solutions being proposed by Governor Cuomo and his MTA are cuts, borrowing, discounts on fares, or holding the fare steady. At best, discounts and holding the fare at current levels will have a neutral impact on the MTA’s bottom line, if not further increasing the deficit. The proposed fare hikes were expected to net $148 million more in revenue for 2021, and $267 million more in 2022.

MTA is Planning on the State Raiding Its Dedicated Funds
Even worse, the governor is actively withholding from the MTA its dedicated funds as part of the state’s budget adjustment process, with 20% across-the-board cuts being inflicted on everything from the MTA to nonprofit service-providers, CUNY, and other vital institutions. Funds have been withheld for months now, and are becoming de facto cuts in the absence of formal cuts. The withheld funds have allowed the state to accumulate a cash hoard of $23.8 billion – 62% more than this time last year, according to the latest cash reports from the State Comptroller. This is nearly the same amount as the MTA’s worst-case deficit through 2024: $22.9 billion.

The MTA has acknowledged that $600 million in state subsidies are at risk if the federal government doesn’t provide emergency aid to New York State, even factoring this loss into its $12 billion ask for federal aid. Translated from Albany budget lingo into real-world terms, the state plans to raid $600 million in MTA dedicated taxes to prop up its own finances.  

Congress and Governor Cuomo Both Have a Role to Play
So where are the solutions? Everyone agrees that the federal government is the MTA’s best option. Congress provided the MTA with nearly $4 billion in CARES Act funds earlier this year, which was fully spent down this summer. And the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity program is going to give the MTA $2.9 billion more in liquidity to help it make up some of these gaps. But any borrowing needs to be paid back, and the MTA will start paying $143 million a year in interest on this loan, according to its November Financial Plan.

The MTA’s “worst case” $22.9 billion deficit also happens to be nearly the same size as the ‘deficit’ New York has with the federal government. The MTA is essential to boosting the region’s economy, and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s recent report shows that New York’s economic successes allowed it to send $23.7 billion more to Washington D.C. than it got back in federal aid in 2019. New York State ranked second worst only to New Jersey for what it got in return for its tax contributions. Forty-four other states got more back than they sent to the federal government; New Mexico, for example, got back nearly $12 billion more than it paid in taxes.

Now is the time for New York’s Congressional delegation to hold firm and ensure that the MTA is a necessary part of any emergency aid package. The latest aid proposal being discussed is yet again an anemic package that fails to fully support the MTA, which carries 40% of transit riders nationwide. The nation depends on New York to bolster federal tax revenue, and if the federal government lets the MTA fail, it only hurts itself.

At the same time, Governor Cuomo must once and for all pledge to stop raiding the MTA’s dedicated taxes to prop up the state’s budget shortfalls. The governor controls the MTA, and his own Board members have a fiduciary duty to the agency (including his Budget Director Rob Mujica), yet that is far from evident given that the State Division of the Budget is withholding millions from the MTA. It’s time they respect MTA dedicated funds – which were created by the Legislature to provide the MTA stable revenue in good times and bad – by giving them to the MTA at its time of greatest need.

Rachael Fauss is Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.


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MTA’s ‘Worst Case’ is Really a Massive $23 Billion Deficit Through 2024 Wed, 02 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
New York Hospitals Brace for a Second Covid Wave. Are They Ready? visits covid air

Lincoln Hospital staff (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As public health officials eye a second major swell of COVID-19 infections and an increase in hospitalizations, New York's hospital systems have begun to brace for another flood of patients. The state has even opened a field hospital on Staten Island in response to rising numbers, a dismal reminder of the devastation of the spring.

In the months since the height of the pandemic in the spring, New York's health care institutions have been making preparations to try to avoid the same chaos and loss of life, which has been partially attributed to a lack of coordination. But in many areas, like before, hospital administrators and staff are just trying to stay one step ahead of the virus, keep staff safe, and maximize patient survival.

The city's hospital systems "faced an unprecedented situation for which no one was fully prepared," wrote City Comptroller Scott Stringer in a review, issued in July, of the city's public hospital system, which saw many of the most severe problems. "The lack of preparedness forced all players to improvise responses, sometimes successfully, sometimes not – but inevitably at a cost in human lives."

Hospital administrators have signaled to their staff, lawmakers, and the public that they don't believe a second covid wave in New York will be as bad as the first -- with lessons learned and months to upgrade facilities, stockpile supplies and ventilators, and develop so-called "surge plans" to be used in the event another round of mass admissions strains hospitals. But experts are questioning whether hospitals will have enough staff and personal protective equipment (PPE) if hospitals see the crisis levels of March, April, and May again, and even ICU nurses onboarding others are expressing doubt about the adequacy of a heavily-truncated training regimen. New York City and State are hoping to better balance patient loads across hospitals to avoid overwhelming any one facility, but no new system has been finalized and much remains unsettled about how a patient diversion program would operate.

In the spring, hospitals were overflowing with covid patients and, along with governments, struggling to procure enough PPE, particularly within Health + Hospitals, the city's network of public hospitals. Government and hospitals worked together to nearly double the state’s bed count from 53,000 to roughly 90,000, and though they were never all filled, there were concerns about the state’s ability to meet the upper projection of 140,000 hospital admissions.

To comply with an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo to increase capacity by 50%, hospitals rapidly converted offices and auditoriums into intensive care units; field hospitals were set up in convention centers like Javits, and the USNS Comfort, the Navy hospital ship, docked temporarily in the Hudson. Some facilities, like the now-infamous example of Elmhurst hospital in Queens, one of the city's 11 public hospitals, were overflowing while others had space. At the apex in April, the state had 90,000 additional health care workers, including 25,000 from other states.

More than 26,000 people are confirmed to have died from COVID-19 statewide. According to city data, over 24,000 New Yorkers have died of covid in the five boroughs, which includes unconfirmed but suspected covid deaths, or about 1 in 350 city dwellers.

The spring surge in patients meant hospitals needed more space for beds and more personnel to staff them, more supplies to protect or save both patients and staff, and the systems to manage the new, exhausting demands. Many of those systems remain in place or serve as the basis for current emergency plans, like the "NYC Strategic Reserve” PPE and ventilator 90-day stockpile ordered by Mayor Bill de Blasio that the city says is near completion. These issues were especially acute within the 11 public hospitals run by Health + Hospitals, according to Comptroller Stringer’s report, which had been requested by the governor and also pointed to underfunding by the state.

"All of our hospitals have learned from the devastating first wave of the pandemic and really poured their hearts and energies into preparing for the second surge, which we hope won't happen, but unfortunately we are at risk of given the numbers we are seeing," said New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi, last week.

The next morning Mayor Bill de Blasio said "our hospital system is strong right now," but warned that it remained essential to work to keep covid numbers low and avoid strain on ICUs. At a recent City Council oversight hearing, city public health officials testified about lessons learned from the spring and preparations in place for a second wave, including by noting they now often use less invasive ventilation techniques and new protocols for stabilizing patients before transferring them.

The citywide seven-day average number of hospitalizations per day topped 80 admissions last week, three times what it was in August but still far below the thousands of daily admissions at the peak. As of Monday, 931 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 citywide, of whom 196 were in intensive care. Test positivity has been ticking steadily upward since the summer and the city and state have begun shutting down key sectors of public life, like in-person schooling, a reprise of the conditions on the eve of the apex. Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and others have been sounding the alarm that a second wave is staring New York in the face, and imploring New Yorkers to follow all guidelines.

"Rates go up, you overburden the hospital system, you overburden doctors, nurses...Numbers go up and people die. People die. Period. It is a mathematical equation," Cuomo said at a news conference on Sunday, warning rates could "easily" skyrocket for months "if we are irresponsible."

On Monday, Cuomo announced a field hospital would be opened on the site of South Beach Psychiatric Center in Staten Island in response to a dramatic rise in hospitalizations in New York's most isolated borough. "The hospitals have contacted us, and they say they need emergency beds on Staten Island," the governor said at a press briefing. "Remember when we had to set up field hospitals, emergency hospitals for additional capacity? Well, that's what we have to do on Staten Island.”

Throughout the pandemic, the state has functioned as a regulatory body, coordinating resources among public and private hospitals, suspending some requirements and setting new guidelines. As of August 6, emergency regulations from Cuomo's Department of Health establish the framework to reinstate many of the "surge and flex" provisions imposed at the end of March. Hospitals must have plans to expand capacity by 50%, manage mass casualties, and enlist workers in the event of another state of emergency. Each facility is required to stockpile 90 days worth of PPE.

To manage it all, the plan calls for the state health department to maintain a statewide data system and coordinate patient loads across New York's various hospital systems. In another serious outbreak, the state Department of Health may designate healthcare facilities as covid-priority "trauma centers."

In response, a loose organization of government agencies and private healthcare providers has taken shape across the city and state, mobilizing a massive operation that eight months in is still a bit of a leaky ship.

A big focus in recent months has been upgrading spaces and preparing surge plans for the rapid conversion of hospital units and non-clinical space, the offices and auditoriums, into covid ICU wards.

While much of the space has reverted to its traditional use, officials have retained the knowledge to transform facilities and are building up the infrastructure to do it faster. New York City Health + Hospitals tripled ICU capacity by adding 760 ICU beds, some of which were made permanent, as was much of the digital roadmap for tracking them.

“NYC Health + Hospitals has been on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis, providing the highest quality care to all New Yorkers in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic – and we stand at the ready to provide that care as we brace for a potential second surge," wrote Stephanie Guzman, a spokesperson for Health + Hospitals, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Since the spring surge, the public hospital system has made strategic enhancements in space, equipment and staffing to ensure each of its hospitals is even more prepared now to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients."

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been working with public and private hospitals using federal grant money to support covid response and improvements at hospitals and long-term-care facilities. Facilities are incorporating design changes to support rapid unit conversion, like negative pressure rooms, which are used to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus through the air.

Health + Hospitals has increased piped oxygen and dialysis capacity to more easily turn beds into covid ICU beds. Hundreds of rooms have been modified to allow for physically distant patient monitoring with more to come soon, according to Guzman.

The city has some sites on stand-by, like the Roosevelt Island Medical Center, which was opened up this spring on the campus of NYC Health + Hospitals/Coler, where Mayor de Blasio announced plans to open 350 additional non-covid beds in March, which by April were also serving covid patients.

"[An]other thing we learned is that temporary field hospitals like the USS Comfort aren't going to be as effective as expanding the current sites or reopening sites like they did on Roosevelt Island," said New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera, chair of the Council hospitals committee, in an interview. The Comfort treated just 182 patients in its one-month stay docked off of midtown Manhattan.

One of the failures of the first wave was a lack of coordination within and among the public and private hospital systems to balance patient loads.

At Elmhurst Hospital, a Health + Hospitals facility in Queens, health-care professionals were overrun with patients -- one day at the end of March seeing 13 deaths in 24 hours -- despite close to 900 beds open across the public system and 3,500 total beds in New York City, counting private hospitals. The surrounding neighborhoods of Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Corona had some of the highest covid mortality rates in the city.

"[T]he problem the Elmhurst situation exposed was not one of hospital capacity, but one of patient load management across all hospitals and hospital systems," reads an excerpt from state Department of Health regulations issued in August and November.

"When it came to patient transfers, I thought, we really wanted the whole system to operate as one," Council Member Rivera said. "And we heard as much in some of the press conferences. But in practice it didn't truly become a reality."

To avoid the Elmhurst syndrome, the city is working with Emergency Medical Services, a division of the state Health Department, and the Greater New York Hospital Association, a consortium of hospital networks, to develop a "unified approach" to balancing patients, according to Victoria Merlino, a spokesperson for DOHMH. The protocol would mean "moving patients from one facility to others that have more capacity available and deferring EMS to overcrowded hospitals when possible," Merlino wrote.

But it is not ready, and there are few details about how it would work in practice. EMT staffing and shortages were ongoing concerns during the siren-heavy months of the first wave, and now will be an even more central component of the city's emergency response if the system is to better balance admissions.

While the state Health Department's emergency regulations say the department "shall coordinate with health care facilities to balance individual facility patient load," the approach appears to be largely decentralized.

"While the determination of when to transfer a patient or divert EMS resources is a local one, the Department monitors facility capacity and is available to assist with the logistics of making a transfer if necessary," wrote Jonah Bruno, a department spokesperson, in an email.

A city DOHMH spokesperson directed Gotham Gazette inquiries to Greater New York Hospital Association who "developed the system for assessing strain and triggers for EMS diversion, which just recently launched."

