November 5, 2021
Brian Lehrer: It's the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. Good morning, again, everyone. Now, it's time for our Friday Ask the Mayor call-in, my questions and yours for Mayor Bill de Blasio at 212-4-3-3-WNYC. Or, you can tweet a question, just use the hashtag #AsktheMayor. You'll never get a busy signal on Twitter – hashtag #AsktheMayor. He joins us today from Puerto Rico where he's attending the annual SOMOS conference, held to draw attention to issues on the island and for Puerto Rican's living in New York. Good morning, Mr. Mayor. Welcome back to WNYC.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning, Brian. And, Brian, I have some good breaking news for you now. Just spoke earlier with our Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro, and I want to let you know that the Fire Department, as of today, all fire units, fully operational, there are none out of service. And the level of vaccination in the fire department has gone up. It is now 80 percent among the firefighters, 90 percent among the EMS workers. We've also seen the numbers in the Sanitation Department and NYPD go up again in the last 24 hours. So, really good progress on the vaccine mandate and on making sure that New Yorkers are being served and protected. Also, very important, 15 unions – 15 new school unions signed an agreement yesterday on how to implement the vaccine mandate. So, we're seeing a high level of working together and moving things forward from the vast majority of our unions, and that's really good news.
Lehrer: And that all sounds like good news. And I think we can say that the mandate is no doubt a success in terms of driving the overall vaccination rate to over 90 percent of City workers. Can you say though, when you say no Fire Department units are out of service as of today. I think there had been some confusion earlier in the week when there was reporting that some fire companies were out of service. Some people understood that to mean the firehouses were closed, physical firehouses in some neighborhoods, but that was never the case. It was some fire companies, which are groups of firefighters within those houses. Are you saying now, when you say no units out of service, that there are no fire companies that are not together?
Mayor: Correct. As just you said, exactly right, Brian. Throughout, the firehouses have been open. And you're right, within firehouses there are multiple different kinds of units. Now, what I'm saying, in addition to all the firehouses being open, all units are operational. That's actually a stronger position than we are in normal times when, typically, some units are out of service for either training or maintenance. All of our 350 Fire Department units are operational, working. We've had great response times in addressing different challenges. It's really striking. And I want to tell you, if you want evidence that mandates work – since the mandate was announced – it was just on October 20 – since then, well over 26,000 City workers have been vaccinated. And interestingly, since Monday, which is when it had already gone into effect, 4,000 more have come forward who originally didn't meet the deadline, but then decided to, after the fact. So, 4,000 more. We expect a lot more of that. So, this is really, really a good news story for the whole city, because New Yorkers – right now, New Yorkers have voted with their feet if ever there was a case for that. 86 percent of New York City adults have now had at least one dose of the vaccine. And this is – that's a kind of majority and agreement that we almost never see in the city on anything. It's an unbelievable ratification that people do believe in the vaccine, they believe in the science, and they believe in the mandates as a way to make sure we all get there together.
Lehrer: On EMS, you said the response times are normal. But our news department is reporting, I believe, that they have acknowledged that they've had to send fewer crews out to each emergency that would ordinarily require multiple crews. Is that your understanding? And has that put people in danger this week?
