She had no formal role in New York’s COVID-19 response. She rarely appeared alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his nationally televised pandemic briefings in spring 2020. She received her vaccine from Johnson & Johnson days before Cuomo to little media attention.
Yet Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul is set to take the reins of the state as coronavirus cases are on the rise, and with many politicians and public health experts calling for new rules to spur vaccination and preserve a fragile economic comeback.
Those most deeply involved at local levels in combating COVID-19 are hoping that Hochul will reverse Cuomo’s leadership style during the pandemic, which they say has been characterized by centralized decision making on policies aimed at putting the governor in the spotlight.
They are hopeful that Hochul will tap the state’s deep wealth of public health expertise, especially in state and local health departments, to craft a strategy, and take quick action on expanding vaccine and mask mandates.
Hochul has already suggested as much, saying Thursday that she supports a mask requirement for schools and pledging to listen to experts on policy questions.
"People will soon learn that my style is to listen first, then take decisive action," Hochul said Thursday in an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.
Her remarks have so far been encouraging to health leaders and state and city legislators.
“The main difference here, unlike the last guy, is that Lt. Gov. Hochul is not a sociopath, and actually cares about governance,” said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat who represents a district in the Bronx and is the head of the state Senate’s health committee. “I'm gonna take her at her word that she will take the time to listen to public health experts and make decisions based on that.”
Hochul has worked in recent days to distance herself from Cuomo’s administration. In her first remarks as the incoming governor Wednesday, she promised “turnover” in administration staff, suggesting a changeover of some key pandemic response aides.
“No one who was named as doing anything unethical in the report will remain in my administration,” Hochul said, referring to the report on sexual assault and harassment allegations against Cuomo released by the state attorney general’s office last week.
Larry Schwartz, a top Cuomo aide who acted as the state’s “vaccine czar,” was mentioned in the report, though he left the position in the spring. The report stated that in calls with Schwartz earlier this year at least one county executive “understood the call to contain an implicit threat linking access to vaccines for County Executive #1’s county” with the executive’s position on whether Cuomo should resign over allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
The state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, is not in the attorney general’s report. Zucker has defended the Cuomo administration’s policies on nursing homes during the pandemic, telling state legislators in February that a March 2020 directive from his office ordering nursing homes to readmit patients from hospitals who were sick with COVID-19 did not drive spread of the virus in the facilities.
The state health department did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment. Hochul’s transition team did not respond to an emailed list of questions.
On Wednesday, Hochul suggested that her administration would provide more information about nursing home deaths in the state, in response to a question about the issue.
"My administration will be fully transparent when I'm governor," she said.
Who Hochul picks to advise her and lead on COVID-19 policies is only the tip of the iceberg, health experts say. They would like to see Hochul change the relationship between the executive chamber and the government’s public health professionals.
Cuomo used broad emergency powers granted by the state legislature — which stripped him of those powers in the spring — to impose pandemic mandates and restrictions. Those rules did not always come out of recommendations from top government public health experts, and the state health department saw a mass exodus of top officials over frustration with Cuomo.
“Cuomo's approach really alienated and marginalized the public health community,” said Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at CUNY. “The new governor would do well to rebuild those bridges.”
New York City leaders are hoping for a better working relationship on COVID-19 as well. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has long faced antagonism from Cuomo, said at a Thursday news conference that he is looking forward to working with Hochul.
“All our dealings have been pleasant, and I expect it to be a positive approach,” he said.
City Councilman Mark Levine, who said he has a friendly relationship with Hochul from her many visits to the Upper West Side, said he expects Hochul to be “responsive to the grassroots.”
“We just need partnership from the state, which through the pandemic really treated the New York City health department at best with benign neglect, and often with harmful interference,” said Levine, who chairs the council's health committee.
The key immediate decisions facing Hochul are how quickly to expand vaccine and masking requirements, according to Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the former health commissioner of New York City.
Besides a statewide mask mandate for schools, Barbot said, Hochul should reimpose mask requirements in areas with elevated spread of the virus and “mandate vaccinations for healthcare workers, teachers and other first responders.” In July, Cuomo said that state workers would be required by Labor Day to undergo weekly coronavirus testing or be vaccinated.
Hochul is, however, untested as an executive, Nash said, and her lack of any role in crafting COVID-19 policies has left the public health community unclear about how she might proceed at yet another crucial juncture in the pandemic. Her success will depend on who she picks for her pandemic team, he said.
Levine said he is expecting something of a reset in how the state pushes back on the coronavirus and in other matters.
“I think Gov. Cuomo is an extreme case of someone whose ego and personal rivalries influenced policy making,” he said. “I’ve never seen that in Lt. Gov. Hochul.”