A spokesperson for GNYHA provided a planning document Monday detailing patient balance strategies, including an outline for redirecting admissions from surging hospitals, but it does not include concrete protocols or thresholds.

Criteria for designations within the three-tiered framework (normal level, elevated surge, and significant surge) are yet to be established, according to the outline, which was circulated to GNYHA member hospitals in late July.

"We're not quite there yet," said Jenna Mandel-Ricci, GNYHA's Vice President of Regulatory and Professional Affairs, and the network's lead on emergency preparedness, in a phone interview Tuesday. "We're making good progress."

GNYHA views itself more as a "thought leader" in surge management, providing insights and a new layer of data, which it hopes the New York City Fire Department will incorporate into its EMT algorithms.

"We're in very close contact with the fire department and we are kind of watching these next couple of weeks," Mandel-Ricci told Gotham Gazette. 

"It's unclear if a real system for patient load has been implemented, or if it has, whether hospitals are actually keen to use it," said Rivera.

Rivera and others have pointed to two decades of hospital closures as contributing the imbalance of the spring apex. Since 2000, the state has lost roughly 20,000 hospital beds due to budget cuts.

"These hospital closures mostly occurred in poor neighborhoods where there were fewer patients who could pay -- not fewer patients, fewer patients who could pay -- so the inequities are clear when there are more beds per person in Manhattan than there are in Queens," Rivera said, adding, "these are also the neighborhoods where more patients are falling ill and dying from COVID-19."

According to Rivera, New York City's public hospitals received $106 million per hospital in federal CARES Act funding, while some private hospitals received four times that amount. The city's safety-net hospitals, where patients are treated regardless of insurance, are struggling to stay afloat as emergency visits have been down significantly since the spring.

FEMA continues to monitor the outbreak and healthcare systems and DOHMH is using federal aid "to improve information sharing and situational awareness of hospital capacity and throughput," according to Merlino.

If covid levels reach heights from the spring, officials are worried there may not be enough health-care workers, including temporary personnel, to adequately staff surging facilities.

City health officials say they are working with the state to create a medical reserve corps of volunteers and have devised a procurement plan for emergency surge staffing. But the pool of additional workers eight months into the pandemic is limited, especially as so much of the rest of the country is dealing with spiking covid cases.

"The staffing concern is very real and I think everyone across the board will tell you that it's probably their biggest concern," said Mandel-Ricci of Greater New York Hospital Association.

A Memorandum of Agreement is available to contract personnel from the Department of Defense for private hospitals, according to DOHMH officials, but it is unclear if the federal government will make those resources available.

With covid outbreaks in many of the states where traveling nurses once hailed from, DOHMH and hospital administrators are looking to "cross-train" local non-ICU staff in intensive care, but nurses say the training is woefully lacking.

At Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, outpatient clinic nurses are getting online training modules and day of in-person orientation to the intensive care unit.

"These nurses have been out of the hospital for years, you can't expect them to know, to be competent, to adequately care for the patients when they haven't been in that setting," said Shamelee Morrison, who has been a medical/surgical nurse at Montefiore for 11 years. It can take two months to orient a nurse to a new unit, she told Gotham Gazette, "so you can't take these nurses and give them one day and say, 'OK, now go out and take care of these patients in a safe manner.' It's impossible. And that's what they're expecting the nurses to do."

One ICU nurse at NYU Langone Medical Center of Manhattan said it's like the city is already set up for an encore of thousands of nurses scrambling frantically in overwhelmed ICUs.

"I don't feel like I'm an experienced enough ICU nurse to be training anybody to be in the ICU," the Langone nurse told Gotham Gazette, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "And there's nurses who were only trained as ICU nurses during COVID, who are new grads, training new grads now for the second wave, which is absurd."

"The problem with the covid patients is that they're really, really sick and unstable," the nurse said. "They're not like light ICU patients, so to just go in that after a few weeks or like a month or two of being trained by an inexperienced nurse is really dangerous."

Morrison, from Montefiore, believes the hospital had more time to prepare staff for a potential second wave and dropped the ball. "I don't think they're doing much different. They're doing the bare minimum, if anything," she said by phone during a break in her shift. The New York State Nurses Association ​has delivered notice of a two-day strike at Montefiore's New Rochelle campus in an attempt to secure better staffing levels​, wages and benefits.

With numbers rising throughout the city, hospitals are beginning to heighten protocols as staffing levels become an increasing concern. At NYU Langone, nurses are now being told to wear face shields over their masks, an additional precaution, even with patients who don't have covid. More nurses are getting sick, the Langone nurse said, with one floor having ten out.

The nurses Gotham Gazette spoke with said they don't get many details from their hospitals' administration about preparations for a second covid surge, outside of assurances that they have sufficient PPE supplies and indications that a second wave will not be as bad as a first -- both of which there is little proof of.

Emergency regulations from the state Department of Health require all hospitals to have had a "90-day supply" of PPE by September 30. In April, Mayor de Blasio said the city would have its own 90-day stockpile, the NYC Strategic Reserve, in addition to the supplies held by individual hospitals. Representatives of the Mayor's Office and DOHMH have both said in separate statements that the Strategic Reserve will be completed "in the next few weeks," though neither office has said whether hospitals are on track to fulfill the state mandate or even whether the city is monitoring hospital supply levels. Guzman, the spokesperson for Health + Hospitals, said that the public hospital system had reached its 90-day goal.

"There are some hospitals that have not been able to achieve 90-days in all of the categories that are required," said Mandel-Ricci, of Greater New York Hospital Assocation. "But even in the categories where they haven't they're at like 70-days or 65-days, so they still have very large inventories," she added, noting, "some of these things are harder to get than others."

Mandel-Ricci pointed out that most hospitals in New York City are part of networks that can mobilize resources among their facilities. 

Ventilators are more widely available than they were in March, when manufacturers couldn't make them fast enough to keep up with New York's most dire modeling.

Merlino, the DOHMH spokesperson, said hospitals were given the option to keep ventilators from national stockpiles and that the city now has "a large cache" for rapid deployment. When he announced the strategic reserve, de Blasio said the city would have a back-up supply of 4,000 ventilators but the administration has refused to say how many it now has.

Council Member Rivera said she has sought documentation on supplies and surge planning from city agencies and hospitals for months using her oversight powers as chair of the Council hospitals committee, without success.

"We have tried to get this information, not just from the Health + Hospital system, but also from the hospitals that are under that larger Greater New York Hospital Association umbrella," Rivera said.

"It's been incredibly frustrating," she added, "they just haven't provided those documents."

It remains unclear what the 90-day supply goal is based on. As Gotham Gazette recently reported, that number appears to be calibrated to PPE burn rates at the peak of the pandemic, when frontline healthcare workers were instructed to reuse equipment like facemasks far longer than what is traditionally advised. DOHMH and the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have both issued conservation guidance to be put in place to reduce severe shortages.

"We were told that Monte had a 90-day stockpile," Morrison said. "But then some of our nurses recently received an email stating that we were going to have to start recycling PPE."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New York Hospitals Brace for a Second Covid Wave. Are They Ready? Tue, 24 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The MTA’s $500 Million Cleaning Regimen is Shutting the Subways Overnight; Experts Say It’s Not Worth It Cuomo subway cleaning MTA

Gov. Cuomo cleans the subway (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics.

Every night since May 6, a small army of sanitation workers has mopped floors, wiped poles and turnstiles, and wielded electrostatic sprayers and ultraviolet lamps to disinfect New York City’s subway system.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to spend around $500 million on sanitization in response to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, and a similar amount next year, even as the authority faces the worst financial crisis in its history. The MTA announced on Wednesday that it may be forced to implement sweeping service cuts, including a 40% cut to subway and bus service, in order to save $858 million in 2021.

To facilitate the cleaning, the subway shuts down every night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. in the first planned shutdown in its 116-year history. The shutdown imposes heavy costs on late-night workers and on homeless New Yorkers, especially as the nights get colder.

The MTA and Governor Andrew Cuomo's office, which ordered the shutdown, say the disinfection program is a necessary public health precaution during a pandemic. But as a growing body of scientific evidence has shown that surface transmission of COVID-19 is extremely rare, transit advocates and MTA Board members have raised questions as to whether the cleaning is scientifically justified—and have received few answers.

'It’s Overkill. It’s Unnecessary.'
“You have to disinfect everything that a hand could touch on a subway car,” Cuomo said when he announced the program in April. “Every rail, every pole, and any place that droplets could touch. And then you have to disinfect the stations, the handrails.”

In the early days of the virus there was some scientific disagreement, but in the past several months, a scientific consensus has emerged that COVID-19 is rarely spread through surfaces. “Spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads,” according to CDC guidance, “Infections occur mainly through exposure to respiratory droplets.”

“I don't really think that they have an appreciable effect on the transmission of Covid,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California at Davis, told New York Focus, referring to the MTA’s disinfection efforts.

“I think it's overkill. It's unnecessary,” Dr. Emmanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said. “Normal routine hygiene and maintenance is more than adequate to control this virus on surfaces. You don't need to go to these extremes.”

“It's not his fault, he's not a scientist,” Goldman added, referring to Governor Cuomo. “What the MTA should probably do is speak to scientists—there are plenty of them around in New York.”

Asked whether the MTA is speaking with scientific experts to review the effectiveness of the program, an MTA spokesperson wrote in an email, “We certainly have reached out to experts, and we are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

But in subsequent emails and phone calls, the MTA declined to name any scientific expert or group it has consulted, other than the EPA on disinfectants. MTA spokespeople also declined to provide details on the cost of the program.

Governor Cuomo's did not respond to repeated inquiries, other than to refer New York Focus to the MTA press office.

“The subway system has never been cleaner or better disinfected in its entire 116-year history as a result of the overnight closure,” Ken Lovett, senior advisor to MTA Chair and CEO Pat Foye, said in a statement to New York Focus. “We make no apologies for doing everything we can to protect customer health and safety during this once-in-100-year public health crisis.” 

'Why was the Board not consulted?'
Journalists aren’t the only ones having difficulty finding information about the disinfection program. Transit advocates and even members of the MTA’s Board—who are nominated by the governor, with input from the mayor and certain county executives, confirmed by the State Senate, and are responsible for the authority’s governance—say they have also been left in the dark.

The governor announced the nightly closure and cleaning procedures at a press conference on April 30. The news came as a surprise to Andrew Albert, an MTA Board member and the chair of the New York Transit Riders Council.

“I sent the Chairman an email saying that I was blindsided by this. ‘When was the decision made and why was the Board not consulted?’” Albert recounted.

Board members were not notified in advance, Albert said, adding, “Well, maybe the ones that are friends of the Governor were.”

“This is the same story that we've been telling for the past several years,” said Eric McClure, the executive director of the transportation advocacy group StreetsPAC. “Which is that it's Cuomo’s MTA.”

Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, testified to the MTA Board in June to ask for data about the effectiveness of its cleaning initiatives and for metrics on when to restart nightly service. Since then, she said, she has followed up to press for information but has not received answers.

“What we don't know is: How long does it take to clean? How long does it take to safely remove the homeless? Is there a way to condense?” Daglian told New York Focus. “And what are the numbers of riders who really need the subways in those hours, who will not be able to get home?”

The MTA has said that 24-hour service will resume “when the pandemic is over.” Daglian and McClure have both pressed for more specifics, as have reporters at many news outlets. “They need to give us some metrics and or a deadline for when they plan to do that. It seems really open ended,” McClure said. “We’re concerned that there is not really a serious plan to return the subways to 24-hour service.”

'We will see people die this winter'
Two days before he announced the shutdown, Cuomo held up a Daily News photo of homeless New Yorkers sleeping on subways at a press conference and said, “That is disgusting, what is happening on those subway cars.”

Many transit and homeless advocates say that Cuomo’s primary motivation in shutting down the subways was to address a flurry of negative tabloid coverage of homeless New Yorkers “ruling the subway.

The shutdown has posed extreme difficulties for homeless New Yorkers who used to sleep on the subways, and who will face even greater challenges as the nights get colder.

“The subways provide a place where folks can at least stay warm overnight by resting their heads against the subway wall or sometimes lying on a bench. And it's a place to be, a place to sleep,” said Craig Hughes, a social worker at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center. “We will see people die this winter because they are pushed into freezing temperatures.”

