July 16, 2021
Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Time now for our weekly Ask The Mayor segment, my questions and yours for Mayor Bill de Blasio at 6-4-6-4-3-5-7-2-8-0, 6-4-6-4-3-5-7-2-8-0. Or tweet your question, just use the hashtag #AskTheMayor so we'll be sure to see it go by. And good morning, Mr. Mayor. Welcome back to WNYC.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning, Brian. How are you doing today?
Lehrer: I'm doing well, thank you. And as Michael was just reporting on the news, the Delta variant is now the dominant variant in New York City. More than two thirds of new cases, we just crossed that threshold. New cases per day, citywide have doubled in the last month from around 200 to 400. Positivity rate doubled from 0.6 to 1.3 percent. And in hotspots, as you know, like one of the Harlem ZIP codes, I read it's over four percent. Staten Island is another hotspot. Six New York Yankees, at least three vaccinated, tested positive yesterday. You know about that game postponement from last night. The good news is that for the moment an increase in hospitalizations and deaths have not followed, but they usually lag behind new cases. Here's my question – in Los Angeles, they just restored the indoor mask requirement, which they had lifted and this for everyone, including vaccinated people now. Any plans to do the same here?
Mayor: No, not at this point. Everything you laid out, Brian was helpful and accurate, but I want to make very clear, you came to that point about hospitalizations and most importantly deaths. Look, hospitalization is the indicator that tells us if folks are having serious experiences, negative experiences with COVID, like serious, serious symptoms, lasting impacts, obviously the danger of someone might pass away. Our health care team, which has really done extraordinary work through this crisis, they're watching this information constantly. And even though you're right, that hospitalizations typically lag by a few weeks, we're seeing something different here. We're not seeing any real movement in the hospitalizations and that's really important. 0.31 hospitalizations per 100,000 people is a very low rate. And it's stayed low in recent weeks. Now, we're going to watch, if something starts to change, it will manifest itself. If that does happen and manifests itself over weeks and we make adjustments. But that's not what we're seeing. And the reason is simple, vaccination. We're now at almost 9.7 million vaccination doses given. And this is what makes it different. The scenario you laid out and again, I credit your facts, but I want to say if you had laid out that scenario a year ago, I think you would have been inevitably right of where it was leading. The difference now is the high level of vaccination in the city. And the fact that we're adding to it every day. Yesterday, alone, about 20,000 more vaccinations. It keeps growing. And I think we're going to see more and more people willing and coming forward as the Delta variant creates this challenge. I also think you're going to see more and more parents getting their kids vaccinated, particularly in the lead up to school. So, this is the difference now, and we do not have a plan to change course at this point. But we're going to watch the data constantly to see if any adjustments are needed.
Lehrer: The well-known epidemiologist, Denis Nash from the CUNY School of Public Health was quoted in the Times yesterday saying it would have been prudent for our elected officials to have specified in advance, if, when, and under what circumstances they would walk back certain components of opening up, that's a quote. Do you have any thresholds or are developing anything like that as a matter of Delta variant preparedness for in the event?
Mayor: It's a fair question to say, is that productive or not productive? I'm not convinced it’s productive, first of all. Right now, we see people overwhelmingly, having done the right thing. The fact that so many people have gotten vaccinated and that in the places where we need to have precautions taken, where we still want masks worn like hospitals or schools, for example, we're seeing that. That's what is giving our health care leadership – our health care leadership is really rigorous on this stuff. If they thought there was something that needed to be addressed urgently, we'd be addressing it. But the fact is that people are doing what we've asked them to do. And we need to do it more and more deeply, unquestionably. So, I'm not sure projecting different scenarios is the healthy way to do things. I think what's working for us is to constantly report the facts as we're seeing them. And then if we see something that we need to change, we'll say it immediately. And we'll call people to arms as we've done many times. And I have no question that New Yorkers will respond to that.
Lehrer: Related question coming in from a listener on Twitter. Could you please ask the Mayor when he is planning on telling schools the guidelines for September? It's very difficult for us to plan without knowing the basics, including whether students will have to be three feet apart in the classroom and six feet apart when they eat? What can you tell that lesson and other parents?
