Eric Adams' first days: Battling Omicron, then a deadly fire

Written By: Emma G. Fitzsimmons ©️ 2022 The New York Times The New York Times
New York Published: Jan 10, 2022, 03:38 PM(IST)

FILE PHOTO: NY Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York city Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference at the Fulton Street Station on January 6, 2022. Photograph:( AFP )

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Adams has quickly begun to fulfill that vow. In his first week in office, he moved to buttress the city’s health system during a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations

Before he took office as mayor of New York City, Eric Adams repeatedly said that his top priority was to serve as the city’s cheerleader and promote its recovery.

Adams has quickly begun to fulfill that vow. In his first week in office, he moved to buttress the city’s health system during a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations. He fought to keep schools open even as they closed in other cities like Chicago.

And Sunday, he faced a devastating new challenge when the city had its deadliest fire in decades, and at least 19 people died, including nine children. He held two news conferences at the site of the fire in the Bronx and called for unity at a time of horrific loss. “During a tragedy, we’re going to be here for each other,” he said.

Adams, a Democrat and former police captain, confronts the most daunting challenges to face a mayor since Michael Bloomberg was inaugurated after the Sept. 11 attacks. New York City had started to recover from the economic devastation of the pandemic this fall, but the omicron surge last month led to the cancellation of some Broadway shows and emptied offices once again just as the new mayor took office.

Much of his first week focused on keeping public schools open and sending a message that the city is ready to move forward. He said he decided shortly before taking office that he would do everything he could to keep the school system open after reviewing low transmission rates in schools.

“It was clear to me that no matter what the heat was and the pressure was, unless the doctors said, ‘Eric, it’s dangerous to have these children in school,’ then I was going to push forward and be very clear so that parents wouldn’t have a level of uncertainty,” he said in a recent interview.

But to do that, Adams needs the numbers to back his optimism. So each day, he convenes an 8:30 a.m. video briefing with his top health advisers to review the latest COVID-related data.

“We say, ‘Where are we, give us the counts, are the hospitals stabilized, what do the numbers look like, what are the fatalities? How many schools were closed the day before?’” Adams said. “Then we decide, are we staying the course? How are we pivoting?”

His administration distributed more than 1 million coronavirus home tests in recent days so that students could test at home. He filmed a video of himself taking a home test Thursday to show families how to do it. A day earlier, he announced additional funding for hospitals to shore up staffing.

In his first week, Adams was seemingly everywhere — riding an electric Citi Bike in Manhattan, announcing 17 arrests in a gang crackdown in Brooklyn and sliding down a pole at a fire station in Queens. On Sunday, he delivered remarks at a church, held a news conference with Sen. Chuck Schumer, visited a Burger King where someone was killed during a robbery, and then headed twice to the Bronx to the scene of the deadly fire. The Bronx building is owned by Camber Property Group, a developer whose co-founder, Rick Gropper, was a member of the Adams transition team for housing issues.

In doing so, the mayor exhibited a tireless energy many found lacking in his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, leaving Gracie Mansion in the darkened predawn to make a 6:45 a.m. news conference on a snowstorm Friday, and visiting hospital workers at 9:30 p.m. to thank nurses working the night shift Tuesday.

He also traded barbs with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she took issue with his calling cooks and Dunkin’ Donuts employees “low-skill workers,” and then found himself on the defensive for making two personnel moves: He named Philip Banks, a former police chief, as his deputy mayor for public safety, despite ethical concerns over Banks’ past as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal corruption investigation; he also took steps to give his brother a job as a deputy police commissioner to run the mayor’s security detail.

Adams, the city’s second Black mayor, said Sunday that he wanted his brother to oversee his security because of concerns over white supremacy and hate crimes; he said his brother was qualified for the job, adding, “I need someone that I trust.”

The mayor said that Banks acknowledged that he had made mistakes, but he had not been accused of a crime.

“I need the best person for the job,” Adams said on CNN, in one of two Sunday national news show appearances. The mayor also returned to another of his first-week themes: He intends to keep schools open.

But as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are surging, some elected officials, union leaders and health experts have urged Adams to do even more to stop the spread of the virus.

The city has recorded more than 40,000 cases per day, and more than 5,700 people are hospitalized with the virus, including 620 patients in intensive care units — the highest levels since the spring of 2020. Some working-class neighborhoods like South Jamaica in Queens, where Adams was born, have alarming test positivity rates higher than 40%.

The teachers union called for a temporary return to remote learning. The largest municipal union called for nonessential city employees to work from home.

Instead, Adams pushed for the city to reopen, urging private employers to bring workers back to offices.

“I met with a number of business leaders,” Adams said in the interview. “Instead of going to a five-day week all at once, let’s do two days a week or three days a week — let people get over their fear that we can come back.”

Asked about the criticism that his upbeat tone did not match difficult realities, Adams said that the omicron variant was less severe and it was “just as dangerous not to open the city.”

Denis Nash, a public health researcher at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, said that Adams should do more to rein in the virus.

“I certainly agree that we need to learn to live with COVID — that is what New York City has been doing as much, if not more, than any other city in the country,” Nash said. “But from an epidemiologic perspective, we do not have to learn to live with unbridled surges in community transmission that overwhelm the health care system, like the one we are going through right now.”

Adams’ push for New Yorkers to return to offices led to his first public spat with Ocasio-Cortez, the left-leaning congresswoman who endorsed Adams’ competitor, Maya Wiley, in the Democratic primary last year. Adams said the city must remain open because “low-skill workers” could not work remotely.

Ocasio-Cortez and a like-minded ally, Tiffany Cabán, a new City Council member, criticized his choice of words.

“The suggestion that any job is ‘low skill’ is a myth perpetuated by wealthy interests to justify inhumane working conditions, little/no health care, and low wages,” Ocasio-Cortez posted on Twitter.

Adams said he should have used the term “low-wage workers,” noting that he had been one himself, washing dishes, shining shoes and working in a mailroom. He said Ocasio-Cortez was acting as “word police” and that he sometimes made mistakes.

“I would rather be authentic and make errors than be robotic and not be sincere in what they’re doing,” he said, adding: “I know they’re perfect, and there’s not much I can do about that. I can only aspire one day to be as perfect as they are.”

Adams said he nonetheless wanted to work with progressives like Ocasio-Cortez. But he encouraged them to reach out to him directly.

“I can sit there and work with any group,” he said. “But you don’t work with a group by just tweeting. ”

With Adams newly elected and at the peak of his political power, Democratic leaders have seemed reluctant to get in a public spat with him. Michael Mulgrew, the teachers union president who often plays the role of mayoral antagonist, has shown unusual deference to the mayor.

The mayor has also moved to quickly cement a positive relationship with Gov. Kathy Hochul, putting an end to the feud that typified the tenures of their predecessors, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio.

Adams and Hochul appeared together again Sunday evening at the site of the fire and vowed to work together to help the victims.

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