In the early weeks of the shutdown, NYPD and Homeless Services met homeless people at end of the line stations, but the program—started by Mayor de Blasio—only offered 281 homeless New Yorkers shelter by the end of May and lacked follow through, according to Hughes.

“People were just dumped onto the stairs of Bellevue hospital. They were put on buses with no heat while the temperature was below freezing.”

A street homeless outreach worker, whose employer is contracted by the city and asked not to be named, said that the shutdown would be especially difficult for her clients in a winter during which, because of the pandemic, “they don’t have hospital ERs or 24-hour McDonalds.”

Late-night workers are also facing challenges. “There are a lot of people whose shifts end at midnight and they need at least an hour and a half to two hours to get home. And they're not able to do that,” said Felicia Park-Rogers of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

And many more riders may face dramatic service cuts, some of which could be averted using money spent on cleaning. The “deep cleaning” regimen is projected to cost $500 million this year, though some of that money may be subject to reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In addition to the cleaning costs, the shutdown is costing the MTA money in lost ridership revenue and bus costs. “Trains are actually running anyway,” Albert said, referring to the empty trains the MTA continues to run throughout the night. “We have this very expensive additional bus system. So by running the trains, you might actually end up saving some money.”

by Devin Wright of New York Focus

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for its newsletter here.

The MTA’s $500 Million Cleaning Regimen is Shutting the Subways Overnight; Experts Say It’s Not Worth It Thu, 19 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
After Significant Help for State Senate Democrats in 2018, Cuomo Largely Absent from 2020 Races Cuomo state senate Democrats Gounardes

Gov. Cuomo with now-State Senator Andrew Gounardes in Oct. 2018 (photo: Cuomo/Flickr)

After flipping several State Senate seats in 2018 and taking control of the upper legislative chamber and therefore all of state government, Democrats sought to hold onto their wide majority this year even with a Republican president atop the ticket. They believed they might be able to win a supermajority in the chamber to match that of Democrats in the Assembly by picking up at least two additional Senate seats, if not more.

But as Senate Democrats faced tough races in a number of districts, including some they had won by narrow margins amid a “blue wave” two years ago, New York’s top Democrat seemed to take a relatively hands off approach and did what some believe is the bare minimum to help his party-mates defend or win new seats.

Though in 2018, when he was on top of the ticket seeking a third term, Governor Andrew Cuomo was active helping Democrats flip State Senate seats in swing districts from Brooklyn to Long Island to the Hudson Valley, this year he was absent but for a handful of virtual fundraising events and robocalls. Some Democrats believe he mostly prefers the split Legislature he had for his first two terms and very much wanted to avoid the possibility of veto-proof majorities in the two legislative houses.

As the vote-counting moves to absentee ballots, which are expected to significantly favor Democrats, there is a long list of State Senate races that haven’t been called. Overall, Democrats are confident that while they may lose a few seats back to Republicans they are also on the verge of picking up others and will wind up with a majority close but not quite as large as what they had coming into the election: 40 seats in the 63-seat chamber. Republicans believe they are narrowing the margin to 36-27, perhaps slimmer.

To get to that 40-seat majority, the 2018 elections saw several progressive Democrats eject more moderate members of the party in primaries while relatively moderate Democrats flipped Republican seats in the general. Cuomo was a significant presence in the latter, rallying with Democratic nominees in parts of the state where he remains popular but Republicans have had success and that he would need in his own reelection bid, which he went on to win by a wide margin.

The 2018 State Senate results set the stage, along with Cuomo’s win and continued Democratic dominance in the Assembly, for the passage of a long list of progressive priorities in 2019.

This year, despite Democrats’ hope that they could pick up as many as ten Senate seats, defend seven, and be competitive in a few others, it was bound to be a tough election. With President Donald Trump on the ballot, Republican turnout was undoubtedly going to be far higher than in 2018 even if Democrats voted in higher numbers too. And despite a fundraising and expenditure advantage for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, there were millions being spent against them in targeted independent expenditures by outside entities, including billionaire Ron Lauder and law enforcement unions, who opposed criminal justice reforms enacted by the Democrat-led Legislature and governor. Lauder, a prominent donor to Cuomo, alone spent nearly $5 million while police unions spent more than $1 million in trying to inaccurately paint Democrats as anti-police and pro-crime.

To some observers, the governor made minimal effort to help Democrats on the receiving end of that spending and even less so in challenging Republican messaging statewide about a Democrat-controlled Legislature run amok. Many have even speculated that Lauder’s independent expenditures had the governor’s tacit approval. “That’s bullshit,” said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesperson, in an email, when presented with those arguments.

Azzopardi insisted that the governor did his best to help Democrats’ chances. The governor endorsed a slate of candidates including Senators John Brooks, Todd Kaminsky, Monica Martinez, Anna Kaplan, Jim Gaughran, Kevin Thomas, and Pete Harckham, and nominees Sean Ryan and Laura Ahern. He recorded robocalls and made appearances at virtual fundraisers for Kaplan, Martinez, Gaughran, Thomas, and Harckham, and made additional virtual fundraising appearances for Senator Kaminsky and nominees Karen Smythe, Samra Brouk, and Jacqualine Berger, and signed a fundraising letter for nominee Jeremy Cooney.

“In what world, during a pandemic when you can't barnstorm and do rallies – if you look at that list of endorsements, robocalls and fundraisers – can they say he didn't do enough,” Azzopardi said in a subsequent phone interview. “It’s ridiculous.”

“The governor worked really hard to bring this majority in under his ticket in 2018,” Azzopardi added. “And we worked really hard to maintain it. Let all the votes be counted and let's see where it goes...We did a lot together. We did a lot of good for the state of New York. And we look forward to working with the Senate Democratic majority next year.”

While no one expected Cuomo to travel the state holding large rallies amid the coronavirus pandemic, the governor did no in-person campaign events. At the same time, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, Cuomo's running-mate and “partner in government,” did barnstorm the state, holding campaign appearances with several Democratic candidates in tough races -- including Brooklyn’s Andrew Gounardes, whom Cuomo campaigned with in 2018 as he flipped a Senate seat but is noticeably absent from the governor’s 2020 list. Cuomo made at least three appearances with Gounardes in October and November 2018, but none, whether virtual or in-person, in 2020. Hochul campaigned with Gounardes in Brooklyn the day before Election Day this year.

Overall, Cuomo opted against joining Democratic candidates in person to bring local and media attention to their campaigns and boost their messages.

A source in the State Democratic Party said the governor was “somewhat helpful” with his fundraisers and endorsements. “But it's a little bit like it's almost just for show,” the source said, noting that the State Democratic Party, which is controlled by Cuomo, could have done more.

“The state party could have done mailers, done TV...there could have been more money spent, more sort-of consolidated or coordinated messaging,” the source said, pointing out that while the state party gave massive contributions to specific candidates, they paled in comparison to the Lauder spending. “The money thing is the big thing. You have states around the country where the state party literally will drop millions of dollars into these local races,” said the source, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak freely.

While Cuomo had transferred campaign funds to some Democrats in 2018, he did not do so this cycle even though, as of July, he had more than $13 million in campaign cash. The State Democratic Party did transfer funds to candidates in the closing weeks of the election – $50,000 each to Thomas and Gaughran and $25,000 to Monica Martinez. None of those numbers account for the money Cuomo helped some candidates raise via his appearances at the virtual fundraisers.

Tom Staudter, a spokesperson for Harckham’s campaign, said the governor’s assistance was definitely helpful. “Governor Cuomo was a big help to Senator Harckham’s campaign,” he said. “In our district, there were only positives. His leadership during the pandemic was recognized as safeguarding and benefiting our residents and I know Senator Harckham is looking forward to partnering with the governor in the future.” Though Harckham trails by about 7,000 votes after in-person vote tallies, there are still 40,000 absentee ballots to count in the district, and Staudter expects that a major portion of those will be from Democrats.

In an interview on the Max & Murphy podcast prior to the election, State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs made a similar argument to Azzopardi. “He's doing a lot. The governor’s been on fundraising zooms. He’s given me the request to raise money through the state party and he said use his name to raise money. I've done just that,” Jacobs said. “So he's been very helpful and he's been giving guidance and strategic advice. What he can't do is hold big rallies, like Trump does around the country, which I know he'd like to do and he's done in the past. This environment just won't permit it.”

Almost exclusively standing by while Democrats got relentlessly attacked by Republicans and their outside allies would seem counterintuitive for a Democratic governor. But Cuomo has never been one to easily share power or attention with members of his own party and has, in the past, appeared content to preside over a split Legislature where he can mostly call the shots without getting pulled too far to the left. He has oftentimes rebuffed progressive policies proposed by Democrats, slowly embracing them once they become too popular to oppose or appear especially advantageous politically. Prior to Democrats flipping the Senate, he triangulated with an erstwhile rogue offshoot of moderate Democrats who called themselves the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which helped Republicans control the legislative chamber and was seen by many as a Cuomo-backed effort. 

A supermajority in the Senate, combined with that already in the Assembly, would allow Democrats stronger negotiating position on legislative and budget matters, and to override the governor’s veto if they pursue legislation that Cuomo rejected.

“Cuomo has always preferred working with Republicans than working with Democrats,” said Benjamin Rosenblatt, president of Tidal Wave Strategies, a political consulting firm. “We saw that when he helped gerrymander the State Senate map for Republicans. We saw that when he helped them with the IDC, with majorities over and over again. And we saw that this time when his billionaire friends bankrolled efforts to stop Democrats from getting a State Senate supermajority.”

Rosenblatt said Cuomo could have used his popularity, particularly in parts of the state such as Long Island, to help boost incumbent Democrats who are now uncertain about their victories. “That could have helped push Democrats over the line when they are facing these attacks against them, trying to connect them to [New York City Mayor] Bill de blasio, saying that they're anti-police,” he said.

Cuomo himself conceded on Thursday that the statewide Republican campaign had a strong impact, though he appeared to be speaking as a casual observer that had no role to play. “It shouldn't have been this close,” he said on WAMC radio with host Alan Chartock. “I believe the Republicans beat the Democrats on the messaging. I think they branded Democrats as anti-law and order. And that hurt Democrats. It was untrue.”

As Cuomo seemingly watched that messaging unfold across the state, including in districts where he had campaigned with Democrats in 2018, he was not moved to be more assertive in helping his party-mates beat back the focused, sustained barrage from Republicans.

Cuomo also pointed to how Republicans tied Democratic candidates to de Blasio, who has been widely unpopular in the state for years and who undertook a failed effort to flip the State Senate from Republican control in 2014 that led to an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney over questionable fundraising tactics. No charges were filed. “They ran de Blasio’s picture all over the state. ‘They'll turn New York State into New York City, looting and crime and homelessness...That was their message and it resonated more than it should have,” said Cuomo, who has himself repeatedly painted New York City in such negative light during his press briefings over the past several months.

Asked about Cuomo’s comments at his daily news briefing on Thursday, de Blasio dismissed them. “I think whatever the Republicans did was pretty modest honestly,” he said, joking that in the future he would endorse Republicans to cause confusion.

Some political observers pointed out that many Republicans used images of Cuomo on their negative campaign literature.

Unlike Cuomo, Hochul kept a busy campaign schedule as election day neared. She appeared at events for State Senate incumbents Gounardes, Harckham, and Thomas, and candidates Berger, Brouk, Ryan, and John Mannion. Without the absentee ballot counts, only Brouk and Ryan are ahead in their races.

In 2018, on the other hand, Cuomo launched a concerted effort to help Democrats flip both the State Senate and the House of Representatives. With much fanfare, he appeared with State Senate seats on Long Island and together signed a nine-point pledge of policies they would pursue. He publicly endorsed Gounardes in similar fashion in Southern Brooklyn, with a slightly modified pledge more focused on New York City. Gounardes went on to replace Martin Golden, then the only Republican State Senator in the five boroughs outside of Staten Island, after winning by just 1,271 votes.

Gounardes is now at risk of losing his seat, running behind Republican challenger Vito Bruno by about 6,000 votes after the in-person tally, a deficit he has a shot at making up through absentee ballots that number more than 18,500.

In Southern Brooklyn, where Republicans did well against Democrats at the state and federal levels, though outcomes are still being determined through the absentee ballot count, Cuomo’s government actions ahead of the election may have hurt Democrats politically. 

