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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Appears on the Brian Lehrer Show

September 24, 2021

Brian Lehrer: It's the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Good morning, again, everyone. And now it's time for our Friday Ask the Mayor call-in, my questions and yours for Mayor Bill de Blasio at 646-435-7280 or tweet a question, and it will jump right out at us if you use the hashtag, #AsktheMayor, #AsktheMayor. Good morning, Mr. Mayor. Welcome back to WNYC. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning, Brian. And boy, do I have breaking news for you. It's five minutes ago. I think that's as breaking as it gets. As of now, as of this exact moment, New Yorkers in a number of different categories are eligible for the third booster shot, Pfizer only, for the COVID vaccine. This is for Pfizer only. For anyone who has had at least six months since their second shot. Here are the categories, it is really important for people to hear this – if you are 65 or older, if you're in a long-term care facility or nursing home, if you are between 18 and 64 years old with an underlying medical condition, or between 18 and 64 years old and you're a frontline worker or health care worker doing direct work with the public. In all those categories, people are now eligible, literally now. So, you can go online VAX4NYC – that's V-A-X, number four, N-Y-C – Either make an appointment right now for the coming days or you can get a list of all the City-run sites, and you can walk-in today to any City-run site if you're in those categories. And you – again, if it's been more than six months since your second shot, and you can get that Pfizer booster shot starting literally right now today. 

Lehrer: That is good news for many people. Now about those first shots, the vaccine mandate for teachers takes effect on Monday, as, of course, you know. And their union, the UFT, is warning of staffing shortages because of some meaningful number of teachers who won't comply. And I guess they'll be fired. Do you have an estimate and a plan for maybe thousands of substitute or replacement teachers beginning Monday? 

Mayor: I want to frame this real quick. This is something we worked on, obviously, for weeks and weeks. There's been plenty of time for teachers, staff to get vaccinated. In fact, what we see is people getting vaccinated at a very, very high level. There's all of today, there's all of tomorrow. There's all of Sunday, even into Monday to get vaccinated. So, one, the vast, vast majority of teachers and staff are making the decision to get vaccinated, be part of the solution, continue with their work. What we're seeing so far is a very small number of requests for medical or religious exemption. Only in the hundreds have been approved so far. And again, there's well over 100,000 teachers and staff, and we're going to work with anyone who needs to get vaccinated between now and the deadline. If they don't get vaccinated, they consciously make the choice not to get vaccinated, they will be suspended without pay, but there is a process. It's all been delineated by the arbitrator of how to address that. If someone wants to come back, there's a way to do that. If they don't, then there are consequences. But the fact is we've been planning all along. We have a lot of substitutes ready, but I think the big story here is going to be that the vast majority, overwhelming majority of teachers and staff are going to come in vaccinated to serve our kids next week. 

Lehrer: But if you have a 97 percent vaccination rate, you're still going to need thousands of replacement teachers. 

Mayor: And we have them. We've talked about this all since last year, we had an extraordinary recruitment effort for last year when we had – obviously last year we had about 25 percent of our teachers home on medical accommodation. We had to recruit a huge number of new teachers. We did that. They're overwhelmingly vaccinated themselves. They're available, they're ready. We have a number of people in the school system who obviously are certified teachers playing different roles right now, but who can go back into classrooms to help. I think the bottom line here is a lot's going to happen between now and Monday, but beyond that, we're ready even to the tune of, if we need thousands, we have thousands. 

Lehrer: “If we need thousands, we have thousands.” Now my colleagues in the WNYC and Gothamist newsroom have a story out today that details how one high school in Brooklyn dealt with a COVID-19 incident at a professional development meeting the week before school started this month. Apparently, some staff were unmasked at this event and one of them later tested positive. There were 59 close contacts identified, 21 staff members had to quarantine going into the first day of classes. Parents and teachers were notified about the case, but not about the scale of how many staff were affected. And what the teachers in public health experts, my colleagues talked with for that story, told them was that the incident really highlights how these gaps in the City's protocols can leave a lot of people in the dark about what's really happening at their schools. So, how would you comment on that? 

Mayor: Well, I don't want to see that and that wasn't our experience all of last year and all during summer with Summer Rising. Anytime – first of all, people, all our staff, all our teachers have to follow protocols. This is why we want a totally vaccinated system, first of all, for everyone’s safety. Second, when you're in a situation where you need to wear masks, you have to wear a mask. And that's been overwhelmingly the case. If there is a contact and it leads to a bigger situation in the school, that's what Test and Trace does, they analyze that, then, of course, have to immediately alert the school community. And that's what happened in the vast, vast majority of instances. If it doesn't happen in any case, we have to fix that, and it's not acceptable. I was a public school parent. Parents need to know, the whole school community needs to know immediately when something like that is confirmed. 

