‘Follow the numbers,’ Gov. Andrew Cuomo likes to say, as if the numbers made a run for it and we all gave chase.

‘Follow the numbers!’ as if data can also make decisions.

Follow the numbers. But what numbers? On October 6, during one of his regular scraps with Mayor Bill de Blasio in which the mayor wanted to implement shutdowns by zip codes and the governor wanted to use a color-coding system, Cuomo made the following remark about why he was shutting down schools in areas with elevated COVID positive test rates: ‘The schools are important because you will very often see the schools be a place of transmission.’

Gov. Cuomo never lacks for confidence so this comment was uttered with his usual certainty. You will very often see schools be a place of transmission. Of course, by that point it was abundantly clear that you would not very often see schools be a place of transmission. In fact, as we watched schools open all across the world, we saw that schools were very rarely the place of transmission. Where were the numbers we were following?

On November 30, Gov. Cuomo said it was ‘astonishing’ how low the COVID positive rates were in schools. Anyone paying attention to the, ahem, numbers, was not astonished. That he was astonished was astonishing.During a press conference on November 25, when asked why he had closed gyms and restaurants in ‘orange zones’ despite evidence that there have been zero cases linked to any of those businesses, Cuomo huffily said ‘Yeah, well every expert says the same thing, every state, Democratic states, Republican states, most states, big states. Democratic experts, Republican experts…the highest rates of spread are restaurants, bars, gyms and home gathering.’

But just five days later, in the same November 30 press conference where he expressed astonishment at things we already know, Gov. Cuomo said ‘We’ve seen reduction in the spread from bars and restaurants. We’ve seen a reduction in level of spread from personal services, hair salons, etc. Gyms, we have seen somewhat of a reduced spread, not as dramatic as bars and restaurants and personal services.’Amazing. We reduced the spread in bars and restaurants, seemingly in just five days. Hooray! Then a mere week later, on December 7, Gov. Cuomo announced that New York City will, actually, despite what he just said, have to close indoor dining if hospitalization rates don’t stabilize. 

‘If after five days we haven’t seen a stabilization in a region’s hospital rate, we’re going to clamp down on indoor dining,’ intoned the governor. ‘Five days, if the hospitalization rate doesn’t stabilize in New York City, we’re going to close indoor dining.’

Why indoor dining? There was no reason. And why New York City? Surely we’re following the numbers! But, no, surprise, it turns out we’re not. New York City is actually the second lowest of all New York’s regions in hospitalization rates according to Cuomo’s own NY Forward website. Of the 10 regions on the list, New York is number 9, bested only by an area called ‘Northern Country’ a low density, low population, area which hugs Canada.

And gyms, which were just not reducing as dramatically as restaurants a week ago were suddenly fine again. ‘Gyms and salons on the numbers, we have so many protocols on the gyms and salons, they’re not major spreaders on the numbers,’ Cuomo said on December 7. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the already closed gyms and salons in ‘orange’ zones because if you’re not following the numbers, at least follow the colors.