“In 2018, he came out here and campaigned with everybody and was actively trying to gain more seats in the Senate,” said a Democratic source in Southern Brooklyn who requested anonymity to speak freely. “And this time around, it was the opposite. There was no presence out here at all.” What made it worse, on top of the Lauder-funded ads, the source said, was Cuomo’s botched rollout of new lockdown restrictions in response to localized coronavirus infection spikes that angered constituents in those districts. “It was a lot of incoming,” the source said of Republican attacks. “We took on a lot of water and there was very little air support.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

After Significant Help for State Senate Democrats in 2018, Cuomo Largely Absent from 2020 Races Sun, 08 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
New Yorkers Celebrate Biden Victory, Defeat of Trump bk 2 enhanced

Brooklynites celebrate Biden's win, Trump's loss (photo: Ethan Geringer-Sameth/Gotham Gazette)

It was a great day for the Doppler effect Saturday in Brooklyn as a near constant stream of car horns trumpeted elation after it became clear Joe Biden had won Pennsylvania and clinched the 2020 presidential election. Throngs of New Yorkers took to the streets, plazas, and parks to breathe a collective, mostly masked, sigh of relief.

In New York, that sigh took the form of spontaneous dancing on sidewalks and in streets, clanging pots and pans, and uncorking champagne -- an outpouring of collective joy perhaps not seen in decades.

Many people heard the news through their apartment windows. Cheers broke out across the city around 11:30 a.m., just after CNN first called the race, and continued all day and into the evening.

In Brooklyn, crowds formed in Barclays Center and Grand Army Plaza, which had become hubs during the spring Black Lives Matter protests for a wide swath of central Brooklyn, not far from the right-leaning enclaves further south. In the case of Barclays Center, where the first night of clashes with police began in New York in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the unseasonably warm weather added to the distinctly lighter atmosphere among the people who had gathered there Saturday.

The festivities -- matched by large and small celebrations across other boroughs -- had some of the same symbols of the protest marches, like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ pride flags, now with the addition of Biden-Harris signs. It was not lost on many who had protested systemic racism and the xenophobic policies of now-defeated President Donald Trump that Harris was to become the country's first Black vice president, as well as first woman and first person of Indian descent to hold the position. Expressions of joy and relief swept many parts of a city that voted for the Democratic ticket overwhelmingly, with hundreds of thousands of ballots still to be counted and expected to widen the in-person margin.

Brooklynites, including U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, filtered in and out of what became an all-day block party extending after dusk, from Atlantic Avenue onto the fields of Prospect Park. Schumer, the Senate minority leader, joined the crowd at Grand Army Plaza, and, later, held out his cell-phone to capture the Brooklyn jubilation for the president-elect, whom he said was on the other line.

Schumer was among many Democratic New York officials, advocates, and others to celebrate the Biden-Harris win.

In a statement released just after the race was called, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, "This is a historic day. After the darkness, division and hate of the past four years, America has spoken and rejected more of the same. Congratulations to my good friend President-Elect Joe Biden and to Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. Today we go forward in hope and progress."

In a statement calling Donald Trump’s presidency a “nightmarish chapter of American leadership,” New York Attorney General Letitia James of Brooklyn said that Biden and Harris “have the intelligence, know-how, and aptitude to lead our nation through the triple pandemics of COVID-19, systemic inequities, and an economy that doesn’t work for most working Americans.

"President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have already changed history by electing the first woman Vice President in our nation's history,” said James, herself the first woman of color elected New York City Public Advocate and also the first woman of color elected the state’s Attorney General. “This is just the start of the change they will bring to this nation.”

During church remarks on Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the election results symbolic of “the rebirth of our nation,” and went on to call Biden “a healer” and “a moral force.” He said Harris “has done so much already in public life, but will do so much more and has flung open the doors of leadership so finally all can serve, all the talents of this nation can be represented in our White House.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx said in a statement citing Harris as “the first woman and the first woman of color to ever be elected to that office” that the Biden-Harris ticket “offered America a vision of compassion, respect for all people and respect for our democratic institutions.”

Heastie went on to say, “Here in New York we will stand shoulder to shoulder with President-Elect Biden and his team to help move our country forward. New York has always been a progressive leader in our nation, and over the last few years we were able to hold the line, protecting women’s healthcare, making it easier for registered voters to cast their ballot, protecting the rights of LGBTQ New Yorkers, putting college within reach for immigrant students and so much more.”

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester, the first woman and woman of color to hold her position, said in a statement, in part, “Both Joe and Kamala are inspirational and historic leaders, and I know they will help our nation heal after the trauma of the past four years. Following an unprecedented election and outrageous behavior from President Donald Trump, now is the time for us all to move forward. The NYS Senate Democratic Majority will work with the Biden/Harris administration to help New York recover from this pandemic and economic crisis. Now is the time to heal the deep divisions in our society and come together as New Yorkers and Americans to build a stronger, more respectful, and more just state and nation.”

“Brooklyn has spoken,” said Borough President Eric Adams, in a statement. “New York has spoken. Our country has spoken. A new day, and new leadership, is coming to America. Thanks to everyone who has turned out in this record-breaking vote. Now we must continue showing up to ensure our leaders deliver the real recovery we deserve. After 244 years, we can finally celebrate a woman being elected to serve in the White House — and a person of color as VP. Congratulations to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who alongside President-elect Joe Biden will be the most diverse duo to ever lead our nation.”

City Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, who is heading to Congress after his election this year, said in an emailed letter to supporters that “For four years, we watched the character, corruption, and chaos of one man shape our national identity. We watched as Donald Trump violated our principles, eroded our institutions, and made a mockery of the rule of law. We watched as he pursued cruel and disastrous policies directed at marginalized communities, and as he systematically dismantled the progressive agenda.”

“During Donald Trump’s presidency, we all witnessed the resurgence of white nationalism — and the elevation of fringe right-wing elements to positions of immense power and influence,” Torres continued. “We watched as Black and Brown communities suffered at the hands of over-policing, and as calls for accountability and reform were ignored by the Trump administration. We watched Donald Trump lie about and then ignore the most significant public health crisis our country has seen in the last century — a pandemic that has resulted in over 9 million cases and claimed the lives of more than 237,000 Americans and counting.”

“The horror that we witnessed is difficult to put in perspective, but what’s clear is that it required a transformational movement capable of defeating the evils of this era and turning the page,” Torres wrote. “And that’s exactly what everyday people in this country set out to build.”

“This is only the beginning,” Torres went on to conclude. “The damage of the last four years doesn’t go away simply because we elected a new president. Joe Biden needs our help to enact an agenda that lifts people out of poverty, addresses systemic racism and inequities, gets this pandemic under control, and so much more. I can’t wait to get to Washington to work with fellow House Democrats and President Joe Biden to get the job done. And it’s an honor to know that you’ll be by our side every step of the way.”

In response to the Biden-Harris win, leading New York immigrant advocates Murad Awawdeh and Rovika Rajkishun, the interim co-executive directors of NYIC Action, the political arm of the New York Immigration Coalition, said, “This year, immigration was on the ballot—and it won a resounding victory.”

They said that “millions of Americans firmly repudiated Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda at the polls with the record-breaking turnout from immigrants and people of color and a show of force not seen in previous elections. Here in New York, NYIC Action mobilized thousands of immigrant citizen New Yorkers—many of them first-time voters—to vote for Vice President Biden, Senator Harris, and other Democratic Congressional and State candidates because they believe immigration is good for New York and good for America. The fact is that these victorious candidates have committed to undoing the damage that the Trump administration has inflicted on our communities and are the only viable option for an America that is united in fighting this pandemic and building an economy that works for all of us.”

“Now, as we get ready for the votes to be confirmed and to swear in a Democratic administration, we remind Vice President Biden and Senator Harris of their promises:,” they continued, “to rescind the Muslim Ban, reinstate and expand DACA and TPS programs, as just a starting point to rebuilding our immigration system from the ground up.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

New Yorkers Celebrate Biden Victory, Defeat of Trump Sun, 08 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
How New York's Smaller Political Parties are Faring at Meeting New Ballot Thresholds aoc sm pol

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & NYWFP Director Sochie Nnaemeka (photo: @AOC)

Many of New York’s smaller political parties face an uncertain future after they appear to have failed to garner enough votes to keep an automatic ballot line over the next two years under new rules that went into effect in this election cycle. Only the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party seem to have emerged unscathed, rallying voters to meet new thresholds through votes for their presidential and vice presidential nominees. 

As part of the state budget, the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo approved a new campaign finance system for New York with a public matching component and lower contribution limits, meant to curb the effects of wealthy donors and encourage small donations from everyday New Yorkers. Beginning in 2021, candidates will be able to opt in to the voluntary system. 

But the new system was passed in combination with increased thresholds for political party ballot access that essentially only place a burden on minor parties like the Working Families, Green, Conservative, Libertarian, and Independence Parties. Under New York’s fusion voting system, those parties can cross-endorse candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties, and all the votes for the same candidates get tallied together. For instance, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were the Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees but also appeared on the ballot on the Working Families Party line. Likewise, Trump and Pence were candidates on the Republican and Conservative Party lines.

Under the new ballot rules, minor parties have to win 2% of all votes cast or 130,000 votes, whichever is higher, every two years, in gubernatorial and presidential elections, in order to win a ballot line on which they can run candidates for all offices as they choose. And the votes must come at the top of the ticket, for the presidential/vice presidential nominees and the nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, which are run as pairs on the general election  ballot.

Under previous rules, parties only required 50,000 votes in gubernatorial elections every four years. Unlike the broader campaign finance system and contribution limits that will be in place after the November 2022 general election, these party ballot thresholds went into effect for the presidential election this year -- a combination that appeared designed to hurt the Working Families Party and aid Governor Cuomo’s expected campaign for a fourth term.

Despite a daunting challenge, the Working Families Party marshaled immense resources, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending and endorsements from many major Democratic politicians both in New York and beyond, and far exceeded the needed votes.

Through the initial count of in-person ballots cast via early voting and on Election Day across the state, Biden and Harris received 287,374 votes on the Working Families Party line, about 4.42% of the nearly 6.5 million votes cast through Tuesday evening. 

Trump and Pence got 249,094 votes on the Conservative Party line, or about 3.83% of the vote.

Both parties would seem to have crossed the barrier for automatic ballot access for the next two years. Based on past results, the Conservative Party was expected to more easily meet the threshold while the WFP was thought to be in some doubt, leading to its massive campaign.

The unofficial election night results don’t account for the 1.2 million absentee ballots cast statewide, which will not begin to be tallied until next week and will change the exact thresholds that the parties have to meet. Even if all those absentee ballots are validated, which is unlikely, the total vote will be about 7.7 million, setting the ballot access threshold at roughly 154,000 votes.

“New York’s progressive movement is stronger than ever. As ballots continue to be counted, we are confident that the New York Working Families Party will meet the ballot threshold and will remain on the ballot in New York,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, WFP state director, in a statement on Tuesday night. “This is a victory for our party and our movement.”

Other minor parties didn’t fare as well and it’s unlikely that uncounted absentee ballots will change their fate. The Green Party only received 22,829 votes for their presidential and vice presidential candidates, Howie Hawkins and Angela Nicole Walker, through unofficial election night tallies. The Libertarian Party, with Jo Jorgensen and Jeremy Cohen on their line, received 46,791 votes thus far. The Independence Party received 17,240 for Brock Pierce and Karla Ballard. The Serve America Movement (SAM) Party, which barely won a New York ballot line through its 2018 gubernatorial candidate, will also lose that line. The SAM Party did not appear on the ballot since it did not endorse a presidential candidate or run their own. When the new rules were first proposed, the SAM Party was among the minor parties that opposed them, viewing them as a direct threat to the state’s fusion voting system. The party is still pursuing a court challenge against the rules, arguing that they violate the party's First Amendment right. 

The additional hurdles for the other minor parties -- namely the Green and Libertarian Parties, which do often run their own candidates in New York -- don’t stop there. Without automatic access, parties must collect enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, and the new system increased the number of required signatures from 15,000 to 45,000 for statewide candidates.

Meeting the vote threshold was a particular challenge this year since turnout reached a historic high in the state, as it did across the country. In 2018, if the threshold had been in place, only the Conservative Party would have managed to meet it. The party received 253,000 votes for its endorsed candidate, Republican Marc Molinaro. More than 6 million people voted that year; which meant the threshold was 130,000, since a 2% threshold of 122,000 votes would have been lower. In 2016, when 7.8 million New Yorkers voted in the presidential election, the threshold would have been even higher, at 156,000 votes. Again, only the Conservative Party surpassed it with 292,392 votes for Donald Trump.