Lehrer: What the public health experts in that story said, is that parents and staff would be much more informed if the City posted the vaccination rates for each school and that you could do that without violating any employee confidentiality laws, if you aggregated it so that no single individual teacher or staff member was identifiable. Sound like a good idea to you? 

Mayor: Well, I'm confused by the question. I want to make sure I'm understanding it. I mean, as of – you know, Monday is the day where everything's going to be sorted out. As of Tuesday, the only adults who are going to be in a school building are people vaccinated. So, that's where I'm a little confused by your question. 

Lehrer: Right. And I see, I understand that maybe your answer does address that concern because the vaccination rates would automatically be a hundred percent. So, fair enough. 

Mayor: Right – 

Lehrer: All right. The crisis on Rikers Island. You gave me breaking news. I'm going to give you some breaking news. Let's see, I'm seeing from NY1, I imagine it's around generally, the federal monitor for Rikers Island is calling for outside security help for the troubled jails complex. It says a federal judge is holding an emergency hearing this morning. Are you aware of that? And what would your position on that request be? 

Mayor: Well, I think the way you phrased it is overly broad from what I've heard. And no disrespect. And what I've heard is the monitor has suggested bringing in a consultant. There is no outside security element that can come in appropriately. What we're doing is relieving some of the pressure on the Correction officers by taking some discrete functions off them, including outside like arraignment at courts, which will be handled in some cases more by NYPD or perimeter security. But the real issue is to get all the Correction officers where they're needed most in the facilities and end the absenteeism. We have taken on the union that, bluntly, was encouraging people not to work. They're now changing their tune because we brought a legal action against them. We are supporting the vast majority of officers who are doing the right thing with additional incentives and support. What we're seeing now is people are starting to come back to work in much higher numbers. We're also reducing the population immediately, working with the State. So, the federal monitor – we've been working with a monitor for years now and have found a lot of solutions that way, but I think what they're suggesting is a consultant coming in, not additional different types of officers. 

Lehrer: And more breaking news. Eric Adams was just asked about whether the Mayor should – you should visit Rikers, a little while ago this morning. And Eric Adams said you should do a walkthrough, and “he should walk through with his Chancellor to see what a failing education produces.” He said, “he should bring all of his top commissioners and deputy mayors to walk through and say, look what failed policies have produced in our cities.” That's a quote from Eric Adams a little while ago. And, of course, part of this is hooked to the fact that you've been repeatedly asked why you haven't visited Rikers yourself since 2017. So, what would you say to any of that? 

Mayor: Well, I'll go to Rikers Island. I've said this repeatedly. What I've spent a lot of time on all this the last week or two is fixing problems, one after another. There’s been an immense number of meetings and calls and work with the State to get these issues fixed. You know, I understand why people say go visit. I understand very powerfully what the problems are and I'm trying to fix them right now. And that is more important to me than anything. But next week I'll go visit. I think it's time because we've been able to address a number of issues. And I want to see if these solutions are working or whatever other things we have to do. To the bigger point Brian, on the one hand, I think what Eric Adams is saying is inherently true. That we have a whole long way to go to address why we see particularly young people end up in crime and violence and incarceration. I was at someplace this morning in Southeast Queens, is part of the solution. Amazing organization, 100 Suits, a community-based organization now doing Cure Violence and Crisis Management work to stop crime before it happens, stop violence before it happens, help young people on a positive path. I'm a believer in the community-based solutions to violence, not just policing, community-based solutions to violence. And we've been investing intensely in this. And I think this keys in on what Eric's saying. We're going to need a lot more of that to ultimately reduce our jail population much, much more. It starts with reducing arrests, which is what we've been doing now for years. And, but for COVID, we would have the lowest jail population in many, many decades right now. But I believe we can get at those root cause solutions. But right now, what we've got to do of course is create a more peaceful, safe environment at Rikers. And that means getting hundreds and hundreds of inmates out quickly, which we're doing with the State. And getting the officers back to work.

