September 17, 2021
Brian Lehrer: It's the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Good morning, again, everyone. And if Mayor Bill de Blasio thought that his last four months in office might offer a comfortable enough glide path to saying goodbye to City Hall, well, no, things are intense as ever right now with what many people are calling a true humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island, city workers taking him to court over vaccine privileges and protesting back to the office requirements, school reopenings in the complicated face of the Delta COVID variant and more. So, with that as prelude it's time now for our Friday Ask the Mayor call in, my questions and yours for Mayor Bill de Blasio 6-4-6-4-3-5-7-2-8-0, or tweet your question using the hashtag, #AskTheMayor, #AskTheMayor. Good morning, Mr. Mayor, welcome back to WNYC.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Well, good morning, Brian, and despite your cheery opening, and that we have real problems and real challenges, but I also want to really – I want to break some news with you right now, and I want to put it in the context of what you just said about schools as well. Yeah, we have a huge challenge bringing the nation's largest school system online after a year-and-a-half, but it's happened. It has happened this week really with extraordinary success thanks to all the folks who work in our schools, but here's the breaking news, as of today, we have now passed a major, major milestone, adults in New York City. Now we have passed the 80 percent level, this is a level that a lot of folks in the medical community say is crucial. 80 percent of all adults in New York City have now received at least one dose of the vaccine. This is a big deal and I hope New Yorkers appreciate that this is because New Yorkers came forward because we mounted the biggest vaccination effort in the city's history. Everything else that we have to deal with, all the challenges you mentioned, are COVID based in many ways. This is how we end the COVID era. So over 80 percent as of today in New York City.
Lehrer: Absolutely good news to be able to state that number. I guess the epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists debate what herd immunity actually is, which would mean the virus would actually more or less disappear from the community, from the city in this case, and unfortunately those estimates seem to keep going up and up and up, and now I think they say it's over 90 percent.
Mayor: Look, I think you're right to say that's an ongoing debate because COVID is still very, very new. We have to always keep in mind that think about vaccination as the most powerful way to inhibit COVID, obviously exposure also has an impact in terms of COVID’s ability to spread to new people. But overall, what we're seeing here is, the reason for now a month and more the COVID numbers have plateaued or gone down, the reason the hospitalization rate in particular has gone down markedly is because of a massive level of vaccination. And I think what's important to recognize is there's a surge happening right now. The mandates whether it's indoor dining and entertainment, fitness, or whether it's for public employees are causing a lot more people to get vaccinated. Clearly the incentives have had an impact. So, we expect a lot more vaccinations in the coming next few weeks, particularly among younger people. Also, really important to note on that age range, 12 to 17, we're almost up to 70 percent now, and that has happened in really, really fast time because that's the most recent group that's been allowed to be vaccinated, and further we expect the five to 11-year-olds to be ready to be vaccinated as early as November. So, big challenges, but I think it's important for New Yorkers to recognize we could literally end the COVID era and make COVID in effect the equivalent of what we deal with each year with the flu. We could do that as early as next year if we continue this success with vaccination.
Lehrer: And there are also differences by neighborhood, which is probably worth mentioning uptown –
Mayor: Although it's changing – changing rapidly –I'm sorry, one quick interruption you will want to hear –
Lehrer: Go ahead, sorry. Go ahead.
Mayor: Right now, according to the Department of Health, the level of vaccination among Latino New Yorkers has surpassed the level of vaccination among Caucasian New Yorkers –
Lehrer: I saw that, it’s good news.
Mayor: That is a huge turnaround and really good news. We have more to do in the African American community for sure, but we also know these mandates are reaching a lot of African American New Yorkers, many of whom are in public service or work in the sectors where the mandates are in place, and we see people coming in, in much higher numbers now. So, a lot to do, but if we succeed at ending the COVID era, then all the other challenges that you started with immediately get mitigated in a very big way.