Another test for the parties will be coming soon, with the 2022 election for Governor now less than two years away.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with the total absentee ballot numbers and with a reference to a court challenge by the Serve America Movement party against the new ballot rules.

How New York's Smaller Political Parties are Faring at Meeting New Ballot Thresholds Wed, 04 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
What's At Stake for New York City in the 2020 Presidential Election 3 whats pres ed

Joe Biden, with Andrew Cuomo (photo: governor's office)

The country will be watching, and voting, with bated breath on Tuesday as the most consequential presidential election in decades nears conclusion. More than 84 million Americans have already cast their ballots in early voting and turnout is expected to break records despite the lingering coronavirus pandemic. 

There’s much at stake for New York City in this election and it’s an understatement to say that the future of the city and state will vary widely depending on the next president and the next Congress. All signs and polls point to a victory for the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, and if that should happen, the state and city will have an ally in the White House. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his critics on the left, including, at least during the primary, many prominent New York politicians, Biden has the most progressive agenda of any Democratic nominee ever.

Many planks of Biden’s platform match up well with what Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and other New York Democrats (as well as many Republicans and independents) hope to get from Washington beginning in 2021. That alignment would have a much better chance of bearing fruit if Democrats keep control of the House of Representatives and swing the Senate, with the former likely and the latter possible but less assured.

Should President Donald Trump be reelected, however, the federal government’s hostility to New York and other blue states may continue unabated. This is especially true if the Senate also remains under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though one or the other could make things especially challenging for New York in its quest for more aid from Washington.

New York City is facing multiple crises. The city worst-hit by COVID-19 is seeing cases creep back up. The pandemic decimated the economy, leading to massive governmental budget deficits that have yet to be resolved. Unemployment skyrocketed; more than a million New Yorkers lost jobs. The impact on tourism, arts, and culture -- all essential to the city’s economy and vitality -- has been devastating. Small businesses are closing. Immense office buildings sit empty. An eviction epidemic is looming. Students, especially the most vulnerable, are falling further and further behind. The mass transit system, in need of billions in upgrades before the pandemic, is going broke. Public housing, home to half-a-million New Yorkers, is still in a state of severe disrepair. The city’s vulnerability to climate change continues virtually unabated. The gap between law enforcement and communities of color appears wider. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who live in the five boroughs, left out of federal and state relief efforts, are more unsure of their futures than ever.

Even as the economy begins to pick up again, there are fears of a K-shaped recovery, with the most vulnerable Americans with lower paying jobs suffering higher rates of sustained unemployment than those with higher paying jobs. New York, already a city with gaping wealth, income, and quality of life disparities between the haves and have-nots is only becoming more unequal. Even before the pandemic more than 1 million New Yorkers lived in poverty and roughly 1 million were food insecure -- both numbers have only grown.

“It’s hard, if not impossible, to overstate the stakes for the City,” said Bill Neidhardt, press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an email. “There is the immediate legislative impact – we’re in desperate need of a stimulus, which Biden has championed and Trump has been an obstacle to. And there are the longer term, big picture issues that touch on the lives of all New Yorkers, from the security of immigrant communities to whether or not our federal government will fight against climate change or continue to fuel it and doom us all. It’s hard to fathom the entire scope of the impact this has on New York City.”

The immediate concern for the city is a dire need for federal aid. New York City has faced billions of dollars in lost revenue and is headed into the next fiscal year with a massive budget gap. There is broad agreement that no matter who wins, Congress will approve another round of federal stimulus. Democrats are likely to be friendlier to states and municipalities and have recommended a larger stimulus package than Republicans are willing to accept, in part to plug those government budget gaps left by severe drops in tax revenue and threatening services for constituents and the livelihoods of many thousands of workers who rely on government jobs and contracts.

Cuomo has pegged the overall New York number -- to aid state government, local governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and other governmental entities -- at $59 billion to cover the current and next fiscal years.

“The big issue that we continue to sound the alarm on, both in New York State and for New York City, is the need for additional federal stimulus and relief,” said State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, in an interview.

But Republicans would stymie a broader Biden agenda, he said. “I think the most complicated scenario would be Biden wins, but the Senate is controlled by the Republicans, because I think it's pretty clear how they've handled things in the past that they will just be obstructionist.”

Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Blasio have pushed off hard budget decisions until after the election, but the state must soon establish its plans for, among other things, aid to localities and the city must determine the extent of municipal employee layoffs or other major budget-balancing measures, perhaps including long-term borrowing that needs state approval.

"Donald Trump is an existential threat to the health of this city,” said City Comptroller Scott Stringer, in a statement. “His mismanagement has wrecked the economy, his cruelty has decimated immigrant families, and his incompetence has cost over 200,000 lives. New York City's future depends on resoundingly defeating him -- and then getting to work to rebuild and repair. That means fighting for a robust federal aid package for small businesses, transit, schools, and our coastal resiliency. The work to build a better future for New York City isn't over on Tuesday -- it's just beginning."

"Everything is on the line for New York City this election. In dollars and cents, we need the federal government to make us whole and to bail out the MTA for the good of the entire national economy,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement. “In broader terms though, I agree with Joe Biden that the soul of our nation is on the ballot. Will we be a nation that is proud of places like New York City, a city where hundreds of languages are spoken and diversity is celebrated, or will our nation go deeper down the path of hate and nativism. Donald Trump represents the absolute worst of America."

Fiscal and urban experts point to the major differences between what a Biden or Trump administration would mean for the city, particularly its budget, mass transit system, taxes and infrastructure, among other things.

“We know if Trump wins, we'll just get more of the same, which is a very unconstructive and antagonistic relationship on both sides,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “The designation of the ‘anarchist jurisdiction’ is a good example of that. Under no definition is New York City any more violent or lawless than any other place in the country.”

Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, questioned whether Trump winning a second term will “embolden the kind of ‘anarchist jurisdiction’ punishment policy, whether we'll see more of that, legal or not, types of actions and that battle between the two, New York and Washington, DC, which has been amped up.” 

“The consequences are more clear cut than usual,” said E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “They are fiscal and economic and the differences between the two results are definitely pretty extreme.”

Getting the Virus Under Control and the Economy Humming
“If you think of the New York City economy as having run off the road into a ditch in a storm, Biden winning is like the tow truck backing up, ready to pull you out of the ditch,” said James Parrott, an economist at the New School. “Your car's not going to be the same as it was before, but at least you're on the road, and you'll have a chance. Whereas if Trump gets reelected, it's like he's whizzing by and going out of his way to hit a puddle to splash more water in your face.”

As Parrott and others have pointed out, there is no feasible chance of a recovery if the country does not get the coronavirus under control. Even now, nearing nine months since the pandemic hit, the daily number of cases across the country continues to rise. Though New York has come far from the early days when it was the epicenter of the outbreak, there are worrying localized spikes and an expected second wave in the winter. “The first thing you have to do is get the virus under control...and Trump shows no ability or even an interest in doing that,” Parrott said, referring to the president’s lack of a national strategy. While Trump has all but given up on controlling the virus but for the arrival of a vaccine, New York leaders have also questioned his plans for distributing the potential medicine through private carriers.

As the recovery in New York continues, Parrott said Biden recognizes the need for more equitable growth as opposed to Trump. “Trump has never recognized, never admitted that the kind of growth we had before was not ideal,” he said. “He doesn't recognize any racial disparities or the need to provide a path out of poverty for low-income people.”

“The better we control the pandemic, the more we can grow our economy,” said Rein. “New York City is especially challenged by this type of health and economic crisis because what makes New York so strong and so wonderful is that people can socialize together, you have a great tourist economy, you have a great arts economy.”

Aid Package and Tough Potential Choices
“Even if we got another national rescue package, if Trump were still in charge, he would use his executive powers to put as many obstacles in our way to accessing that as possible,” said Gelinas, referring to the president’s repeated insistence that he does not want to “bail out” Democrat-led states and cities. 

Most observers expect that there will be a stimulus package of some sort that will be approved after the election, though there were also high hopes of something coming together during the summer months. Comptroller DiNapoli pointed out that even Republicans will be willing to provide aid to states and municipalities as their own states are suffering deeply. “I do think there will be some more stimulus and relief. But if the Republicans are in charge, it will clearly be a lot less than if the Democrats were in charge,” he said. 

Without an effective stimulus package, New York State will have to drastically cut funding, particularly to localities, which would especially and directly hurt health care and education in New York City. Though state lawmakers, as DiNapoli noted, have mostly insisted that budget shortfalls should be filled by increasing taxes on the wealthy and finding more revenue rather than cutting programs, it’s unclear what such measures may look like given the need to compromise among the two legislative majorities and Cuomo.

“It could be some combination of budget cuts, tax increases, and increased debt which, none of that frankly, would be helpful to New York's economic recovery,” DiNapoli said.

A robust federal package could help make New York whole. The lack of one, or a very limited one, will force the city and state to make tough decisions that have been put off for months.

“The federal action won't solve all of [the city’s] problems,” said CBC’s Rein. “We still need to right-size our government, deal with the revenue risks, deal with spending risks. These are real and no one should sit back and rest based on any outcome of this election and say, ‘Oh, see, now we don't have to do anything.’”

As Empire Center’s McMahon noted, “The city and the state have pointedly postponed and pushed off making any decisive spending choices...They will then be forced to make some very hard decisions and choices on the revenue and spending and capital end that they have put off because they were literally banking on Biden and a blue wave.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state entity that runs the city’s buses and subways, and its boosters and dependents are hoping for Democrats to win so the transit agency has a good chance to receive a bailout as it faces the prospect of bankruptcy given ridership has plummeted. MTA leadership has said it requires at least $12 billion in federal aid, without which it has warned that it may have to reduce subway and bus service by 40% next year while also increasing fares by 1% above the scheduled increase for 2021. Both moves could serve to further depress ridership, particularly harming low-income commuters, and therefore revenue, also stunting the city’s and state’s -- and nation’s -- larger economic recovery.

The MTA is also awaiting federal Department of Transportation permission to institute a congestion pricing system in Manhattan, whereby new fees for cars and trucks entering the central business district would go toward repairs and upgrades of the authority’s subways, buses, and commuter rails.

Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, noted that the previous stimulus package only included a “tiny fraction” of the funds for workforce development, education and training compared to the stimulus provided during the Great Recession. “I think, potentially the single biggest need, especially when it comes to rebuilding the city's economy more inclusively, is going to be funding to support retraining and reskilling for the jobs that are going to come back and they're not going to be all the same jobs that we've lost since February,” Dvorkin said. “I think that's maybe the single biggest question mark about what any further stimulus looks like.”

Tax Policy
Biden has been campaigning on raising taxes on people who earn more than $400,000 annually, repealing most of the Trump tax cuts, and creating a more progressive taxation system while Trump has floated the idea of further tax cuts. One of the key pieces of the equation for New York is the cap placed on state and local tax deductibility from federal taxes as part of the Republican tax plan enacted under Trump and that most impacts higher earners in states and localities with high local taxes.

McMahon said higher federal taxes are a major variable under a possible Biden administration. It may not directly drive wealthier New Yorkers to other states but it would certainly nudge them in that direction, he said. “There are incentives and incentives have an effect. It doesn't mean that you raise the tax rate a smidge and moving vans have backed up the Holland Tunnel full of Park Avenue householders, but it does mean you've nudged them further,” he said. 

Comptroller DiNapoli, however, said those effects could be mitigated. “The higher taxes on wealthier [people, if it's done at the federal level, and then we would benefit from increased federal spending coming to the state, that doesn't put us at a competitive disadvantage with other states,” he said. 

CBC’s Rein pointed to the possibility of a Biden administration and Democratic Congress eliminating the cap on the state and local tax deductions, where higher earners in blue states are now helping to supplement tax cuts given to many people and corporations across the country. “The SALT cap has hurt New York,” Rein said. “It has made New York a more expensive jurisdiction to live in, especially for the very wealthy. Reversing that SALT cap would help. Now, there might be federal tax policy and tax increases at the top end, as candidate Biden has talked about. Those will not hurt our competitiveness with other jurisdictions, which is really what the SALT cap has stuck a dagger in.”

Infrastructure, Housing and Climate Change
Trump promised a major infrastructure plan when he first ran for office and in the four years of his presidency, he has yet to produce one. Biden and the Democratic Party have themselves expressed support for a massive infusion of funds into the country’s infrastructure, one that is also likely to help bolster economic recovery efforts and job growth amid the covid recession. 