Mayor: What I can tell them is first of all, we're going to follow whatever the CDC guidance is at that time. And I do think that guidance will continue to evolve. We've got some new guidance a couple of weeks ago. And I think it will continue to evolve as we get more information and particularly as we continue to build up vaccination. But what we've already said is this, every student is coming back to school. If we had to meet the three-foot measure we can do that. We will expect at this point that everyone will be wearing a mask. And then there's a variety of options for how to handle lunches, which we will determine as we get closer. So, I understand that people say, you know, we want to know more, but the bottom line is everyone's coming back to school. We saw in the last week of school, which was a couple of weeks ago, massive levels of testing and almost, literally almost no cases any longer in our New York City public schools.
Lehrer: And I remember when you announced that on this show, it was 0.3 percent positivity rate which is so close to zero. But now we do see in the summer school program a number of classes have been forced to go remote because of cases. So, is that a measure –
Mayor: No, a small number. It's a real issue. Again, Brian, every time you say, should we be concerned here? Should we be watching carefully? Absolutely. I'm not here to, in any way suggest that the Delta variant is something to take lightly. We need to watch it like a hawk. But no, we've got a handful of classrooms that had to quarantine compared to 200,000 kids who are in Summer Rising. So no, we're not seeing a difference. It's still a very, very rare thing in our public school settings. And we're two months away from the opening of school. So, we certainly have a lot of time to make adjustments. But I only am saying as a former public school parent myself, when folks say, Hey, we need to understand what it’s going to look like. I can tell you right now what it's going to look like. We're going to keep the cleaning protocols in place with a few adjustments because we obviously learned a lot more about COVID. All that work on ventilation, we'll keep that. The work that was done, which was amazing in terms of masks, we are going to keep that. And it worked, it worked when we didn't have anyone vaccinated. I mean, this is the amazing thing. When we had no one vaccinated we were able to keep the New York City public schools much safer than the surrounding city. We've now – we're getting close to 10 million vaccination doses. And that's going to keep growing all summer.
Lehrer: Another related question, I think. Taisha at a shelter on 52nd Street, you're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Taisha.
Question: Good morning to you both. I would like to ask the Mayor, he says that it would be better to women that are in these hotels to go back to the shelter because we are being better served. There are there women that are in the shelter system that already have vouchers, who already have looked at apartments, have signed leases that still have not moved out. With that being said, plus with the new strain of COVID, the homeless people are at best, you're most at risk. So, why send them back to conjugal shelters where they can spread it amongst themselves and then to the people?
Mayor: I appreciate the question, Taisha, honestly, it's a very, very important question. The bottom line is we are providing constant opportunities to get vaccinated in the shelters, in the hotels for free, obviously. Constantly saying to people here it is, let's do this now. And what our doctors have said, what Dr. Fauci has said, what the health care leadership in New York City has said is once people are vaccinated the risks are very, very low. And this is the answer whether you're in shelter or not in shelter, getting everyone vaccinated. The point you made about vouchers, really important. There are people on vouchers, we're going to work constantly to get them to permanent affordable housing. That happened for 160,000 people since this administration began. Were in shelter, we've been able to get them to permanent housing. And we're going to keep doing that constantly. But in the end, and every decision we have made is with our health care leadership and following CDC and State guidance. It's much better to get people to the shelters that are built to support them and provide services on that way to affordable housing then to keep people in hotels when the key issue is really getting everyone vaccinated and we're going to be doing that constantly in the shelters.
Lehrer: We talked last hour on the show – and Taisha, thank you for your call – about the court ruling this week to delay transfer of homeless people with disabilities out of hotels and back to congregate shelters. But it's just a short-term delay as of now. Considering the Delta variant, how can you put anyone back in shared air congregate shelters right now?