Lehrer: Before we go to calls, one more thing on this. An 11th and 12th person this year died at the jail since we last spoke last Friday, as of course, you know. The 11th was Isaabdul Karim, a 42-year-old man in a wheelchair who contracted COVID in the overcrowded conditions after being reincarcerated there only for the technical parole violations of missing meetings and smoking marijuana. The parole issue is on the State, but the overcrowding is on the City. Why wasn't that dealt with earlier when the Delta variant was spreading?

Mayor: My friend, that is a wildly inaccurate statement, I really respect you, but I've got to throw a real flag there. The overcrowding is on the City? That is a fundamental misunderstanding of what's going on. The overcrowding is because COVID led to an absolute disruption in the criminal justice system. I've been begging the State to get the courts up and running. We've got well over a thousand people awaiting trial over a year. We can't just release them. These are serious charges, including violent charges. They need to have a trial, but we have no trial system working. The court system is not working. So, you just can't put on the City, something that is not the City. We need to fix what we can fix. We need to get the officers there. We need to address a whole host of things there. But the reason we're making progress in large measure is finally, the State is starting to respond and I want to thank Governor Hochul for that. And we're getting action from the Legislature, the Less Is More law is what we needed all along. The technical parole violators should never have been in Rikers to begin with. That individual should never have been in Rikers. But finally, it took the Legislature to act and this Governor to sign this law to finally get us that relief. So, I really would beg of you, because I think not only are you a very good and smart and decent person, but your station thrives on trying to get people a bigger truth. Can we stop talking about everything as only actor as the City of New York, when in fact it's much more complex. And we would help the public to understand how these pieces fit together so we can solve them. The State needs to feel the pressure to get the courts up and running for the good of all.

Lehrer: But let me follow up on one aspect and you tell me if you think this is unfair or isn't really on the City. Because I understand that you recently took steps to reopen parts of the jail complex, to help ease the overcrowding and also put back into place new rules so that people wouldn't stay in the crowded intake area for so long. If that's the case, why couldn't that have done – been done earlier considering the COVID conditions? And maybe we see the result of that among all other things with the case of Mr. Karim?

Mayor: Very, very fair question. And I'll put it this way. We were trying to solve for the crisis of officers not showing up for work. And again, very sadly aided and abetted by a union, telling people not to work and then leaving their fellow officers in the lurch to do double and triple shifts, very cynical. We were trying to deal with that crisis. That crisis demanded having as concentrated a physical situation as possible. We're trying to get off Rikers. We've been closing buildings on Rikers. We've been reducing incarceration now for eight years. The goal was to have as little presence in Rikers as possible. Rikers is broken. It's not a place where people should be. So, we were working on the imperative reducing incarceration on Rikers. We were working on the imperative to have fewer physical spaces so you needed fewer officers to cover them. And COVID levels were very low. We saw the COVID levels go up a bit. They thank God are still, you know, they're still, when you compare to where we were in the past, the COVID levels on Rikers are something that we fundamentally believe we can turn around quickly. But we saw a new problem emerging. And the intake process was taking too long. So we said, okay, now we have to compensate the other way, open up these additional intake centers. What that has done is immediately reduced some of that crowding. thank God. And also the intake timelines are shooting downwards. We have to be under 24 hours. That's clear. We're getting now down to 16 hours, 10 hours in a lot of cases to get people through intake and reduce that crowding. So, it's a constant set of shifts and adjustments, according to what we're encountering. But I need to say the last part, which is unless we can get people out of jail the whole thing is a catch 22. The State is finally, and I give them credit, it’s finally taking out large numbers of folks who shouldn't be there to begin with. And we will move immediately, when we can get someone out for whatever reason, we want them out immediately. When we had that decision by the Governor the other day, we moved people out within 24 hours, out of Rikers all together. But until there's a court system, we can't move people awaiting trial. This is the conundrum. We've begged the court system to schedule 500 cases immediately. There's well over a thousand that have been waiting a year just for their trial. So, we've got to get this piece to give, or we just continue to have a circular reality.

Lehrer: Jan in Manhattan, who says her daughter is a teacher in Brooklyn. Jan, you are WNYC with the Mayor. Hello.

Question: Hello, Mr. Mayor. Yeah, you just said several times that there are plenty of people in the substitute teachers. I'm actually the substitute caller for my daughter who's teaching right now. I would like to say that there are just no teachers. She said they're already short-staffed in her school. She's a special ed teacher in Brooklyn. And so when, you know, someone calls in sick, they redistribute the kids rather than to have a substitute teacher come in. It happens all the time. And she hears about this similar situation in all the other schools around her.