New York City’s massive infrastructure needs extend to everything from transit to housing to climate resiliency projects, and Biden and Trump are poles apart on all of those issues. 

Trump has derailed funding for the Gateway Tunnel, one of the most important infrastructure projects not just for the city but the northeast region and thus the country. He has questioned the settled science behind climate change and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement that set goals for reducing carbon emissions.

On the other hand, Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement and proposed a $2 trillion plan that includes significant investments in green infrastructure from energy to housing as well as changes to zoning and insurance regulations to protect coastal communities. He regularly talks about climate change as a crisis whereby the planet must be saved but also a great opportunity to create jobs.

“Joe Biden offered us hope tonight, and there are good reasons to be hopeful about the fight against climate change,” said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the NRDC (National Resource Defence Council) Action Fund, which has endorsed Biden, in a statement after the first presidential debate this year. “His plan to create millions of good-paying jobs and rebuild our country while tackling the climate crisis head-on is exactly the type of bold leadership we desperately need right now. Donald Trump keeps trying to convince us that we can’t do any of those things, and I bet most Americans are pretty tired of him letting us down.”  

Though some climate change activists balked at Biden’s plans during the primaries, compared to the more ambitious ones put forward by other Democratic candidates, they have since pulled him to the left. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change advocacy group, did not officially endorse Biden but has been urging people to vote for him. “The strength of the Green New Deal movement, and the weight we threw behind Bernie’s campaign, has compelled Biden to re-write his plans from top to bottom and placed climate at the top of the priority list for him and Congress,” reads a recent blog post on the organization’s website. “As it stands now, Biden’s plan is not everything we want. But, with Biden, we will actually have a window of opportunity to pass the largest federal climate justice policy in the history of the United States in time to make a difference. Because, remember: we’re running out of time.”

Biden’s housing plan includes a $100 billion affordable housing fund and a massive expansion of the Section 8 voucher program. He also plans on restoring the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which is aimed at ending housing discrimination and was recently eliminated by the Trump administration. He’s also proposed tax credits for low-income renters and supports funding legal assistance for tenants facing eviction. His plan also includes expanded funding for homeless services and he has promised a national plan to address homelessness in his first term.

Biden hasn’t, however, spoken about his plan for public housing. NYCHA needs tens of billions of dollars to upgrade to a state of good repair.

In a virtual discussion on housing hosted by City Limits, Barika Williams, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) critiqued Trump’s rollback of AFFH and his less-than-subtle narrative that low-income people of color are a threat to white suburbs. She said Biden’s plan to provide universal housing vouchers was “a promising thing to see a presidential candidate propose something new and different on housing.”

“Unfortunately, housing has been one of the issues that for most families’ lives is front and center but in the national political discourse, oftentimes gets glossed over and doesn’t take center stage,” Williams added. 

Though she said Biden’s plan was “trying to be aspirational” on homelessness, she said it left “huge questions” unanswered. “There is no pathway right now to ending homelessness unless we address the immediate crisis of potentially having a sea of people sliding into homelessness,” she said. 

Federal immmigration policy matters significantly for New York City, with its large immigrant communities, particularly undocumented immigrants, who have not only suffered punitive enforcement under the Trump administration but have also been left in the lurch during the pandemic. 

Trump has used the bureaucratic and law enforcement arms of the federal immigration system to discourage immigration, both legal and illegal. His administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border separated children from their parents and housed them in inhumane conditions. He banned immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries. He rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation and allows them to hold jobs. He’s also revoked Temporary Protected Status for immigrants who would be unsafe returning to their home countries. Under Trump, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have threatened sanctuary cities like New York with large-scale raids and arrests.  

Biden has promised to reverse all those actions while pursuing legislation to give 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Facing questions about the large number of deportations during the Obama-Biden administration, Biden has pledged to pursue a less aggressive policy with regard to removing undocumented residents from the country.    

Biden Seen as Savior
For Democrats in New York City, a Biden victory is seen as the beginning of the end of a collective nightmare that began four years ago.  

“I think people are hungry for a positive vision,” said Mayor de Blasio, at a September 21 press briefing, with a placard next to him displaying the number of days until Election Day. “They're hungry for a sense that there can be unity. They're just fatigued by all the negativity and hatred coming from President Trump. And of course on top of that, something I think Joe Biden understands deeply, speak to working people about their lives and what they need, and people need to hear a vision of how they'll have health care for their families, how they will have jobs again, that they can live on. This is an area I think Joe Biden can be very, very strong on because everyone understands he empathizes with working people and I think that combination of hope and unity on the one hand and a vision of a nation that's actually devoted to working people again is a winning formula.”

Biden would, however, take over at a time of significant turmoil and with an immense wish list from states, localities, elected officials, activists, interest groups, and others. The right and left have never been more divided. And the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. After months of uncertainty, Americans are looking for solutions to both the disease and the effects it has had on their lives. 

“Biden has a very, very short honeymoon to show that he can lead the country out of this,” Manhattan Institute’s Gelinas said of the former vice president’s potential victory. “And the bar is low, but goodwill toward him won't last very long.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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What's At Stake for New York City in the 2020 Presidential Election Mon, 02 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Reups 2016 Board of Elections Reform Plan in 2020 2 after doing adv 1

Mayor de Blasio after voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

In April 2016, just after party primary elections featuring a major error by the New York City Board of Elections, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would push for legislation in Albany to professionalize the day-to-day operations of the Board, among other bills that could improve the city's perennially bungled election administration and create more access to the ballot box for New Yorkers. Over four years and several poorly-run elections later, de Blasio made a similar announcement this week, declaring support for a State Senate bill that was first introduced in 2017, along with other unspecified legislative fixes to the Board of Elections’ bi-partisan and patronage-driven model.

It's unclear if de Blasio exerted any private pressure on lawmakers in the time in between April 2016 and November 2020 to move Board of Elections reform legislation, but no reforms have been made.

Since 2016, de Blasio has supported a number of election and voting reforms -- like early voting, which was enacted last year, no-excuse absentee voting (which is still on the table), and others -- and has made a number of unsuccessful attempts to force Board of Elections action through the city budget and funding-for-reform offers. The mayor doesn't run the BOE, which is the product of state law, though it is funded by the city and largely controlled by the two major political parties. But he has expended little, if any, political capital in Albany to significantly improve election administration or change the partisan structure of the Board of Elections as it is enshrined in the state constitution.

In his annual testimony before state legislators in Albany, de Blasio has voiced support for early voting and other more superficial reforms, but he has not mentioned either the State Senate bill or drastically changing the structure of the Board of Elections. In other venues, including in recent days as the BOE has mismanaged the city’s first period of early voting in a presidential election, the mayor has on occasion said he would like to see the BOE become a city agency under the power of the mayor or a quasi-independent entity like the city Campaign Finance Board.

"Reforming New York City’s outdated election systems and the BOE has been a priority for the Mayor," wrote Jose Bayona, a de Blasio spokesperson, in an email. "This Administration advocated for the raft of recent voting reforms, including nine-days of early voting and pre-registration, and automatic voter registration."

"We look forward to continuing to work with legislative partners to overhaul the BOE," he wrote.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson also voiced support for reforming BOE operations this past week after the first days of early voting saw long lines at poll sites throughout the city, but neither of the state’s legislative leaders, who hold the most power on the topic, offered any comment on the problems or promises of change.

Far-reaching administrative errors are commonplace at the New York City Board of Elections, one of the only government agencies where political party leaders have direct control -- of hiring, firing, and virtually all aspects of the operation. The structure enables political patronage, which leads to incompetence and poor accountability, and it has been blamed by elections experts and politicians alike for the regular problems voters experience at the polls -- from long lines and broken machines to confusing ballot design and missing language translators. The errors, like the 2016 voter purge that knocked over 100,000 Brooklynites off the rolls or this year’s mass mailing of invalid absentee ballots (also to thousands of Brooklyn voters), can be disenfranchising and dash confidence in the democratic process.

In 2016, de Blasio promised to "advance State legislation that transfers responsibility of day-to-day operations and personnel decisions from the Board of Elections commissioners to its executive management." Doing so could be done through statute and wouldn't require a state constitutional amendment -- an arduous process that requires passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide voter referendum. Voting rights advocates say such a step would be a helpful middleground while an amendment is also pursued.

"This legislation will affirm the Board’s primary responsibility to set policy and appoint executive management," reads the 2016 statement from the mayor, which came just after the voter purge and other problems with the presidential primaries that year. "The administration will also begin engaging key stakeholders to examine a broader set of reforms requiring additional State legislation."

But, it appears the mayor did little to nothing to make progress on either front, and de Blasio repeated both planks this past week, more than four years later. Gotham Gazette found no record of the mayor advocating for either reform in Albany and the mayor's office provided no evidence that he had pursued broad changes to the structure of the Board of Elections.

On Wednesday after himself waiting on line for more than three hours to vote the day before, the mayor again decried the Board of Elections and outlined a three-point plan for BOE reform. He called for the immediate passage of a bill sponsored by State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, which would delineate the roles of the board's commissioners and executive leadership, leaving the commissioners in charge of policy-setting and the management in charge of operations. The bill closely tracks de Blasio's 2016 statement and a spokesperson for the mayor told Gotham Gazette that Wednesday's outline was indeed the fruition of that promise.

"This would be a step forward," de Blasio said during his daily press briefing. "I've been advocating for this bill for years. Lots of good government groups have been fighting in Albany. This would be a first step and it could be taken immediately by the Legislature."

Krueger's bill has only one other Senate sponsor, Manhattan Democrat Brad Hoylman, and no companion legislation in the Assembly. Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both Democrats, did not return multiple requests for comment on the bill or larger BOE reform. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said he supported "an entire redesign" of the BOE and a spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that the Executive Chamber "will review any legislation to reform it that passes the legislature."

On Friday, Cuomo called the Board of Elections “a patronage mill” that is “a disservice to the citizens,” and said the mayor and City Council should “quickly” present him with a Board of Elections reform plan. He promised to then work to make it law at the state level.

De Blasio also called Wednesday for other state legislation to remodel the board's structure within a partisan framework and, finally, one day, a state constitutional amendment to remove the partisan element completely. The mayor gave virtually no details of what the legislation should look like other than offering the city's Campaign Finance Board -- considered to be a far better run agency -- as an example.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Reups 2016 Board of Elections Reform Plan in 2020 Sun, 01 Nov 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Could a Tax on Stock Trading Help New York Fill Its Massive Budget Hole? rings op bell

Gov. Cuomo at the New York Stock Exchange (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics, as part of its launch.

As the pandemic roiled markets in the spring, New York recorded surging revenue from an obscure tax on Wall Street stock trading. From April to June of this year, according to state tax department data, it collected $2.9 billion—more than double the amount it notched over the same period last year.

But that money never made it to state coffers: New York does not actually keep the tax revenue. Instead, since 1981, it has rebated the money to investors, meaning that, in practice, the stock transfer tax is little more than an administrative hurdle for brokers’ legal teams.

A proposal to start collecting the dormant tax has seen growing support in the state Legislature, following a staggering pandemic-spurred drop in tax revenue and state funding cuts to localities, which could deepen without an infusion of funds. The bill, which is one plank in a campaign led by progressive labor groups and activists, would end the rebate, allowing tax authorities to begin collecting the revenue again.

Opponents of the legislation center their argument on the threat of capital flight. If New York imposed the tax, they say, firms would move their residency or trading activities to another state to escape it—a notion that may be keeping even some progressives spooked.

Neither the Assembly nor the State Senate, both led by Democrats, has moved the relevant legislation. While the Assembly majority has long-favored several revenue-raising measures, Senate leadership recently formed a working group to examine possible strategies for filling the state's multi-billion-dollar budget gap in lieu of federal aid. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has resisted calls for new taxes, and argues that the stock transfer tax proposal would undermine New York’s position as a global financial hub.

“In the digital age it would be even easier for transactions to simply be moved out of state to avoid the tax,” Freeman Klopott, Cuomo’s budget spokesperson, said in a statement to New York Focus.

The reasoning echoes a recent memo circulated by lobbyists for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), reviewed by New York Focus, which argues that the tax would place heavy operational burdens on brokerage firms. “To avoid these additional costs, trading activity will naturally migrate to areas outside New York,” the memo reads.