Mayor: Exactly what I just said. And the court ruled that it was appropriate, especially given that everything we're doing is based on the decisions of our health care leadership. And again, CDC guidance, State guidance, it's appropriate for folks to go back to shelter. All across the city, people are going back to their normal lives, with a crucial factor, getting vaccinated. This is the thing that works. The reason that Delta variant is having the strength it is having, particularly in some parts of the country, is among unvaccinated people. Our health care leaders, Dr. Katz, Dr. Chokshi, Dr. Varma, they've talked about this literally hundreds of times in our press conferences. If you are vaccinated, you're in a very, very strong position. The problem we're having right now is among unvaccinated people. The thing we have to do is constantly make vaccination available and find any way possible to break through to people. And that's this focus on working with grassroots organizations, working with houses of worship, literally rewarding community organizations directly for every single person they bring in to get vaccinated. We're offering right now, Brian, any New Yorker who wants vaccination in their own home, we will come to them for free, give them vaccination. So, this is about showing people constantly that vaccination works and it's available. And that's ultimately how we make every piece of the equation safe.
Lehrer: Our guests from Coalition For The Homeless last hour were mentioning that people experiencing homelessness in New York City are a relatively high unvaccinated population. Does that change your thinking at all about congregate shelters in the face of Delta?
Mayor: People have to make the choice to get vaccinated. God forbid, anyone ends up in a shelter, I always say there before the grace of God go any of us. I've talked to so many homeless folks, who their life was going along, you know, relatively normally, and then one paycheck away from losing their apartment and they end up in a shelter. I feel for anyone who is homeless. But I also know that homeless people should be treated with respect and they are smart discerning people like everyone else. And if you say to the folks in the shelter, Hey, you need to get vaccinated to protect yourself and protect all of us. I believe a lot of people can hear that. And we're making it available constantly. But we're also for folks who have you know, fallen upon hard times, we're giving them everything they need, shelter, food support, and if they need health care, help them to get permanent affordable housing. And this is a compassionate city. We do all that. We do it for free. We don't ask a question about that. But if we say to people, but you do need to get vaccinated, that's fair.
Lehrer: I think we have one more follow-up question on this thread that's come in. Olivia in Manhattan you're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Olivia.
Question: Hi. Thanks Brian. Hi, Mr. Mayor. I'm an Upper West Side resident. I'm also a former resident of permanent supportive housing. So, I have seen both how effective permanent supportive housing can be for formerly homeless individuals getting back on their feet. And I've also witnessed some really shameless NIMBYism in my neighborhood over the past year against housing homeless residents in hotels. And so you just talked about how you wanted to make it easier for folks to get permanent affordable housing. You have an opportunity to do that right now with the passage of Intro 146 which the City Council just passed. This is legislation that would increase the amount of vouchers that are available to folks to go out and leave the shelters and get permanent housing. But you haven't implemented it. And apparently there's language in the bill that would allow you to do this right away, immediately, if you decide. And I'd like to ask you why you haven't moved on that?
Mayor: Olivia, thank you for the question. I want to make sure we're talking about the same thing. I think, and just help me make sure I'm right here. I think you're talking about the bill that changed the payment levels for vouchers? Is that right?
Question: Yes. It's called Intro 146. It was co-sponsored by Stephen Levin. And it would increase the amounts of vouchers for people who hold them right now, so that there would be more opportunities for them to use their vouchers. Because then people had held vouchers for over a year and they still can't find an apartment.
Mayor: No, it's a really good point. And so, I've said that that legislation makes sense. And particularly what makes sense, if we get the State to do the same thing. In the meantime, I'm very, very pleased with what happened in the Legislature. Because the Legislature did act on increasing the State levels too. We wanted to see parity between the City and State levels, because what we wanted was maximum available vouchers at the right level, not ending up making the State vouchers irrelevant and losing all that funding to help folks who are homeless. And in the end, a good thing happened. The City Council bill and the actions of the Legislature actually synergized. We are going to move forward with that aggressively. It is part of the solution. So no, this is a very good thing. It ended up being a good thing in Albany as well. And I think it's going to help.
Lehrer: Her specific question, and a number of people have tweeted this, so I guess there’s an organized push for this, is, officially it takes effect in December, but apparently you could implement it earlier and push up the value of those vouchers right away. And people are asking, why won't you do that? Or will you do that?