Mayor: Well, Jan, I appreciate the question. Look, this is – I'm sure there's individual situations where something has to be done better. But then there are just pure facts from what we experienced last year. We went through a whole school year with 25 percent of the teachers at home. And we had to bring in thousands and thousands of new teachers and substitute teachers who had worked with us before, doing a lot more work with us. And it happened, it happened. Everyone saw it, it happened, you know, many, many thousands who are ready to go again. So, I'm sure we'll have to make adjustments along the way, but there's no lack of people who want to teach. And again, what we're seeing and I want to emphasize, you know, even when there's differences that we may have with the unions involved, every union has pushed hard for people to get vaccinated to their credit. And the vast, vast majority of teachers and staff have gotten vaccinated and a lot more are getting vaccinated right now. So yes, we'll have to use some substitutes. There's no question. But we don't lack for substitute teachers. And we'll make the adjustments. And if we have to bring even more, we'll get even more.

Lehrer: Also, on the vaccination requirement for teachers beginning Monday, a listener on Twitter asks, can you ask the Mayor what religious slash medical exemptions will mean? And will they be allowed to report to schools? And I think we, you know, people generally know some of the medical exemptions. What are the religious exemptions? Do you have specific religions that don't allow vaccinations?

Mayor: Yeah. The best example is Christian Scientists religion, which is, you know, has been known for decades and decades to oppose vaccination. Someone is proven to be a member of that religion, that's something that predates the pandemic, is not someone claiming something a new. You know, someone's a member of that religion, that's the kind of thing that would lead to a valid exemption. Now my understanding is there've been very few, if any cases, that have met the standard that the arbitrator set for the religious side. There have definitely been, as I said, hundreds on the medical exemption side. But only hundreds out of a staff and teaching core of well over a hundred thousand. So, if someone does -- this all came out of the arbitration decision during the arbitration process with the union. If someone meets the religious or medical standard, they continue to work, but not in a school setting because the school settings have to be 100 percent all vaccinated adults. But what we're seeing so far is it's quite a small number of people in the scheme of things. And quite a few, quite a small number of applicants. I think that's really important, Brian. Everyone projects in advance, everyone worries. I don't blame – and the media puts out all sorts of scenarios. Here we are. It's Friday, you know, the mandate takes effect next week. We've had relatively few applications even, for medical or religious exemptions.

Lehrer: Caroline, in the Bronx. You are on WNYC with the Mayor. Hi, Caroline. Do we have Caroline? Oh, I know, because I have to click her on the air first.

Question: Hello, can you hear me?

Mayor: That’s you, Brian.

Lehrer: Yeah, that one's on me, everybody. Caroline you're on WNYC. We have you now.

Question: Thank you so much for taking my call. I'm the single mother of a four-year-old who's supposed to enter kindergarten next year. I believe he would have benefited from accelerated education. He can already read and write words. And I'm quite concerned that we don't know what is supposed to replace the accelerated program. I was under the impression that the details of Enrichment For All would be coming out this month. Our school district, our zoned school has about 35 percent of the students passing the State tests. And I'm honestly thinking about leaving the city if there's not something that's going to keep my kid engaged and off Ritalin.

Mayor: Well, I appreciate the question. And this again, I was a public school parent with kids who, you know, really learn really well. And I wanted to make sure just like you, Caroline, they had opportunity. And the new approach – this is Brian, under the category historically called Gifted and Talented for better or worse. But really I think accelerated learning is a great phrase and a better phrase in many ways. We've got thousands, even tens of thousands of kids at each grade level who in the early years, who can learn at least in one subject, in an accelerated fashion. It is September. It's still September. By the end of September, we're announcing a plan, but it's going to be a very different approach. Because Gifted and Talented as it was structured before, here's a really powerful number. Out of 65,000 kindergarten students, only 2,500 got that Gifted and Talented approach. It was extremely exclusive. We want an inclusive approach to reach the tens of thousands of kids who have special aptitude in at least one subject, if not many. That's the plan we'll be putting out by the end of the month. So, Caroline, I think you're going to see something that you'll like, because there will be regular opportunities for kids who have those special aptitudes to be engaged in many, many more kids than were previously given the opportunity.

Lehrer: Vivi in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Vivi.