Mayor: No, people are safe, because the response time has been very, very good and the outcomes have been very good, meaning, as we've looked at both fire and EMS, the impact of the response has been very, very effective. We had, on the fire side, we had a five-alarm fire, I think it was yesterday, was handled exactly right. Look, there's a huge amount of redundancy, let's be clear. And it’s a pretty known fact, in our Fire Department, there's a lot of redundancy. And so, in this instance, what Commissioner Nigro and his team has done is they very smartly moved people around as needed and used the resources they have to get the impact and protect people. And we did see a very, very inappropriate action by a number of individuals to call in sick when they weren't really sick from the firefighters. Now, let's be clear, most firefighters, most EMS folks absolutely did the right thing. It is a few who called in sick wrongly, falsely and endangered everyone else in the process. But what the Fire Department has done is really made great adjustments to keep the service levels high. And now, we're seeing the sick time going down the last couple of days and people coming back. And I, honestly –
Lehrer: I think we just lost the Mayor's line. He is with us from Puerto Rico, from the SOMOS conference, the annual conference down there regarding issues of pertinence to people living both in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in New York. We'll see if we can get that line hooked up across these miles quickly. I was going to ask him next about a particular SOMOS issue before we get to your calls for Mayor de Blasio. I'll give you all a background briefing on it here, you know, just very briefly. Our Brigid Bergin reports, that one issue getting a lot of attention both from lawmakers and nonprofit leaders at SOMOS is the fight to combat so-called vulture hedge funds, which make big profits by buying up debt on the cheap from governments facing default, like Puerto Rico. And I think we have the Mayar back now. So, Mr. Mayor, let me ask you a question about the SOMOS conference, where you are, before we go to the phones for you. And I was just starting to tell our listeners about this issue while we were getting the phone hooked back up, and that is the so-called vulture hedge funds, which make big profits by buying up debt on the cheap from governments facing default, like Puerto Rico, and then using a loophole in New York State law to sue those same governments for full repayment. Brooklyn Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez has a proposal to cancel that debt. There are other things. Do you have a position on that or is it an issue you focused on the implications of down there?
Mayor: Yes, absolutely. This has not only been an issue of this year at this SOMOS conference, but in past years as well. And I agree with Congressmember Velazquez, the vulture hedge funds. That's not just a phrase, it's a real thing. There's been an absolutely cynical effort by folks who already are quite wealthy to make more money off the backs of the Puerto Rican people. And remember, the reason the Puerto Rican economy went into a tailspin was decisions by the United States government in Washington that changed the very nature of the Puerto Rican economy, that actually undermine the industries that were here. And time and time again, Puerto Rico did not get the support it needed as it went into a health care crisis. It did not get the support it needed, of course, not surprisingly from the Trump administration, nor after the hurricanes, the earthquakes. It's cynical. It's cynical. It's neocolonialist what we're seeing here and it has to be stopped. So, I agree with Congressmember Velazquez, the Puerto Rican people cannot be held responsible for the very cynical actions of some very [inaudible] hedge fund folks.
Lehrer: Let's take a phone call Samir, around Union Square. You're on WNYC with Mayor de Blasio. Hello, Samir.
Question: Hi. How's it going? Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to ask about the Fifth Avenue Busway that was recently put on hold. So, you came into office vowing to take on the tale of two cities, you launched Vision Zero, and, however, this past few weeks you chose to kill the busway and protected bike lanes on Fifth Avenue. We face a climate crisis. We faced the deadliest year on our streets since you took office, more than 220 individuals killed in crashes. Why are you siding with wealthy real estate developers and turning your back on every-day bus and bike riders who need their fast commutes and safety on our streets? Will you complete this project before you leave office so we can save lives and save our climate? Thank you.
Mayor: Well, Samir, respectfully, I'm sure your intentions are good, but your – I think your facts are fundamentally wrong. The fact is, not only did I Institute Vision Zero and we propelled it forward for eight straight years, including during the pandemic, but I'm the person to put busways in place, starting with 14th Street, and then we've expanded them around the boroughs. So, I don't understand the memory problem some people have. If someone comes in – there was no Vision Zero before me, respectfully. There was not busways before I did this. I'm very proud of it. It's making a huge impact. The decision on Fifth Avenue is a very temporary one. The point was, during the holidays, there's a huge amount of people around Fifth Avenue. We also need to bring back our economy and jobs. It's a place where tourists go and tourists are coming back. It's a pivotal place during the holiday season. It was simply a decision to get through the holidays for a few weeks and then implement the busway. The busway is 100 percent happening. So, I – and that has been very clear publicly. So, I would ask people, you can ask whatever you want, you can say whatever you want, but I really wish for folks who believe in these type of approaches, rather than start with bluntly, a conspiracy theory, start with the fact that we have moved this agenda profoundly, and it's going to keep growing. There's a lot more protected bikeways coming, a lot more busways and select bus service coming. That's where the city is going.