Mayor: Okay. I have not heard that there is a way to engineer it earlier, honestly, and I'm happy to look at that. I mean, obviously, what I cared about was making sure we increase the voucher level in a way that would really help people, again, not end up losing a lot of State funding we were depending on to help people. We've ended up with a good balance between City and State. This is a good news story. In terms of whether it can be moved more quickly, I'll find out. It's a very fair question, and again, Brian, I really like when you or people calling in raise something that helps me go and see if there's something else we could do. So, if there's something we can do better here, I would love to, and I'll have an update for you for next week.
Lehrer: Jorge in Park Slope. You're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Jorge.
Question: Hey, Bill, hey, Brian, how's it going guys? Quick question, Bill –
Mayor: Hey, how are you doing?
Question: I'm doing pretty well. Thanks for asking. I have a two-part question. My first one is regarding just the garbage situation in the neighborhood. So, I live on Eighth Avenue, really close to Prospect Park, really close to the – in between the Third Street and the Ninth Street entrance, and I'm noticing now, because people are out and about with COVID, just a lot more trash being littered around in the street and on further reflection, I find myself as where are the trash receptacles, there isn't any garbage cans that people can use. So, what I'm finding more often is people are just throwing trash on the ground. I'll give you an example, the other day I went to go move my car, got a flat tire from, you know, a glass bottle. So, what can we do to help this? I mean, more people are going out, more people are going to parks, how are we going to manage some of the trash that's going to accumulate?
Lehrer: Right, Jorge, let me ask you one quick follow-up question. Are you saying there used to be more street corner trash cans in your neighborhood than there are today?
Question: There used to be more of my neighborhood, but particularly on Eighth Avenue, I don't recall there being much in the first place.
Lehrer: Thank you. Mr. Mayor?
Mayor: Yeah, it's an important point, Jorge. I thank you, and please give your information to WNYC and I'm going to have one of our top Sanitation officials call you and talk to you about it. The – Jorge, so look, I think the big, big, important point you need to hear first is during the worst moments of COVID, when we obviously were having a profound budget crisis on top of everything else, we did pull back some Sanitation services. It was a very tough, tough decision. It's not something I wanted to do, but we felt we had to. We've now restored all of that in this new budget. A lot of it was restored even ahead of this budget, but the budget we did last month has restored all the Sanitation services to where they were pre-COVID. So, that includes a lot of the litter basket collection. Now this topic of where there should be litter baskets is actually like a really big deal, and it's kind of an imperfect topic because – all my years working on this, there's sort of no perfect answer. If you put up litter baskets more and more and more and more, it can be very helpful on one level, unfortunately, some people turn that into a reason to put their own residential garbage in those litter baskets, and it creates its own new problems. There are some places that make a lot of sense because they're well trafficked. There are other places that make less sense. I think a lot of New Yorkers would like to see a lot more litter baskets, but with that comes, of course, it really costs a lot to make sure they’re picked up right away, so we have to be smart about where we do it.
So, this is sort of a never-ending effort to figure out the right reality. What I want us to do is figure out with you, are there particular locations that really are needy, that need to be reassessed where there maybe should be litter baskets, but that have to be on a route where a bunch of baskets are being picked up. So, let's see if we can figure that out with you. I agree with you, more and more people are going out, that’s great. More and more people are using the park, that's great, but we need the cleanup efforts to go with it. One last point, our City Cleanup Corps, and this is something we borrowed directly from Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a Civilian Conservation Corps. We’re hiring 10,000 New Yorkers for this year to do neighborhood cleanup efforts, including pick up litter and cleaning off graffiti. The City Cleanup Corps is going to make a big difference. So, it’s another thing we can do is apply it in areas wherever there's need. So, when you talk to the Sanitation Department, tell them about the places you're seeing as a problem, and we can also get the Cleanup Corps to address that.
Lehrer: Alright, Jorge, hang on, we will take your contact info off the air. Question about traffic and about the MTA. The recent survey that came out that found New York has now become the city with the worst traffic in the United States and the former of Traffic Commissioner, Sam Schwartz, AKA Gridlock Sam, in the Daily News was here yesterday, and I want to play a scenario that he laid out, which ends with a policy recommendation. Listen.