But tax experts say that most frequently threatened avoidance strategies are unlikely to succeed. Traders would struggle to evade the tax, even if they moved out of state, those experts say. The New York Stock Exchange is unlikely to pack up and leave, since it doesn’t pay the tax itself but passes it on to investors. And investors are unlikely to stop trading on the exchange anytime soon, economists say, since New York’s trading hub far outstrips its closest rivals in high liquidity and low transactions costs—and would even after reinstituting a small tax on stock sales.

What transactions are in New York’s jurisdiction?
In order to impose a tax, the state needs “nexus”: it needs to show that the transaction occurred within New York’s jurisdiction.

But when most trading is electronic, what does nexus mean, anyway? The financial services industry is heavily concentrated in New York, but many operations—especially data storage and communication technologies—are housed in New Jersey and Illinois. Both of those states are currently seeing fierce pushback against similar efforts to impose a financial transaction tax.

Lawmakers seeking to tax finance say lobbyists’ arguments can seem like a game of whack-a-mole. Depending on which state is attempting to impose a tax, the securities industry may contend that what really confers tax jurisdiction is the location of trading firms, the location of exchanges, or the location of data centers. Failing those arguments, lobbyists argue that the industry is largely conducted beyond state borders, in the global financial cloud.

The stock transfer tax currently in place—the one that is immediately rebated—is levied on nearly all stock sales that occur “within New York State.” On paper, it imposes a tax of 1.25 cents on a sale of stock worth $5 or less a share, rising with the price of shares. Under the bill to begin collecting that tax again, a transaction would be subject to the tax “if any activity in furtherance of the transaction occurs within the state or if a party involved in the transaction satisfies a nexus with New York state which shall be defined as broadly as is permitted under the United States Constitution.”

Could New York’s tax department really collect taxes under that ultra-broad definition?

The short answer, experts say, is: probably.

The United States has not seen a new financial transactions tax imposed in decades, meaning there is a lack of litigation on the issue—so it’s not clear which way courts would rule, if the STT were implemented and challenged. Even so, legal experts think a recent Supreme Court ruling means investors lack attractive options that put them beyond the long arm of New York’s tax authority.

What if trading firms moved out of state?
If a firm moved to New Jersey but continued trading on the New York Stock Exchange, New York would likely still have substantial enough connection to impose a tax, attorneys familiar with state residency requirements say.

Before the rise of online commerce, state tax authorities imposed sales tax on businesses with a brick-and-mortar presence in that state. In the 2018 decision South Dakota v. Wayfair, the Supreme Court relaxed the older “physical presence” requirement, noting that states are “confronting the complexities of defining physical presence in the Cyber Age.” Explaining that out-of-state tax exemptions had become “a judicially created tax shelter,” the Court expanded states’ ability to impose taxes remotely.

Timothy Noonan, a partner at Hodgson Russ LLC who specializes in litigation on tax residency in New York City and State, said Wayfair appears to give New York broad authority to tax trades that are requested in other parts of the country.

An investment firm seeking to avoid the tax might try to argue that it is unconstitutional for New York to tax an out-of-state firm, Noonan said. But the case would be hard to make.

“I think the government would point to the Wayfair case—point to the trend indicating that nexus, in 2020, is a lot easier to establish,” he said. “And that an economic presence, such as trading over the New York Stock Exchange, is enough to create that taxable nexus.”

The current trend, Noonan said, points toward more decisions like the one in Wayfair.

Darien Shanske, a tax professor at UC Davis Law School, told New York Focus that firms would probably not be able to escape the tax by leaving the state.

“If everything is the same, except that instead of yelling into your phone on the New York Stock Exchange [floor], you’re yelling into your phone in New Jersey—but all the other machinery is the same—then that still looks like New York has a good claim to tax that transaction,” he said.

Furthermore, Shanske said, New York’s tax department “is notorious for being persnickety.” The Department of Taxation and Finance has aggressively brought cases seeking to tax financiers who work from second homes in Connecticut or Vermont—and won them.

“The idea that the New York revenue authority is just going to be like, ‘Yeah, you moved to New Jersey, I guess we can’t tax you anymore’—that’s just not how it’s gonna go,” Shanske said.

Alternatively, an investor seeking to avoid the stock transfer tax might point out that trading is conducted through the New York Stock Exchange’s out-of-state servers.

But here, too, tax attorneys say it would be tricky to skirt New York’s jurisdiction. Since Wayfair, courts appear to care less about where sales transactions take place—whether in New Jersey, Panama, or cyberspace.

“Even if the servers are in the cloud,” Noonan told New York Focus, “if you follow the sales tax issue in the Wayfair case, an economic presence is enough to create that nexus. And the economic nexus here, the nexus of the transaction, would be, ‘We don’t care where the servers are, we don’t care where the traders are. It’s happening on the New York Stock Exchange. That gives us the nexus—the jurisdiction—to tax it.’”

What if the New York Stock Exchange left altogether?
What if the entire New York Stock Exchange relocated? (Many—though not all—of the equity purchases under the stock transfer tax are conducted on the NYSE.)

If the New York Stock Exchange moved to another state, Shanske said, this could pose a more serious threat to transfer tax collections, making it harder for the revenue authority to argue that NYSE’s stock trades remained within their tax nexus. Still, it would be a matter of degree.

“How much of the New York Stock Exchange has to move, or shift its business, before the connection is too slight? I’m not sure,” Shanske said. “It’s something of an unknown.”

Historians have cast doubt on the suggestion that the Exchange would pick up and move, pointing out that the NYSE threatened to move to New Jersey immediately after New York initially adopted the tax in 1905, but never followed through. Others point out that the Exchange already pays a premium to maintain its operations in high-rent Manhattan.

James Parrott, a tax policy expert and economist at The New School, said the battle is more a matter of political negotiation than about the marginal costs of algorithm-driven trading. If the stock tax is enacted without the acquiescence of industry, he said, brokers might retaliate.

“Whatever the relocation costs are involved in moving the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ and all of the trading floors out of New York,” Parrott said, firms might be prepared to pay “whatever it takes to evade this.”

To avoid this scenario, Parrott said, stock tax proponents should focus on building public pressure—so that a major undertaking like moving the stock exchange during a lopsided recession, to avoid a tax, would look too politically risky.

What if firms leave the New York Stock Exchange?
Another strategy the securities industry suggests might help investors skirt the tax: why not simply delist from the New York Stock Exchange, and conduct trades over cheaper platforms?

The trouble here, say economists who study stock trading, is that there are few good alternatives.

There’s the London Stock Exchange (LSE), but that floor has had an analogous transfer tax in place since 1694, despite continuous grumbling from traders. The LSE’s levy is frequently cited as a success story for transfer taxes, since it has not stopped the Exchange from consistently ranking among the world’s top exchanges by market capitalization.

Within the United States, economists who have studied stock levies say, investors in search of highly-liquid, low-cost trading platforms have few alternatives to the New York Stock Exchange.

“Even with the reinstatement of the STT, overall transaction costs for firms trading on the New York exchanges would almost definitely still be well below those of alternative trading platforms,” the economists Robert Pollin and James Heintz found.

“One of the advantages of the New York [Stock] Exchange is, with the high volume of trading, your transaction costs tend to be low. So, when you add in the stock transfer tax, it makes less of a difference,” said Assemblymember Phil Steck, a Democrat representing Schenectady and the longtime champion of legislation to revive the STT. State Senator James Sanders, Jr., a Queens Democrat, sponsors the bill in the Senate.

Stephany Griffith-Jones, an economist at Columbia University who studies financial markets, said moving off the New York Stock Exchange would carry other costs, like higher capital adequacy requirements—the amount of capital a financial institution is required to keep on hand—and increased legal risk.

Plus, she said, new markets do not spring up overnight.

“You’re going to want to sell in New York, because that’s where the big markets are,” Griffith-Jones said. “You’re not going to find, in Oklahoma, a lot of people wanting to trade very sophisticated securities.”

‘A backdoor to federal relief’
Far from worrying that the stock tax would push firms to flee to other states, proponents tout the tax as a convenient way to capture new out-of-state revenue. Advocates contrast the STT’s potential to raise revenue from trades in New York and beyond with Cuomo’s escalating pleas for federal funding to replace lost tax revenue, which have so far failed to draw concessions from a gridlocked Congress.

Patrick Nelson, a Democratic Committeeman from Saratoga Springs, said the STT is one in a bundle of measures that could help New York capture a greater share of economic activity.

“We’re simply asking for some of the money back that we use, as New Yorkers, to bail out Kentucky and Mississippi and Florida and Texas and Georgia, and all these other states that take more from the federal government than they pay in,” said Nelson, who is the Democratic and Working Families Party nominee for State Senate in New York’s 43rd district. “It’s a means for us to access some of the money that we pay out to the other states.”

“You could almost think of it as a backdoor to that federal relief, as well,” Nelson added.

‘Salami tactics’
Multilateral financial taxes—designed to span multiple states or governments—are more effective than unilateral ones, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has found. Intuitively, this makes sense: scaled-up taxes offer fewer opportunities for escape.

Although local taxes are more vulnerable to evasion, several existing examples work fine. The same IMF study noted the success of the UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore in imposing STTs without international cooperation. “Unilateral STTs, even if levied on fairly narrow bases, are certainly feasible as witnessed by their use in numerous developed countries,” the study found—especially when imposed in “established financial centers.”

Local financial taxes can also be forerunners to national or international versions. In Europe, individual member states’ existing levies could soon be knitted together into an European Union-wide tax. Likewise, advocates for a state-level STT say it could be a forerunner to the national financial tax supported by senators such as Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Griffith-Jones, who has advised efforts to implement a European financial transaction tax, said the securities industry’s lobbying campaigns follow a predictable, divide-and-conquer pattern.

“It’s salami tactics,” she said. “They always do this. When the UK wanted to expand its financial transaction tax, even people on the right of the Labor Party would say, ‘Oh yes, we’ll do it, but only if the U.S. does it. For it to work, it has to be internationally coordinated.’”

While an international tax would be harder to evade than a national one, and a national tax would be harder to evade than a state tax, the question is just how much evasion would occur with a state tax. And many tax attorneys think that at the current level, most firms wouldn’t take on the hassle and cost of evasion.

“There’s clearly some level of stock transfer tax that is sufficiently low that nobody’s going to change their business structure to avoid it,” Shanske said. “And the rate on this tax is pretty low.”

Although debates have centered on the risk of tax flight, there are other considerations for and against reviving the tax. Governor Hugh Carey signed legislation phasing out the tax in 1978, citing concerns that it put New York at a competitive disadvantage.

Opponents say it will cause job losses in the securities industry—which could have ripple effects—and that it will increase stock volatility. Proponents say it will reduce dangerous high-frequency trading by the same firms that have seen record profits amid coronavirus-driven market pandemonium. Still others say that it should be expanded beyond stocks to a broader tax on all financial transactions.

Michael Kink, director of the labor-backed progressive coalition Strong Economy for All, which is helping lead the push for several revenue-raising measures, said advocates would like to see more debate about tax initiatives outside annual hearings on the governor’s budget proposal. Typically, he said, there are too few occasions for on-the-record testimony by stakeholders.

“I would love public hearings as an opportunity to help lawmakers and the public understand the mechanics of all these bills.” Kink said. “Talking about proposals, digging into the details, forcing SIFMA to say in public under oath what they like to whisper and sleaze about in private.”

No 'Urban Neo-Marxists' Here
The stock transfer tax’s putative strength is its political feasibility: it is already on the books. Since the collection infrastructure is already in place, it has been popular among legislators looking for relatively painless ways to raise revenue without authorizing brand-new taxes, and unlike some other revenue-raising proposals being debated, it could immediately help fill state coffers devastated by the pandemic’s impact on existing taxes.

A federal financial tax has also gained popularity. Jared Bernstein, a top economic advisor to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is a vocal booster of the idea, as is Biden running mate Kamala Harris.

The California senator is no crusader against Wall Street. Her selection for the Democratic ticket drew praise from “titans of industry,” as one banking attorney, who specializes in distressed debt, recently gushed to the Financial Times. Harris is so unthreatening to the securities industry, according to the Wall Street Journal, that traders attributed a recent stock market rally to her selection for the coveted VP slot.

And even Michael Bloomberg, who shot down a proposal to reinstate New York’s STT as mayor, supported a federal equivalent during his 2020 presidential bid.