Lehrer: Upper Manhattan ZIP codes, 10034, 10040, according to Patch today, still nearing four percent positivity rates despite them being heavily Latino and white neighborhoods and getting higher vaccination rates. So, work in progress, but absolutely hear you on the milestone at 80 percent and the milestone of Latino vaccination rates equally and surpassing white vaccination rates if that's a true stat. Here's how the New York Times article –
Mayor: It’s from Department of Health. I don't think people are questioning their stats.
Lehrer: Yes, no, no, I don't mean to question. Thank you. Here's how a New York Times article about Rikers started on Wednesday, and give me a minute on this, because I think a lot of people who don't have some of their own people in jail feel disconnected from the story and maybe don't pay so much attention, but it's intense. Time says New York City's notorious Rikers Island Jail Complex has long had a reputation for brutal conditions, but in recent months the situation has spun out of control. Ten people incarcerated at Rikers have died this year, at least five by suicide, the largest death toll at the jail in years. Gangs and other detainees are ushering other incarcerated people to and from their dorms, relatives of those in prison their fear for their loved ones lives later. The article quotes lawmakers who have visited Rikers recently calling it a humanitarian crisis. So, first question on this, do you agree it's a humanitarian crisis?
Mayor: I agree it's a profound problem, and it has to be addressed. And we have some breaking news on that too, which we've just heard. Now I've had a series of conversations with Governor Hochul and I want to thank her we're just getting the news that she is acting to help us get a number of people out of Rikers immediately. It looks like initially that could be several hundred people, which is tremendously helpful. We've got to reduce the population the right way so that we can address all of these issues. We have profound problems historically in Rikers, and the number one thing we have to do ultimately is get out of Rikers island, which we did with the City Council. We have passed all the laws to end the Rikers era once and for all and build a new community-based smaller, humane, modern jails. That is the most profound need. Rikers doesn't work, can't work, but right now the solution is reduce the population the right way, the safe way, and take a series of additional steps to get the personnel at Rikers back on the job. They need to be at their jobs, and we need to provide additional support and we can do it. We've announced a plan. We're getting a lot of support from the State of New York, which was the thing we were missing previously. This Governor has done a lot more to help us just in a matter of days than any help we got previously. This is going to make a huge difference in really profoundly improving the situation.
Lehrer: So, there's some decarceration going to take place, I guess, but you've talked here and elsewhere for years about how proud you are that the jail population has been going down on your watch. But recently, despite the risks of the pandemic in congregate care correctional facilities, and despite the current shortage of correction officers, it's been going back up, the population, is this your policy?
Mayor: No, this is too profound problems – that the population question is one thing, the officers the other. This is a very cynical situation. I know officers have very tough jobs. We're trying to find every way we can to support them, but when officers fake being sick and stay out inappropriately, when they're AWOL, they're hurting all their fellow officers, they are hurting everyone, and the union has not been a productive player. It's been quite counterproductive in all this. And so, we are now laying down very, very tough rules, making clear to anyone who is not truly sick, either has to report for work immediately, or they'll be suspended for 30 days. We've got to get the staffing back to create a better, safer environment. But to the population question, we had the population down to 3,800 last year, which was the lowest it's been maybe in the recorded history of Rikers. What happened then was there was a non-functioning criminal justice system. I've talked about this incessantly. There was no place for people to go. Folks were arrested for major, serious, violent crime, there was no place for them to go. And so – no trials, no resolution of cases, no plea bargains, no people being sent to the State who need to go there or being released if they were found innocent, the whole thing stopped, and this is why for now, well over a year, I've been appealing to the State to restart the whole criminal justice system, the court system fully, they have not done that. I've had very good conversations with the Governor on this point, too. This is something that fell on deaf ears with the previous governor. He did nothing to restart the court system on the level we need it. We've got to get everything moving again in which case we can reduce that population intensely. We can get this population down to one of the lowest it's ever been, again, in a matter of months, if we can just get the criminal justice system to work and what the Governor did today is profoundly helpful as a first step.
