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Coronavirus conundrum: How much information is too much?

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo Left, elbow

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo Left, elbow bumps Nassau County Executive Laura Curran to show a safe alternative to shaking hands during a press conference announcing the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Long Island. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

ALBANY — The way politicians have responded to the spread of the coronavirus couldn't be more different.

On the national scene, President Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed the crisis initially, claiming infection cases in the United States would soon be “down to close to zero.” His actions have been criticized as insufficient.

At the other end of the spectrum, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have issued updates every day, often more than once a day. Local officials too, such as Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, have held almost daily briefings to update case totals and outline latest actions.

In times of crisis, experts say, politicians need to be out front, publicly, to show they are on top of things and reassure the public the situation is under control. But in doing so many updates, analysts say, they also risk undermining one of their messages to the public: Stay calm.

“It is a conundrum. From a politician’s standpoint and an institutional standpoint, no one wants to be accused of being asleep on the switch on this thing,” said Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “But what is enough information and what is too much? ... These constant updates leave you in a constant 'Whack-a-Mole' situation," referring to the popular arcade game wherein the player has to bop a succession of rapidly popping-up critters. 

The information flow from elected officials right now is “excessive” and can lead to “excessive focus,” but there may be no other option in 2020, said Gerald Benjamin, an associate vice president at SUNY New Paltz and a longtime analyst of state politics.

Because of the 24-hour news media and social media, and a proliferation of bad information and dishonest information, officials need to be out front, he said.

“The excessive communication is exacerbated by the environment we’re in,” Benjamin said. “But it’s unavoidable because of the modalities of communication now. If they don’t fill up the space, the space will be filled up by rumor, misinformation and speculation.”

But he added: “You have to be seen as on the job. Cuomo is good at that. But his drive to do so might drive people to raise the question” of whether this conflicts with the message of staying calm.

Doing the opposite can be worse, Benjamin noted.

Political history is filled with examples of politicians being harshly criticized for not being on top of things during crisis, or for being on vacation.

Then-President George W. Bush took a big public-opinion hit for what was seen as a lackadaisical response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rather than immediately heading to the Gulf Coast, Bush flew over in Air Force One and went to his Texas home for a getaway. He visited the scene a week later and, in a video clip that became politically infamous, told Mike Brown, his emergency management director: "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva a job."

The statement came even though survivors in places were still without food or water. Many still were huddled in the darkened New Orleans Superdome. Ten days later, Brown had resigned and Bush's popularity ratings were tumbling.

There are other examples, though not involving numerous fatalities like Katrina. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly was on vacation in Bermuda, for example, when the city was hit with 27 inches of snow in 2010, causing massive shutdowns. 

Long Islanders might recall 1985 when William Catacosinos, then chairman of the Long Island Lighting Company, was lambasted for not immediately returning from a vacation in Europe after Hurricane Gloria knocked out power to more than 700,000 business and residential customers. 

Cuomo, a Type A personality but even more so during a crisis, has held a news conference or appeared on radio or cable TV news almost every day over the past three weeks.

It’s notable because he had become unlikely to hold events at the State Capitol’s “Red Room,” where most of governor’s press conferences are held — just 13 during the entire four years of his second term, according to Politico.

Over the last three weeks? Another 13.

De Blasio has been out front most every day. On Thursday, after sports events were shut down, as well as Broadway, the mayor made a statement that startled some: “We’re getting into a situation where the only analogy is war.”

“There are real conflicting messages coming from all levels of government: the President. The governor. The mayor,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.

“There is a stark contrast with the Cuomo approach with regular updates and letting people know,” Muzzio said, comparing the governor to the president. “But at the same time, are you scaring the hell out of people?”

Muzzio referred to one of the governor’s earlier news conferences on coronavirus, saying that balance is a challenge: “You are saying it’s really important enough to have a press conference to say there are six people infected. But at the same time it spreads public communication that is necessary.”

“A lot of the tone is what I expect — which is, don’t panic,” said Grant Reeher, a Syracuse University political scientist. “And we shouldn’t panic. But if it’s constant updates and endless press conferences with nothing new but an updated number, it doesn’t help.”

Some liken it to constantly watching a volatile stock market — don't do it. Berkshire Hathaway chief Warren Buffett often has advised "don't watch the market closely" or it could lead to panic-based, bad decisions.

Similarly, constantly monitoring for coronavirus updates doesn’t help either, LeRoy said. He said people should stay aware — “because this isn’t a hoax, people really die of this thing” — but maybe limit your consumption of coronavirus news to 30 minutes per day.

Seek out reliable information, he said, but not too frequently: "Or it will drive you up a tree."

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