Sam Schwartz: 75 percent of the people returned to the Central Business District, Manhattan, south of 60th Street, but 20 percent who are transit riders switched to cars. There's going to be a 30 percent jump in the number of cars coming into Manhattan, which translates into 200,000 more cars trying to come into Manhattan. There won't be enough parking for them, but – the people who have said Carmageddon is coming and it’s quite possible that it's on our way. We need to head it off right now, and we have to head it off with a number of strategies, and we may have to go back to something that we did during the 1980 transit strike, after 9/11, after Superstorm Sandy, and that's occupancy restrictions for part of the day.
Lehrer: So, what do you think about that policy recommendation at the end of that by Sam Schwartz, occupancy restrictions, I guess that means mostly no single-person cars for part of the day as we transition back to normal MTA use?
Mayor: Look, I'm listening carefully because Sam's a really smart guy and really experienced in this area. I would say my first response is, I don't believe that's what's going to happen, meaning his whole scenario. I think what you're going to see is a few changes from what he laid out. One, we're still trying to figure out the impact of remote work on the whole equation. I think you will see a lot more people coming back in September, no question, but I think you're going to see folks come back, some cases five-days-a-week, but in other cases, four-days-a-week, three-days-a-week, that's going to change the overall total. You will see some other places, some other companies that, you know, have a substantial number of people working from home more of the time. I think that's going to change this equation. I also think if we continue to get people vaccinated, continue to beat back COVID – and today in New York City, that's exactly where we are, you know, very few hospitalizations, COVID thoroughly under control – if we continue that progress, I think more and more people go to mass transit. Because – for a thousand reasons, it's faster, it's cheaper, you name it. Now to get it right, I would say, instead of Sam's suggestion, the first thing I'd say is let's get congestion pricing done.
Right now, it's staring us in the face. The MTA is not acting. The State is not acting. They should be acting. We had, yesterday, a variety of leading advocates on transportation and leading environmental advocates join with me in saying, move congestion pricing now. That literally to do it, there's like a really simple step, Brian, the Traffic Mobility Review Board, doesn't sound like a particularly sexy title, but this entity needs to be called into action to make the decision so congestion pricing could be up and running. If these decisions are made, we can have congestion pricing next year in New York City. And that would provide a huge amount of money to make the MTA better, would also discourage cars from coming in that don't need to come in. So, I think this is where we have an immediate, it is signed, sealed, delivered, waiting to go, but the State is not acting, and the MTA is not acting. This is how we make the change.
To Sam's point. We – I don't see the scenario he's laying out. If that was to come to pass, we would look at a variety of options. And I certainly want to hear what Sam had to say, but I think there's another scenario that's less dire than that. And particularly we address the issue well, if we put congestion pricing in place urgently. And I would urge all your listeners, push your elected officials to move congestion pricing forward.
Lehrer: And you're talking about the MTA and pushing them forward at the State level. But Sam Schwartz said yesterday as well that you were presented with a blueprint for a traffic master plan some time ago and that you ignored it. So, what happened to that? And are you for that plan today?
Mayor: That's a different variation on the theme. If I'm remembering correctly, the plan that Sam put forward a few years ago, which I thought had real solid elements to it, was ultimately subsumed into the congestion pricing plan, meaning not his specific suggestions, but the decision to go ahead with congestion pricing, which I strongly advocated for, actually worked with the Governor on, got that Legislature involved. We had to make a lot of smart decisions to get them on board, but we got there. Now this Traffic Mobility Review Board is the entity that actually works out the details, including looking at some of the points that Sam originally raised in his plan. But the point I'm raising is, Sam's great, but for his ideas or anyone else's ideas to happen, this Traffic Mobility Review Board has to meet. And the MTA is not even calling the meeting. There has to be pressure on the State, pressure on the MTA to get this going. Sam's ideas and everyone else's ideas could then be considered in the final design of congestion pricing.
Lehrer: James in Kingsbridge in the Bronx. You're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, James.