Lehrer: So, my understanding is that it may actually be up to you to release the 191 people held on technical parole violations that Hochul just enabled the release of. So, will the city actually release these people? Will they release – will you release them today? And how will you make sure of this?
Mayor: Anybody that does not pose an immediate threat, unless it's something like a technical parole violation mixed with other offenses, you know, violent or serious offenses. So, I want to be very, very clear. It's a major qualifier, and I'm - I want to be blunt about that. If it's a pure technical parole violation and someone does not pause – excuse me – cause a greater threat because of other violations, we intend to release them as quickly as possible, in some cases, we have to go back through a court process to do that, but everyone we can release, we intend to do in some cases immediately, in other cases it may take a matter of days. But our intention is anyone can be appropriately released, we want to release. And, you know, it's very important to note Brian, we did that last year in a very, very different circumstance, in a much more painful COVID circumstance, because it was the height of COVID. We released 1,600 people the right way, working with the State, working with DAs in courts. We're going to release hundreds and hundreds of people now in the right way, we've proven it. But I also want to emphasize, we reduced arrest for years and years – and have continued this policy – much many, many, many fewer arrests. It's 180,000 fewer arrests in 2019 than there were in the last year of Michael Bloomberg and we drove down crime in the same at the same time, pre-COVID. So, under this administration, we've reduced arrest, reduced to mass incarceration incessantly. COVID drove everything back up, we're going to now be able to drive it back down again with the help of the State.
Lehrer: And, you know, advocates say, despite the recent bail reform law, judges are requiring bail that lower-income defendants can't afford way too often right now for small things like for people on technical parole violations or, you know, a drug possession while on parole. Do you agree that that's happening? And can you do anything about that?
Mayor: I am not certain that's what I'm seeing. I have partial information. I don't want to pretend that I have the full picture of what every judge is doing. But, no, I think we've got multiple things happening at once here. We obviously had a profound problem with public safety last year and the beginning of this year, it is getting better. We see the shootings going down, murders going down, but there's still real issues. I think judges are responding to that within the law. I think that's a very different issue than something where we all agree, I mean, I shouldn't say all of us. I think the vast majority of New Yorkers agree that for minor offenses, people should never be held in because of inability to pay. That's the spirit of bail reform that I agree with fully, but I don't think it's as simple as the statement you made. I think there's more going on here.
Lehrer: And last thing on this, then we will go to the phones and the tweets, COVID itself, according to medical officials who testified at City Council on Wednesday, after going down to levels similar to, or less than the general population, is now exceeding it. Advocates say you could help ease the situation by offering more people work release using what's called your 6A powers, are you doing that or planning to do that?
Mayor: We're watching the situation very carefully. It's actually varied quite a bit in recent weeks. It is not – I've gotten the statistics regularly – it is not anywhere near what we saw previously, and the reduction of population is the best way to address this. So, we're not looking at 6A right now. We're looking at something that will achieve much, much more, which is these big movements we got here, hundreds and hundreds of times. We're also working with the State. There are people who were supposed to be sent to State prison long ago, and it didn't move quick enough, the State is helping us to expedite, that's another several hundred people. So, we're asking judges also to use supervised release more on the front end when they're sentencing - if it's a non-violent offense - to use supervisor release more to help reduce the population, and the court system alone. If the court system would only get up and going properly, which can be done, almost every other element of our society is at full strength, the very fact that they would calendar cases, and we've asked them to calendar immediately 500 court cases, that will almost instantaneously lead to pleas that could resolve people's cases, get a lot of people out or move people on. So, there's a bunch of pieces in the hundreds and hundreds of inmates in each one of these categories that will allow us to bring down the population. We believe we can get this population down very intensely by the end of the year if we get serious cooperation from the State and from the court system.
Lehrer: Ernesto in the Bronx, you're on WNYC with Mayor de Blasio. Hello, Ernesto.
