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Cuomo pushed for power expansion — and has used it

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at a news

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at a news briefing in Albany on Thursday. Credit: Office of the Governor

ALBANY — Since persuading state legislators to grant him unprecedented powers two weeks ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hasn't wasted them.

The governor has closed schools, bars, bowling alleys and casinos since the coronavirus hit New York. He’s postponed village elections, waived some medical co-payments and open-meetings requrements, ended nursing home visits, suspended court appearances for some defendants and enacted rapid discharge procedures for some mental health patients.

The list of actions is growing daily, numbering 50 as of Friday afternoon. He has completed what turned out to be a methodical process of ordering “nonessential” businesses to keep at least 50%, then 75% and finally 100% of workers at home.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has won praise in many quarters for his swift action.

But some state lawmakers accused him of “trampling democracy” when he changed the terms for getting on the election ballot and trying to strong-arm them into adopting a state budget in a time of crisis.

Cuomo's emergency moves have been part of a wave of actions by governors across the nation who have used emergency powers since COVID-19 spread in the United States.

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has been touted for acting more quickly than others in declaring a state of emergency after just three residents tested positive. He also closed polling places to postpone the state’s presidential primary.

Washington State’s Jay Inslee, New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham, Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer also are among those earning praise for quick action.

And according to WalletHub, no one has been more aggressive in taking actions to limit exposure to the virus than Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo and Connecticut’s Ned Lamont.

Cuomo ranked No. 4 on the WalletHub report. He didn’t move as fast as others on some issues.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida and other states closed schools much sooner than New York. Maryland and the aforementioned Ohio moved quicker on postponing elections.

But the WalletHub report was issued before Cuomo ordered all “nonessential” businesses in New York to close. As he did so Friday, the governor said the state had the tightest restrictions in the nation.

Cuomo certainly has been among the most visible of U.S. governors, appearing on national and cable TV networks seemingly every day, and even briefly sparring with President Donald Trump on Twitter.

“Regardless of party, they are all stepping up in one way or another,” Jim Twombly, a political-science professor at Elmira College, said of the nation's governors.

“I think Governor Cuomo has been among those who have been the most aggressive,” Twombly said.

“Part of this is the pandemic is best handled on local bases because circumstances are different, state to state,” said Larry Sabato, a longtime national political and elections analyst at the University of Virginia.

“Think back to 9/11 — Most of it was Pataki and Giuliani,” Sabato said, referring to then-New York Gov. George Pataki and then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The other reason governors are at the forefront is because “the federal government, to put it kindly, was slow to get moving,” Sabato said.

On March 2, the State Legislature granted Cuomo’s request to expand his already vast emergency powers.

Under the new law, a governor has unlimited authority to rule by executive order during a declared state emergency for anything from a “storm” to “volcanic activity.”

Many state legislators have praised Cuomo’s actions that focus directly on suppressing the rate of infection.

But some say they are angry at what they see as his effort to railroad them into approving divisive proposals in the state budget, such as changing bail laws.

Assemb. Andy Goodell (R-Jamestown) criticized the governor for an emergency bill to change requirements for getting on the June primary ballot.

He objected to Cuomo ending the possibility for candidates not endorsed by a political party to get in the primary by using an obscure process called "opportunity to ballot." But the big picture, Goodell said, was the governor's usurping lawmakers' powers.

“The governor is trampling our authority. He’s making a mockery of the legislature. … This is an extremely dangerous action — we are ceding our checks and balances function,” Goodell said in a speech on the Assembly floor.

“I appreciate the seriousness of the situation we are facing," Goodell said. "But democracy should not be the victim of this crisis.”

Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said: “Let’s be honest, even in the best of times, he’s not a governor who believes in cooperation. And these aren’t the best of times.”

Cuomo says the coronavirus pandemic justifies swift and dramatic actions, and there’s no time to quibble about the process.

“If you are upset by what we have done, be upset at me. … My judgment is to do whatever is necessary to contain this virus. The buck stops on my desk,” Cuomo said to state residents at a recent briefing.

“Your local mayor did not close your restaurants, your bars, your gyms or your schools. I did. I assume full responsibility,” he said.

Kathy Bergin, a Cornell University Law School professor who specializes in disaster law, said Cuomo has been reluctant to issue a “shelter in place” order — the governor says that's a phrase used in cases of an ongoing mass shooting. But Bergin said the governor is methodically moving toward a de facto order.

He’s closed restaurants, malls and hair salons. In three steps, he increased the number of “nonessential” businesses by first ordering 50% of their employees to stay home, then 75% and, finally, on Friday, 100%.

“He is eliminating all the reasons that lure you out of the house,” Bergin said. “We are getting closer to a shelter in place order.”

Here are some of the laws or rules Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has suspended or changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic:

— Closing schools, restaurants, bars, gyms, malls, hair salons and bowling alleys.

— Ordering "nonessential" businesses to have 100% of their employees work from home.

— Suspending requirement that schools have at least 180 days of in-person instruction per year.

— Postponing village elections.

— Suspending some open-meetings law requirements.

— Ending nursing home visits.

— Allowing courts to grant defendants in some trials or hearings to participate remotely.

— Placing a moratorium on evictions, residential or commercial, for 90 days.

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