Cuomo to boost media access

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a COVID-19 briefing in Manhattan on Friday that was closed to the press. The governor said he may resume outdoor in-person press briefings next week, weather permitting. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office

NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may resume in-person news conferences and increase dialogue with reporters next week, he said Friday, after several weeks of barring the media from public events.

Cuomo’s daily in-person coronavirus briefings quickly became a fixture of the state’s COVID-19 response at the height of the initial outbreak last March. The daily briefings continued through mid-June while the state reopened.

But the governor stopped following his set COVID-19 briefing schedule of 11:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as allegations and multiple state and federal investigations mounted since January. Reporters were limited to digitally attend briefings in December.

“Next week, we’re going to start doing events outside and then we’ll have more flexibility and we’ll have press at the press conferences,” Cuomo said Friday during a briefing at the Mission Society of New York City in Manhattan. “We’re obviously at a different point in COVID and there’s not necessarily new news every day, certainly, and not even three times a week. But besides the COVID precautions — we’re at a different stage now where the weather is nicer and we can do things outside more.”

Cuomo noticeably limited his public appearances and taking questions from reporters as the pandemic continued this winter and he became embroiled in a series of state and federal probes, including allegedly using state resources to publish his pandemic memoir; unlawfully withholding or misrepresenting COVID-19 death data in congregate facilities to government entities; and allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by multiple former or current aides.

The governor has not held an in-person press conference since early December, or more than 130 days. Cuomo’s team has not announced a change to the planned three-times-weekly press briefing schedule.

Reporters were permitted to cover Cuomo’s daily COVID-19 briefings in person without temperature checks, or face masks for about the first six weeks of the pandemic.

Media were permitted to attend a briefing in the state Capitol’s Red Room on April 22, 2020. That day — one year ago Thursday — the state had a COVID-19 infection rate of about 14% and more than 600 New Yorkers died from the virus in 24 hours, including presumed deaths.

The state’s average coronavirus infection rate has dipped to just over 2%, and 45 New York residents died from virus complications Thursday.

Cuomo answered a few questions after Friday’s New York City press conference, but the event was closed to the press regardless of the significantly lower death and infection rate and the requirement to socially distance and wear face masks.

“At one time, I did briefings seven times a week, and another time I did briefings five times a week,” Cuomo said. “Then, I didn’t do any briefings. Then, we hit the holiday surge and I said we’ll do briefings three times a week. We’re now past the holiday surge. Basically, we don’t have a daily COVID crisis the way we did.”

In December, reporters were limited to digitally participate in press conferences on Zoom as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths surged through Thanksgiving and the accompanying holiday season through New Year’s Day. The infection rate has continued to decrease from a peak of 7.94% on Jan. 4, but reporters have not been invited to cover Cuomo’s events or announcements in person.

The governor argued Friday that digital press conferences allow more reporters to attend or cover an event, adding that as many as 200 have been on a call from around the nation at one time.

Members of the Executive Chamber’s communications team hand-pick which reporters get to ask the governor a question. They often choose the same select few, or mute reporters before they can ask a follow-up question.

“In terms of the press conferences, I have done press conferences in every manner, shape or form known to politics,” Cuomo said. “I’ve been doing it for 30 years. During COVID, we went to virtual press conferences. Everybody knows that. Many elected officials now, I don’t know what they’re doing on the federal level, but many officials are still doing virtual press conferences.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to hold digital press availability and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has held Zoom calls with reporters this legislative session a few times each month.

But governors in other states, including California and Florida, hold distanced press briefings with media present in person.

Cuomo has started to receive negative coverage about his rally-like speeches from national media and lack of access to reporters, including a piece in The Hill published Friday, and others in the New York Post and USA Today Network.

Cuomo has repeatedly attributed the new distance between himself and the press to coronavirus pandemic precautions. He did again Friday, saying he’s been forced to choose between having participants stand behind him and the press to be in the room.

The governor has held several public events in the last several weeks about coronavirus vaccine updates, vaccine eligibility announcements and other COVID-19 changes with dozens of his close supporters behind him at the podium, but the events remained closed to the press. He has occasionally held conference calls with reporters later in the day, but limits answering four or five questions.

The state Capitol also remains closed to visitors. Cuomo denied Friday it was because of a rumor he wanted to keep protesters out as he participates in several probes.

“No, that has nothing to do with it,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Some people allege everything. They have a conspiracy theory for everything.”

The governor decided to close the Capitol to visitors when the state completely shut down last March. It has remained closed since.

“I’m open to anything,” Cuomo said of discussions with the state Legislature to reopen the doors to visitors. “I don’t know how much of the session they do in person now versus on Zoom frankly either, but I’m open to talking to them about the rules and what makes sense from a health point of view. It doesn’t make any difference to me, operationally.”

Democrats in the Assembly and Senate majority conferences did not respond to requests for comment Friday about Cuomo’s closed news conferences.

“Andrew Cuomo is in full damage control and his public appearances reflect that,” said Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski. “He claims reporters aren’t allowed to attend due to health and safety protocols. But somehow those concerns don’t exist for dozens of supporters willing to offer their thanks and praise of the governor. Everyone sees it for what it is: He’s running from the press like he’s running from accountability.”

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, also slammed Cuomo’s claim that closing events to the media is because of coronavirus restrictions.

“The governor’s taxpayer-funded pep rallies have served no purpose other than to ensure his own political survival while scandals and investigations swirl around his administration,” Ortt said Friday. “The transparent use of ‘COVID rules’ to keep the press locked out is an affront to the intelligence of the media and general public. This behavior is enabled by allies who seemingly ignore the ever increasing list of accusations of abuse and corruption against this governor. I have not forgotten and neither have the people of New York.”

The governor received a special International Emmy Founders Award last fall for what the academy called “masterful” coronavirus briefings that millions of viewers watched nationwide last spring. Cuomo has credited the discourse with the Legislative Correspondents Association — the press corps in the state Capitol, of which Johnson Newspaper Corporation is a member — for helping audiences to stay engaged in the briefings after his award was announced.

The LCA sent a letter to Cuomo in February requesting the Executive Chamber allow a more diverse group of reporters to get an opportunity to ask the governor a question, and to allow follow-up questions. The Executive Chamber relented, allowing follow-up questions for about two weeks before limiting queries again.

The nonprofit Journalists Association of New York called on Cuomo on Friday to resume in-person news conferences.

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