Question: Good morning, good morning. Thanks for having me on the show. Mr. Mayor, [inaudible] to say that I'm an employee with the Administration for Children's Services, have been working over a decade, and I want to discuss your comments last week, that many city employees, including myself, found disrespectful regarding remote work and not being very stellar. We worked our tails off for the last 18 months. We continued to work at all times and we never stopped without a beat. And we want to say to you how hurt we are by your comments and how upset we are because remote work has been something that can work – the federal government has done it on that level. There are many studies that show that remote work can be done. Many city workers are pragmatic and knew that we were going to have to return to the office at one point. But the most pragmatic approach would have been a hybrid model to have staff. We can work in the office when we have to do those things and come out, because right now people were in the office having meetings on their computers. Right now, folks could be doing this from home. They can be working productively. We can be spending money in our communities because I know it's a big thing for spending money in our communities, jumpstart the economy, folks are already doing that already. We've been doing that for 18 months and this attitude, and this energy that’s coming off from you regarding remote work and working from home – we are a progressive city. We're the most progressive city in the nation and we're looking at our archaic ways of operating. Many private companies and many public companies, also, that work with the public have a hybrid model. And we're asking you to look over that decision, to please – because it's affecting many people had to take a short notice child care leave because of this thing, to look at this so that we can move forward as a city, we can support our services on a high level. I would also suggest that you follow a great organization called City Workers for NYC, City Workers for NYC, and hear the testimonials of staff across many agencies that you are a supervisor of.
Lehrer: And Ernesto, let me get you an answer from the Mayor. Mr. Mayor, you hear his plea.
Mayor: Yes, I do, Brian, and Ernesto, look, I tried, I thought, obviously I didn't succeed, and I want to correct it. If people heard this than I didn't speak clearly enough and that's on me. I believe I said last week, very clearly a lot of people have been doing very good work and hard work. That was never my question. My question is was it the best work that we could get done for this city in a moment of crisis? And my experience has been absolutely consistent. We have had much more ability to get things done with people in person. People like to talk about what's been found in the tech community or other places. Those are profit-making entities. We are a public service entity. My experience, uniformly, over a year and a half is that has been much harder for people to communicate, to come to decisions, to act effectively when they are remote. I think human beings actually are meant to have direct ability to communicate. So, I'm not belittling the hard work people have done. People have worked very, very hard and I've praised your agency and you and all other public employees repeatedly for the work that people have done last year and a half. But my responsibility is to the people and I know we will get better work done if people are together. I also know it's a way to ensure the vaccination is maximized. We have a new standard in place that, as of the 13th, vaccinate or test. The best way to make sure that it's done properly and accurately is for people to be back in person. I'm absolutely convinced this is the way to move forward. And we've done it at a time where in fact, we've been able to reduce the COVID dynamics in this city intensely, and you can see it in the Health Department reports every day through massive vaccination. So, I do believe this is the right time.
Lehrer: So, there are the two reasons: it's incentive for vaccination, but also you say as a blanket statement, it's better when people work together in person. I'm sure Ernesto and many others would say that's too much of a one-size-fits-all answer and different supervisors would know whether that really is necessary in their department or not.
Mayor: Well, I understand that point, but I'd say if we weren't in a crisis dynamic where the public needs us deeply – people are hurting in this city. I really respect our public employees. Although I hasten to add that 80 percent of them never had the luxury of working from home and have been at the frontline the whole way through, but I respect to all of our public employees and the contribution they make. But remember the people we're serving, the 8 million plus, that we're serving are going through hell. We're talking about communities that have lost people. We're talking about a lot of folks who still don't have a job and regular livelihood, a lot of health needs, I mean – food needs – we need the city government to function at peak performance in the middle of crisis. And I saw my own eyes repeatedly, the reality of remote – at times, it did inhibit communication, it inhibited efficiency, effectiveness, collaboration. I saw it constantly. And we certainly saw in a very different vein with remote learning, the vast difference between remote learning and in-person learning – it's night and day – for this moment in history, we need everyone back and working hard. It is a bigger discussion going forward, Brian, just to finish, a bigger discussion of whether to do a hybrid in different ways going forward. I think that's a great discussion for when we're out of the crisis, but for right now, this is the best way to move the city forward.