New York City Mayor Ed Koch supported reinstating the STT as part of an aid package to the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as the city struggled to close a $1.3 billion budget gap in 1982. Koch’s deputy mayor for finance Kenneth Lipper—a Wall Street insider recruited from Salomon Brothers bank—reportedly opened discussions with brokerage houses about reinstating the tax.

“This is not a tax being proposed by left-wing radicals to pillage the coffers of the gentry,” New York Times columnist Sydney Schanberg wrote at the time. “Edward Koch and Kenneth Lipper hardly qualify as urban neo-Marxists.”

Yet the proposal to reinstate New York’s stock transfer tax has been stuck in the same news cycle for two decades: it is perpetually an idea whose time has finally come.

This past summer, as ebullient markets seemed to come unstuck from an underlying economy wracked by the COVID-19 recession, the business press once again reported that lawmakers were considering resurrecting the dormant tax. It’s a familiar pattern: proposals to bring back the STT have routinely surfaced during periods of fiscal strain, and then fizzled.

Now, momentum is building again for a spate of tax-the-rich proposals. Steck told New York Focus that his bill’s revenue-raising potential dwarfs alternatives.

“You’ll hear about the pied-a-terre tax, scaffolding tax,” Assemblymember Steck said. “You’re not going to get anywhere near those numbers.” Meanwhile, he adds, “the governor is an obstacle, because the governor is stuck in 1980.”

“We have this budget hole to plug, and the governor and the [Assembly] speaker [Carl Heastie] want to wait and see if Joe Biden becomes president,” Steck said. “If that happens, they may decide to go with some of the lesser revenue-raisers.”

But eyeing the upcoming legislative session in 2021, Steck is optimistic. With New York facing the most staggering fiscal hole since the 1970s, he said, “there might be no alternative.”

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics, as part of its launch. Sign up for its newsletter here.

Could a Tax on Stock Trading Help New York Fill Its Massive Budget Hole? Mon, 12 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Without Random Testing, New York City and State Address Covid Outbreaks with Blinders may covid19test

Mayor de Blasio gets tested (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography)

As New York City public health officials try to get a handle on a series of COVID-19 “hot spots,” they lack the tools to know exactly how the voluntary testing data they collect skews the true prevalence of the virus, both in communities of concern and city-wide. In the absence of randomized testing, public health officials rely on the results of voluntary testing, an especially challenging process given new evidence some New Yorkers are organizing to game the system against that weakness.

New York's covid positivity rate has been ticking upward in recent weeks, driven largely by surging rates in so-called "hot spots," which has led Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to shut down schools and potentially non-essential businesses in impacted parts of Brooklyn and Queens, many of which are home to Orthodox Jewish communities and where the reported rate of confirmed cases outpaces the citywide rate fourfold.

The neighborhoods home to covid uptick “clusters” cover nine zip codes across the two boroughs where the seven-day average Covid positivity rate has exceeded 3% for more than seven straight days, while another 13 zip codes are now labeled “areas of concern” by city health officials. Cuomo announced Monday the state is taking control over local enforcement of covid guidelines like mask-wearing and limited gatherings, and the governor promised hard conversations with religious leaders and the possibility of closure of religious institutions. On Tuesday, he released a plan for tiered, localized shutdowns with the greatest restrictions closer to cluster epicenters and easing as the radius widens.

Despite tens of thousands of tests every day, the city and state have no widely applied randomized testing program and few ways to gauge what members of the population they are missing in their survey of the virus. Health + Hospitals, the city's public hospital network that is in charge of New York's test and trace corps, says testing protocols do not include a questionnaire about motivation for seeking a test, which in lieu of a random sample, could itself hint at gaps in the data. Getting a percentage of those seeking tests who are symptomatic, may have been exposed to a covid-positive person in close proximity, or are just being careful and getting a test based on public health guidelines can reveal finer contours in the official picture of the viral spread.

While key decisions during the city's precarious reopening are pegged to the positivity rate, dictating the opening and closure of schools and businesses, scientists question how well the city and state data captures the spread of the virus among those who haven't been tested.

In the lead up to the announcement about closures in the cluster areas, some residents in Hasidic neighborhoods in New York City received messages not to have their children tested if they have symptoms or to get tested if they are believed to be negative in order to drive the positivity rates down, Gothamist reported. Heavily Orthodox Jewish areas are not the only places seeing covid increases -- the map of recent outbreaks overlaps with areas of the city home to greater numbers of Trump supporters, as reported by Bklyner, including many Orthodox neighborhoods.

The positivity rate is a ratio of the number of positive cases out of the number of people who choose to get tested. Assumptions about that population of test-takers factor into the official assessment and response. In reality much is unknown about who is getting tested -- and who is not -- a variable that can downplay the extent of the virus, which is believed not to manifest symptoms at all in as much as 40 percent of cases.

Some form of randomized sampling, which is being advocated by epidemiologists and set to soon be used on a limited scale in New York City schools, could get at these missing figures and provide a better overall assessment of the virus’ spread.

"Any community anywhere where we're looking at test positivity, you have to ask, 'well, who's determining who's getting tested,'" said Irwin Redlener, a health policy expert and director of Columbia University's Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, on WNYC radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday. "Are they just sick people? Are we doing a scientifically randomized study where we're taking a number of people whether they are symptomatic or not and doing testing?"

"If you don't have a good basis for collecting the samples and doing the testing in a randomized, scientific way it's not unexpected that we're going to have problems interpreting the outcome and making policies [inaudible] determining the outcome," Redlener continued.

One of the graphs the mayor uses at his daily press briefings is a product of this. The graph of the citywide seven-day average positivity rate, considered the most stable existing metric for measuring the spread and one that potential closures are pegged to, looks like a backward ski jump, a relatively smooth slope that fell from a peak of 68% in early April to about 1% in June and has remained mostly flat since. But in April, far fewer people were being tested and the criteria limited testing to people who were likely to test positive.

"There is something deceptive, a bit, about any number that we're talking about," Redlener said, because of the lack of randomization.

On September 29, the city's positivity rate was over 3%, the highest it has been since June, but was back below 1% the next day. Officials viewed the one-day spike as an anomaly and cautioned members of the public to focus on the seven-day average, which rose to about 1.65% as of this Monday’s test results, but it spotlighted questions about how the city is accumulating data and assessing spread in the midst of a targeted testing "blitz."

"It is imperative that community leaders, community institutions, and everyday New Yorkers heed the call and go out and get tested and send the message of how important it is to get tested," de Blasio said at a press briefing on October 1.

De Blasio has for days discussed the possibility of local shutdowns in areas seeing upticks in positivity, especially those deemed clusters, and on Sunday called for the closures of schools and non-essential businesses in the nine zip codes. The city has ramped up testing, mask distribution, and public awareness efforts in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, particularly in Orthodox Jewish communities where mask-wearing has reportedly lagged and social distancing rules often ignored. Last week, the mayor announced six "block parties" for mass testing, which they hope will conduct 3,000 tests per day when fully operational, on top of 11 mobile testing sites in covid cluster sites.

Governor Cuomo has attributed the upticks to a lack of compliance with social distancing protocols and has blamed local authorities for failing to enforce his ordinances. On Friday, he issued a directive to local governments to step up enforcement or face penalties of up to $10,000 per day in an effort to tamp down the outbreaks. On Monday, he said the state would take over enforcement of the relevant local law enforcement, though he said he would need local personnel.

The state is also deploying rapid testing in hot spots and coordinating resources with local health departments, and in some cases providing staff, according to Gareth Rhodes, an attorney at the state Department of Financial Services and a member of Cuomo's COVID-19 Response Task Force. The state conducts about 500,000 tests per week, a large portion of which are rapid, where the results are back within a day, allowing officials to monitor the virus in closer to real time. Of the 120,000 tests reported Friday, roughly one-third were completed within 24 hours, Rhodes told Gotham Gazette.

New York's approach to mapping the spread has been to provide opportunities for and in some places heavily encourage testing in the hopes of casting as wide a net as possible, and with it a more representative sampling. Short of a complete census, all testing models simply capture a snapshot that public health officials try to extrapolate to say something about the entire population and set policies to address it.

Officials are looking out for places where testing may be too low. "What is the testing per capita in that zip code?," Rhodes said by phone Friday. "Is it where we think it should be?"

But some testing strategies can have the effect of distorting the positivity rate, even as they are intended to more closely monitor key groups. At various moments during the pandemic, for example, the state has required certain populations to get tested, like health care workers, nursing home residents, or salon employees.

At this point, the best example of randomized testing could be the Department of Education's plan to randomly test 10 to 20 percent of the in-person student body at each school on a monthly basis. A team of NYU researchers recently released a report showing that the city may need many times that rate of testing, a sentiment Cuomo echoed Monday.

"I understand daily, I understand weekly, I don't understand random monthly," he said in response to questions about whether he wanted to see a more robust testing strategy in schools. "If you're saying it could possibly be a month between tests, that doesn't work for me. I would not accept that plan for my school."

The state has been testing wastewater in some state university (SUNY) dorms for COVID-19, as one way to get a random sample, and officials say they are working to expand that testing to other areas.

Randomized testing is difficult to perform. Even with the city's school testing program, parents must consent to their children being tested at random once a month. The children of parents who miss the notice among the flood of novel back-to-school instructions or who object on philosophical grounds will be left in the shadows.

Rhodes says the ideal testing environment would be one of rapid, on-the-spot results, that are affordable, widely available, and accurate.

"Obviously we are not there yet," he said. "I think the scientists and the people on the innovation side will say that's where we will get to eventually, but the question is are we all vaccinated before then?"

In July, Cuomo penned an op-ed to the New York Times, calling for federal funding for "broad community screening" to account for asymptomatic carriers. Rhodes echoed that call in a recent post to Twitter, responding to Gotham Gazette’s reporting about the city’s and state’s lack of randomized testing.

The state is looking at one testing model -- the BinaxNow, by the multinational medical device company Abbott -- that checks some of those boxes: it is quick, relatively cheap (about $5 per test), and does not need to be sent to a lab for results. Rhodes said state officials expect the Trump administration to distribute the new tests in the near future. But the BinaxNow is an antigen test, which is less effective for testing in people who are asymptomatic. The current cost of a rapid PCR test, which is better at detecting the virus in asymptomatic people, is $100 per test, which is "prohibitively expensive," Rhodes said.

Another metric officials rely on to track the spread of COVID-19 independent of testing is the hospitalization rate.

"If covid is spreading, it will result in people going to the hospital from that community," said Rhodes. "I'm looking at what addresses are hospitalizations coming from...It very closely tracks where we are seeing new cases."

If hospitalizations in a region are up, but the positivity rate doesn't reflect an uptick, the state would set up rapid testing there, Rhodes said. 

"It obviously is not ideal because you want to catch this long before people go to the hospital," he added.

But even this measurement isn't really randomized. Access (and admission) to an emergency room is not uniform across the population, and multiple factors influence whether a person receives treatment, especially during the pandemic's so-called "apex" in New York, and especially in predominantly Black and Latino communities.

The city's covid testing does not include a questionnaire about why a person is seeking testing -- because of potential exposure, proximity to testing sites, or being referred by a doctor or an advertisement -- questions that could give officials a sense of the profile of individuals who are getting tested and reveal potential blindspots in virus surveillance.

"We do not ask why they are getting a test," wrote Karla Griffith, a spokesperson for Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system, in an email.

Individuals are asked some questions before receiving a test, like whether they've had COVID-19 previously, if they have symptoms, if they have upcoming surgery, if they are pregnant, and where they work. "These questions are for reporting purpose to the NYS Department of Health and to assist with contact tracing efforts should someone test positive," Griffith wrote.

In Borough Park and Williamsburg, two areas with large Hasidic populations, parents received robocalls urging them not to test their children and to remove them from school without getting tested if they are showing symptoms, as Gothamist reported. One religious leader urged members of his congregation who have already gotten the virus, and are believed to be less likely to still have it, to get tested in order to drive the official positive rate down. And some medical centers in the communities have refused to share test results with officials, according to Gothamist.

The city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not say how or whether it was assessing the impact of this behavior.

Asked how the state accounts for potential distortions like the ones reportedly being machinated in certain Hasidic clusters, Rhodes said, "Let's say you don't test in certain areas, or test less. If covid is spreading, you're going to see an uptick in hospitalizations."

"In these areas we haven't seen what I would consider to be a testing desert," he added. "The message we've been saying is urging everyone to get tested."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Without Random Testing, New York City and State Address Covid Outbreaks with Blinders Tue, 06 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000