Lehrer: Mr. Mayor here, I think is a very different kind of bus question from Andy in Astoria. Andy, you are WNYC with the Mayor. Hello.
Question: Hello. I'm on the air?
Lehrer: Yes, sir.
Question: Okay. Mr. Mayor, so I've worked in tourism for 23 years and means I'm barely working now, but this is not about me. The double decker industry has been allowed to reopen without its tour guides. They fired all their tour guides. So, this is not bringing those jobs back. In place they're running tapes and you were just talking about Vision Zero, but the drivers have to run these machines while driving. And meanwhile, the tourists are up on the top levels with no one supervising them. And this is always something – and you know, we never get credit for the accidents we've prevented. But we've been preventing potentially dangerous accidents for years on top of these buses. And we want to know what the City's going to do about it? We've been trying to get a bill, Intro 289A out of a committee. And someone's blocking it. I don't know who, but you know, this would actually guarantee that for the safety of the passengers, that the licensed tour guides and we're licensed by the City and the City is doing nothing to protect those licenses. You know, what are we going to do about these – getting these tour guides back on the buses? What are we going to do about Intro 289A?
Lehrer: Andy, thank you very much. Familiar with this issue, Mr. Mayor?
Mayor: I actually, am happy Andy is familiarizing me with it, Brian. And I think Andy has got a good point. I did not know that the tour buses had so systematically taken the human element out. And I think that's a problem for not only the reason that Andy's raising in terms of safety impact, but also its jobs. And the tour guides, you know, I've heard them do their thing going by, bring a lot of New York color and flavor and energy. And you know, it's not the same thing to have it on a tape. So, I'm very sympathetic to Andy's point. Andy, I'm going to have our Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman speak to you. And I'll have our team look into what's going on with that City Council legislation because you've gotten my attention. I think that's – you're making a really good point.
Lehrer: We'll follow up too. I hadn't heard about it either. Andy, hang on. We'll take your contact –
Mayor: Andy, give us your, give us your contact, right. You got it, Brian.
Lehrer: And Mr. Mayor, I want to ask you about the deal announced yesterday for yellow cab owners debt relief that many drivers and their union are hailing as a lifesaver. On more favorable terms for them from your original plan, it will cap debt for any small owner at $200,000, cap monthly payments around $1,100 a month, rather than $2,000. And set up the City as the guarantor of the loans, if I've got these details, right. My question is, we've talked about this before, when you came out with the original plan, why did it take a hunger strike the last two weeks to get the City to his latest version?
Mayor: Well, what really happened was several things. One, Senator Schumer got involved and helped both sides to understand there was a different approach. Because as you see Brian, the approach that was achieved, takes what we started and which a lot of drivers were benefiting from, and adds on it. So, it turned out that our basic approach to providing the help for the drivers, the $65 million program we passed with the City Council in June was an effective approach. But it's also fair to say the drivers needed more help. The original plan we heard from the drivers, I think was very, very well-intentioned, but there were problems that we thought both legally and ultimate potential cost problems. We needed a different approach. And Senator Schumer helped us find in effect a third way. I want to give a lot of credit to the Transit Workers Alliance. They fought very hard for the members and then they were willing to come to –
Lehrer: Taxi Workers Alliance.