Question: Hi, good morning. How are you?
Mayor: Good, James. How are you doing?
Question: Good. I'm calling because there's been a lot of turmoil in my community about building transitional housing and there's a character, the head of the land use committee in my community board, Community Board 11, Charles Moerdler, who’s been blocking the building transitional housing in my community going as far as threatening lawsuits against a developer, Mr. Stagg, who develops transitional housing. And I just wonder why someone like him keeps getting appointed to a community board. He's been there for 40 years, the head of the land use committee for 40 years. And in addition, he was appointed to the MTA board. This is someone who doesn't care about poor people, people in homelessness, and it's just protecting his piece of the pie up in Riverdale. I just don't know why someone like that is allowed to continue supposedly being a public servant.
Mayor: Thank you for raising this, James. Look first of all, we need transitional housing. This is something I've fought for and I respect community boards and their service, but in the end, they do not get to make the final decision. And I said, again, real respect and we should always listen to their thoughts and their ideas, but in the end, the city needs transitional housing for people in need. We'll fight for it. And we've made it happen. Even with lawsuits we've made it happen. Community boards are named by borough presidents with advice from Council members. I think there's a lot of great people on committee boards, but I also think it's important to always give new people a chance to be on committee boards as well and keep bringing in new voices. But to me we've got to acknowledge that if we don't provide transitional housing for people in need, we are damning them to never be able to move forward with their lives. And that's just not fair. That's not the values of this city. So, I agree with you. We need transitional housing.
Lehrer: Can James follow up with your office on the particular situation in Kingsbridge?
Mayor: Of course. Absolutely. James, give your number, please to WNYC and I'll have one of my team call you. And, again, I don't have any reason to believe that the community board's concerns, even if they have valid points that they're going to be able to stop the creation of something that the City of New York believes in. Lawsuits sometimes slow us down, but we almost always win in the end, and create transitional housing that works for people and is responsive to community concerns. We've proven you can do both.
Lehrer: Last question for today, Mr. Mayor. And then we're out of time. Eric Adams is asking for an early transition process to begin, not a transfer of power, but meetings with your people and his, and Curtis Sliwa’s just in case, because of the urgency of the rise in gun violence and the ongoing pandemic making it, he says, a year that will take longer to get a new administration up and running at the level it needs to be by January 1st. Do you accept the premise? And do you have any such meetings scheduled at the agency level or anywhere else?
Mayor: Look, I'll start by saying really importantly, I think really highly of Eric Adams. And I'm very, very hopeful about what he's going to do as mayor. He and I've talked numerous times in the last few weeks. Look, we have to be respectful of the will of the public in the fact that until there is a final election in November the people have not spoken. That is recognized all over the country as a norm. A formal transition does not happen until there is a final election. We'll certainly be having conversations. There's lots that can be done to think and prepare in advance. We are not planning a formal process though, until the time of the general election.
Lehrer: Let's make a plan to talk soon about how you do a transition well, like what you learned from your own experience coming out of Bloomberg, eight years ago, as to what the incoming administration's needs are and how the outgoing can be most helpful. You can give a short answer to that now if you want, but we'll do it more in depth when we can set aside the time.
Mayor: Yeah, I learned a lot and I'd be happy to share some thoughts and I'll be sharing them with Eric Adams constantly. I think we have the opportunity here to have a very strong transition. I really do. He and I have known each other for decades. We – you know, there's a lot of things we've worked on together. We know how to communicate. It's bluntly, a very different reality than I had coming in after Bloomberg, as you might remember, Brian. So, it wasn't the best communication. So, I think this longer head start, because of the June primary, is only going to help. It's going to give a lot of time to think through some things and prepare some things, but there's still an election to be had. And so, I – what we'll do is we'll all be talking, we'll all be thinking. And then – and I'll be sharing with Eric Adams for sure the lessons I learned. I think the two months from the election until the inauguration is going to be absolutely sufficient to get done what he needs to get done so he can have a very strong administration.
Lehrer: Thanks, as always, Mr. Mayor. Talk to you next week.
Mayor: Thank you, Brian. Take care.