NEW YORK — For a big-city mayor who relies on detailed written memos reviewed by multiple staffers before committing to any major decision, this was the most difficult one yet.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio agonized over whether to shutter the public school system he runs amid an outbreak of the coronavirus, which has now claimed the lives of at least seven city residents. Despite assurances from top education officials, the mayor was not sold on the idea until he got one final urging from his health commissioner, according to a person familiar with the matter. On Sunday evening he announced he would close all 1,800 public schools in the nation’s largest education system through at least April 20.
As de Blasio was weighing the decision privately, he was defending keeping schools open publicly — angering many teachers, parents, politicians and union leaders in the process.
The frenzied pace of ever-changing information around this novel virus has amplified de Blasio’s deliberative decision-making process — one allies call responsible, critics consider tedious and people on both sides agree doesn’t serve him well politically.
If anything, de Blasio digs in even more when criticism mounts — a quality that exacerbates an already trying situation, as he and his staff navigate an unknown illness taking hold in New York City, which has become an epicenter for the global pandemic.
“This is the decision-making cycle — take an untenable, deeply unpopular decision, stick to it beyond all point of reason, have the entire world come down on your head and when all hope is lost, reverse yourself,” said a former high-ranking de Blasio aide, who would only speak on background and not for attribution.
The pattern is familiar: De Blasio did not embrace expanding the size of the police force, providing reduced-fare Metrocards to people of low incomes, implementing congestion pricing or closing the violent Rikers Island jails until pressured by other politicians — often inflaming tensions among his political supporters only to end up taking their side.
Now the decisions facing him are arguably more dire and based on less certain information than any of those. Closing schools forces parents of limited means to arrange child care, impacts the trajectory of students’ academic progress and delays standardized tests and possibly graduations.
De Blasio made clear how difficult this choice was, saying he made it “with a lot of pain.”
He resisted calls to close schools as he fretted about the displacement of more than 1 million students — in particular those relying on free meals and other social services. One former aide vented over the weekend that his posture stemmed from his resentment toward wealthy people, who were particularly vocal in their criticism.
On Friday the state’s politically influential health care workers union, 1199SEIU, sided with de Blasio’s decision, which one City Hall aide said provided him confidence he was making the right decision.
The next day he held a roughly two-hour-long staff conference call with Chief of Staff Emma Wolfe, First Deputy Dean Fuleihan, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and chief operating officer of the Department of Education Ursulina Ramirez, among others. Carranza laid out the city’s contingency plan for shuttering schools. Several people on the call said the chancellor made clear he was comfortable with the backup measures and encouraged the mayor to follow suit.
One of the people described it as an “agonizing, heartbreaking” conference call.
The mayor was worried about free meals, social services and child care for people who work in medicine, mass transit and emergency services. He was uncertain about the logistics of educating students at home for a prolonged period, the person said.
By the time he went on several cable news shows the following morning, de Blasio had yet to make a decision. He hinted he was open to the idea but his posture continued to incite New Yorkers who were demanding he close schools.
He then headed to City Hall, where he conferred by phone once more with his top health officials and his inner circle of advisers who were holed up inside the Office of Emergency Management headquarters in Brooklyn. Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot — who has been reportedly feuding with the mayor over his handling of the coronavirus outbreak — urged him to close schools.
He also got word from the head of 1199, George Gresham, that the union was supporting school closures, which helped him make his decision, said one person involved in the process.
Within a few hours he announced it at a press conference in City Hall’s Blue Room. Gov. Andrew Cuomo did his own announcement moments earlier.
Criticism over the mayor’s leadership style crescendoed when de Blasio had his NYPD-issued drivers chauffeur him 12 miles from the public mansion he occupies on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to his preferred gym in his former Brooklyn neighborhood, so he could work out at the same time he was urging New Yorkers to stay home and avoid crowds.
De Blasio dismissed disapproval of his gym outing as “optical stuff,” when a cable news anchor read him tweets from former aides slamming his choice Monday night.
“No current or former staff member should be asked to defend this. The Mayor’s actions today are inexcusable and reckless,” tweeted former adviser Rebecca Katz.
“She’s right. It’s pathetic. Self-involved. Inexcusable,” tweeted Jonathan Rosen, another former aide.
“They live in a world of public relations. I don’t live in that world,” a clearly irritated de Blasio told the NY1 host, Errol Louis. “I think it is a sign of our times, honestly Errol, that even you have wasted this much time on it.”
Eric Phillips, de Blasio’s former spokesperson, defended his management style in times of crisis.
“The mayor has a real sharp insight into the lives of working people,” Phillips said in an interview Monday. “And those folks are not always on Twitter and those folks are very infrequently members of the chattering class. In moments like this he’s very good at tuning out the critics in the cheap seats and making decisions that are going to help many more people in much more difficult circumstances.”
He said during his time working for de Blasio, the mayor “would wait until the last possible second,” when he was equipped with reams of data and information, before making a major decision like closing schools.
Asked about his decision to hit the gym Monday morning Phillips simply said, “My defense of him surely does not include the gym.”