Lehrer: Question from or via Twitter from [inaudible] on Staten Island. “My child is in kindergarten and Staten Island and their teacher is not wearing their mask. We complained to the principal and assistant principal, but our child told us their teacher is still not masking. How can the city enforce masks mandates in schools?”
Mayor: That's – first of all, I'm very glad someone's telling us so we can fix the problem. We need that individual – if you could make sure, Brian, your team gives the information to our team at City Hall so we can track back who that teacher is. Look, if true, that's absolutely unacceptable and there would be serious consequences. We've had a mask mandate in school and in Summer Rising the whole way through. We've had veritably no incidents where either staff or kids didn't wear a mask. If a teacher is doing the wrong thing, there will be consequences for that teacher. But I want to see the proof of that before I assume.
Lehrer: All right, and that came from Twitter. But we can DM that person and see if they were –
Mayor: Anyone who – yes, please. If anyone has that, give it to WNYC, who'll get it to us. We need to know things like that.
Lehrer: And let's talk about COVID in the first week of school. I'm looking at – I mean, that was also about COVID in the first week of school – but another aspect. I'm looking at Department of Education data as aggregated on Gothamist. Am I seeing this right? 109 classroom closures this week?
Mayor: I’ve got a card in front of me, and everything was done on different days, so it depends on what you’re looking at. What I can say overall is that we’ve seen very few, thank God. Remember we have 65,000 spaces that we’re using as classrooms right now. 48,000 are what we normally do. But we’re using a lot of other spaces for classrooms to spread people out. And what we’re seeing is a couple hundred closures, as you said, and remember some are full closures, meaning the whole class, and some are partial. Because now, anyone who is vaccinated, child or adult, unless they are symptomatic, they stay in school. So, this is the very beginning, but what I think the Chancellor feels, I know I feel, the Health Commissioner feels that this is, thank God, relatively few against the comparison of 65,000 classrooms. And we're seeing low positivity in the testing we're doing so far. It's a strong start.
Lehrer: The closure policy in elementary school, if I have it right, includes a 10-day quarantine and classroom closure after one positive case in the class. And I want to play you a clip of a recent guest, maybe you know of him, who is proposing a way to avoid keeping so many kids home. It's Harvard Public Health professor, Michael Mina, a proponent of using at-home rapid tests to help kids who are not sick and not contagious get back to school faster than 10 days. Here's a 45 second clip of Dr. Mina explaining his proposal on the shelf.
Dr. Michael Mina: Instead of quarantining a child or a whole classroom of children because somebody else turns up positive in the class, we can do what I call “test to stay.” And that's instead of having everyone quarantine, you just have them use a simple rapid test at home before school. And you do that each day that they would otherwise be quarantining. So, you say you've been exposed, potentially. We don't know if you're infected. So, on Monday, use a rapid test in the morning. And if negative go to school. Tuesday, use a rapid test in the morning – you do that for the week. And most people don't actually turn positive who ended up being quarantined. So, this is a critical tool that we haven't really utilized very well at all in this pandemic.
Lehrer: Dr. Michael Mina from Harvard here a couple of weeks ago, has Dr. Mina or anyone been in touch with you about that system or have you considered it?
Mayor: I haven't talked to Dr. Mina, although our team, including Dr. Chokshi, Dr. Katz, Dr. Varma are talking to leading national experts constantly, but that's a really interesting idea. And one, I'm going to – in fact, we're having a meeting today to assess these issues, and I'm going to put that on the table today. So, your timing's impeccable, Brian. I think there's a lot to be said for that.
Look, our goal is to minimize disruption and you know, what we've seen to begin with is promising – and we saw it in Summer Rising. We had one school closure, all of Summer Rising. And again, the Delta variant is beginning to be pushed back. We know this is a massive school system, so there'll be times when we deal with challenges, but anything that makes it simpler and reduces the number of closures in healthy manner, I want to hear about. So, this is a very interesting idea.