Question: Hello. Hello. Thank you for letting me ask a question. I'm calling about tenant harassment. 20 years ago, the tenant – the landlord put tenants in here to harass us into moving out of the building because we've been here a very long time and the rent is low. And my son ended up dead. My son approached one of their sons. They followed my son when he left. My son ended up dead. The tenants are still here harassing me. It's been 20 years. They've been harassing me. They follow me when I go out, they set my door on fire. They bang my door hammers. I’ve called your office for years. And finally, the other day I got an answer and they told me about the tenant harassment prevention task force, but they gave me the wrong number. But I found an email address. I emailed them, still, never get an answer. And every number that they gave me is a wrong number.

Lehrer: Mr. Mayor? Can you help this –

Mayor: Well, I'm really – first of all, I'm very, very sorry for everything you've been through. It sounds horrible in so many ways. But I also don't understand how so many people didn't manage to give you the right information. And I can only apologize on behalf of the City for that. But I want you to get the right person talking to you today. So, we have a Tenant Protection office that's very aggressive. We can get people a lawyer, get them legal assistance. We can deal with any number of situations. And some of what you're saying might even rise to being a law enforcement issue if you're being harassed or followed. So, please give your information to WNYC. We'll have a senior person reach out to you today from Tenant Protection and immediately see what we can do to help you.

Lehrer: Vivi, thank you. Thank you very much. Mr. Mayor, I want to acknowledge that there's a lot of reaction on Twitter, a lot of it from members of the New York City press corps to you saying earlier in the segment that you are going to visit Rikers Island next week. I guess the follow-up question is, what took you? Because there was so much pressure for you to visit from so many quarters in the weeks since this crisis really came into at least public view, and many people would have considered it an act of leadership and maybe even some pressure on the union, I'm just throwing that in, I don't know if you think they're calling in sick and inappropriately to show up yourself as this was starting earlier on, why didn't you? 

Mayor: Well, Brian, it's a perfectly fair question, which honestly, I've answered a bunch of times, and I’ll answer it again, I am happy to explain the thought process. First of all, in terms of the union, what the union needed to see was a legal case brought against them for violating state law by encouraging people to not come to work. And the moment we show that we were resolute about bringing real consequences to bear, the union changed their tune and started calling upon the workers to show up for work. So, that was its own approach. In terms of the reality of how you change I think for, if you're talking about an inmate in Rikers or we're talking about an officer in Rikers, what they needed me to do, as we saw these problems emerge was get a host of solutions going. There are different approaches to leadership. Some people, honestly, bluntly are heavy on the symbolism. That's great. I get it. My approach for better, for worse, is I want to solve the problem, and that took a lot of time and energy, but we are getting the changes we need, and the situation is changing as we speak. I gave you some real facts before the intake, it's going much more quickly, therefore people are treated better, there's much less congregating, which is better in terms of addressing COVID. We're bringing in additional personnel. We're getting people back to work, we put real sanctions in place and real incentives in place. This all took a lot of work and I have to work with a number of agencies, and I have to work with the State to get all these pieces moving. That's where I put my time and energy. Now that I feel that work is moving it's time to go out, but I am certain what I'm going to see is what I already have heard such very vivid, clear reporting on what the continued challenges are, but I'll go and do it. I think to conclude, look, I get the, when you're sort of head of state and head of government, you know, I get this very complex interplay of perception and reality and symbolism versus substantive work, but I've got to do what I think is right in the end. I don't care how many people call for something, I got to do what I think is right. The right thing to do is fix the problems and put my best energies there. Now I'll go see if those solutions are working. 

Lehrer: Can you tell us the date and who’ll be going with you? 

Mayor: Well, it's next week and we'll figure out a date. And certainly, the First Deputy Mayor who has been leading the charge on a lot of these changes and the Correction Commissioner. This is focused on fixing the issues that we're addressing in Rikers. I understand what you said earlier from Eric Adams about the bigger reality in our society, we've been working on that for eight years and that's why we have 3-K for All and Pre-K for All, and the investments in Cure Violence Movement and Crisis Management System and everything else. I would claim that very clearly Eric Adams point is very well-taken, and for eight years we've been trying to make the changes to reduce incarceration. It's gone down rapidly on my watch, reduce arrest, all the things that Eric's talking about, that's what we've been doing for eight years. Now, I'm going to pass the baton to him, and he'll have a chance to expand upon it. But right now, the people who have to go with me are the people who are helping to solve the problem on Rikers right now.  

Lehrer: Thanks, as always Mr. Mayor, talk to you next week. 

Mayor: Take care, Brian.  


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