Mayor: I'm sorry. You're right. My apology, you caught me. That's a – I'm thinking of a different organization, Taxi Workers Alliance. Well done, Brian. Taxi Workers Alliance – I want to give a lot of credit to the Taxi Workers Alliance. They fought well and with energy for their members. When everyone got back in the room after thinking about different alternatives and seeing what our initial plan had done and how it could be improved. We actually within a matter of days, found another approach and agreed to it and announced it yesterday. So, we're adding $50 million more to the program and it's going to really, as you said, it's going to reduce what the drivers have to pay. They still do have debt, but it's going to make it much, much more manageable for them. And it just, and this is one of these situations. I've talked to a lot of people involved where unfortunately, we couldn't find common ground earlier, but over time, people started finding a way to each other and finding shared values and approaches. And it actually worked at the end.
Lehrer: Is there a lesson in a couple of stories that we've talked about already, for how quickly you or any other mayor involves unions in certain kinds of conversations? So for example, you've gotten criticized on the vaccine mandate for issuing the mandate before you've started talking to the unions. I think even Eric Adams has set a version of that. And, and in this case there, you know, Bhairavi Desai and the Taxi Workers Alliance was so opposed, she came on the show, and she was really upset for her workers with a proposed solution that you had originally come to. Now, you had to go back and come to yes on a second pass. Is there a lesson in that?
Mayor: I think they're very different situations. I think the Taxi Workers Alliance had a plan from the beginning that we looked at thoroughly. There've been lots of discussion with them over time. We looked at it, we thought, again, there were legal problems. There was exposure for the City that wasn't going to work in the end. Our plan did pass the City Council, was helping hundreds of drivers. And a thousand more were signed up to be helped. But what we needed was basically a hybrid of the two. And we got there. And there was always a willingness to find a path, but honestly, for a long time, people couldn't think of another alternative. And that's why I give Senator Schumer a lot of credit. He called me up and said, why don't you try doing it this way? Why don't you modify this? Why don't you try this? Why don't you put this in place? And he was right. There was an entirely different way of thinking about it. And he's obviously a masterful legislative strategist. And he really helped us think through how to do it. With the vaccine mandate, very different scenario because we've been talking throughout with labor. We've been talking before the mandate, since the mandate. And the fact as you heard, we had unions sign on in large numbers. 15 major unions, signed an agreement yesterday with us after a lot of dialogue. And all the previous unions in the earlier elements of the mandate, did as well. So, I don't think there's a lack of dialogue at all. And I think most unions we've come to agreement with. I think we're having one union in particular, the UFA, the firefighters, different from the other unions in their own department. I don't know if you saw it, Brian, but Vincent Variale, of one of the EMS unions, put out a powerful appeal to his members to get vaccinated. They said we don't necessarily have to agree on a mandate, but it's time to get vaccinated. We've seen other union leaders actually step up and say to people, this is now the law. It was challenged in court. The City won consistently. The City is the employer. The City has this right to protect people, get vaccinated. One union right now is standing apart. There's no lack of dialogue. They just don't want to follow the law. And we're telling them they have to. And in fact, they're members now, 80 percent of the Fire Department, on the firefighting side, is now vaccinated. I think that speaks for itself.
Lehrer: Here's a call from a vaccinated City worker, Terrell in Manhattan, you are on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello.
Question: Hi, good morning, Brian. Good morning to the Mayor. I am a City employee. I got vaccinated July 30th. During that time, you were given out the incentive for the $100. So, I decided to get my shot at Metropolitan Hospital, which is a City, you know, hospital is run by the City. So, when I did get my first shot, I had asked about the $100. They told me that they weren't included in the incentives. So, I made a couple of phone calls, eventually found out that hospitals were never included in the vaccine sites, which doesn't really make any sense since it's a City-operated site run by the City. So, my question is, how can I still get my $100 even though I did get my shot when you know, that incentives first rolled out?
Lehrer: Where is my $100 Mr. Mayor? And, you know, we've had some teachers call and ask, where's my $500 because they got $100, but now you offered $500 in the last couple of weeks to the new City employees covered by the mandate. So, what do you, what do you say to Terrell and by extension others as well?