Lehrer: Diana in the Bronx you're on WNYC with the Mayor. Diana? There you are. Hi.
Question: Hi, I'm here. So, thank you so much for taking my call and hello to the Mayor. I'm calling because we bought this house and my husband and I, this is our first home we bought, and we came back to the neighborhood. We live in the Bronx, and we came back to the neighborhood and across the street from our house is an early learning childhood daycare, and then there's a church. And when I tell you that it's posted in big letters, 25, speed is 25 – these people are going 40, 50. We just had two accidents last weekend. And I was listening to WNYC and they were saying the City is proposing to bring down that number to 20. I don't think that's going to stop these people. What we need to do is put more speed bumps. I've asked the DOT. I sent them letters, I sent – I CC’d everyone. And no one has gotten back to me. With a school and a church right next to each other, some of the parents, when they come out of their cars, they're there, you know, there's no stop sign. So, they'll have to just figure out when to run across before a speeding car comes down the street. So, I'm asking you, if you can please put in a good word for our block here on Schieffelin Avenue to please have a speed bump and a stop sign.
Mayor: Diana, I appreciate this very much because when I started out in public life in the city, this is one of the issues that I saw at the grassroots in my own neighborhood. And I had to fight to get speed bumps in my neighborhood. I had to fight to get a stoplight at the top of my block. The Department of Transportation literally said that haven't been enough accidents to necessitate a speed light. And it was very dangerous. We kept warning them. And then there was another accident we appealed again, and they said, okay, now there's been enough accidents. That was years ago. That was 20 years ago, but it was bluntly disgusting to me. And what I've instructed the Department of Transportation ever since is to, in a Vision Zero mentality, lean into speed bumps, stop signs, all the things that slow down traffic and protect kids, seniors, everyone.
So, what I'm going to do is two things: please give your information to WNYC, I want the DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman to speak to you directly about what we can do, whether it's speed bumps, stop signs, any combination for your block. It really depends on how each block is configured, but whatever we can put in, I'm certain there's something we can do, and we can do it quickly. And then second, I want the precinct commander to talk to you about dealing with the speeding, because if there's a consistent, speeding problem, that means we've got to get some enforcement out there to inhibit it. So, please give your information and we'll have people follow up with you today.
Lehrer: Diana, we'll take that if you want to give it we're just about out of time. And we have Ken Burns standing by with his new Muhammad Ali documentary, and Mohammed Ali's daughter Rashida Ali will be with Ken Burns. So, last question for today, Mr. Mayor. City Council is holding a hearing on Monday on legislation that would extend voting rights to legal, permanent residents – that is tax paying green card holders, not yet citizens, who would now get a say in local elections and therefore how their local tax dollars are spent, the supporters emphasize. It would only apply to city elections. As you know, the bill has majority support in the council. Will you sign that bill when it presumably passes?
Mayor: You know, Brian, there's two problems. Even though I understand very much the underlying impulse and, you know, we've done everything that we could possibly get our hands on to help immigrant New Yorkers, including undocumented folks, but one – I don't believe it is legal, our Law Department is very clear on this – it's legal for this to be decided the city level. I really believe this has to be decided that state level, according to state law. And two, I think there's a real set of mixed feelings it generates in me about what's the right way to approach this issue, at the same time, as we're encouraging so many people to go through the full citizenship process in which is what we really need to achieve more and more. And I think we will be able to do that much better with the Biden administration, obviously. So, I have mixed feelings, but I think the most important point is we don't believe it is legally something we can do at the local level.
Lehrer: Thanks, as always, Mr. Mayor. Congratulations to you and really everybody in New York City, or at least 80 percent of the people in New York City, on the 80 percent at least one-shot vaccination rate that you announced at the beginning of the segment. Talk to you next week.
Mayor: Thank you, Brian. Take care.