Mayor: I think there's two – I think Terrell's question is one and I'll answer the other piece. Terrell, first for you, your story makes total sense to me, and I don't understand why you wouldn't have gotten it because it's city runs sites we were providing. So, I'm going to have a member of my team call you and fix that. Please give your information to WNYC. From everything you just told me, you deserve that $100, we should give it to you, and thank you for going and getting back vaccinated way back in July.
To the bigger question, Brian, look, the people of this city employ me to keep them healthy and keep them safe, and we have now lowered COVID levels in the city to the point where one of the safest places in America, and we have one of the highest rates of vaccination anywhere in this country and we're getting better all the time. Originally where there was no incentive, a huge number of people got vaccinated because they just wanted to get vaccinated and be safe. At a certain point, we saw it was lagging, we put an incentive in place, the $100, it had a huge impact. President Biden actually picked up on it and told people around the country do the same. This last piece we thought we needed a supercharge, we needed to get this last piece done, we decided to do a short time $500 incentive. It helped because now you see these numbers in these agencies, and you know, you do things like this if you think there's a way to get something done for people and finish the mission in terms of fighting COVID. That incentive lapsed now, but it worked, it helped us get to 92 percent of our workforce vaccinated, and that's what the people ultimately care about, how we're going to be safe.
Lehrer: So, let's talk about COVID vaccines for school kids now that they'd begun for ages five through 11. I see they're going to be at schools, at least on one day per school and maybe more. My question for you is, is there any plan to offer the second doses at schools when they're ripe in a few weeks when the children are ready for them according to the timeline? I know there's concern about drop-off from completing the set without that.
Mayor: It's an excellent question, Brian, and here's what we've found. You know we did school vaccination for the 12 to 17-year-olds and we had a good experience with that, but we didn't have a huge response from parents, mainly we saw people going and, you know, pediatricians to local centers. We saw typically parents choosing to go to other places they get health care rather than do it in the school. So, we're now doing one day per school for the five to 11-year-olds. If we get a really big pickup on that, we certainly can do more and we certainly can come back on the second dose. But if it tracks where we were previously, I think then we're likely to, you know, just direct parents to all the other places for that second dose, and they really have been picking it up. I got to tell you now with the, with the 12 to 17-year-olds, we're at 78 percent vaccinated, which is an amazing figure considering every single one of them needs a parental consent. So, they're not necessarily getting to make their own decision. The fact that we have gotten parents now to agree to that level, 78 percent for the 12 to 17-year-olds is great. I think we even have a higher number, ultimately with five to 11, but if we need to do more in schools, if it's working, of course we will.
Lehrer: Here's a related question from a listener via Twitter. The question is when are masks coming off kids in school. The writer says it is affecting their education, communication, socialization, and overall mental health, parents deserve to know. So, I guess that the question in this context is, is there a critical mass percentage of vaccinated kids at which point you say the masks can come off?
Mayor: It's a great question. In fact, Dr. Chokshi and Dr. Varma were asked this yesterday at my press conference and talked about it. The – there is not a hard and fast at this point, now because, first of all, we're going into the colder months and we know that is an important factor vis-a-vis COVID. And second of all we just have learned a lot from COVID that, you know, until we're really sure, we have to expect the unexpected. What is good now, which gives me hope about getting masks off, is just the overall level of vaccination in this city, it's huge, it's incredible, and it's growing. That gives me a lot of hope. I want those masks off one day, but we cannot tell you yet here's the exact day or here's the exact standard we're holding because we still need more information. I also want to say kids have done an amazing job keeping the masks on as well as the adults in school. None of us likes it, but it has made the schools literally the safest place to be in New York City, and we want to keep it that way until we're really all clear with COVID.
Lehrer: I know you've got to go in a couple of minutes. Tell us what you thought of the election results, both here in New York City, and also the strength of Republican candidates around the city on Long Island and in New Jersey.
Mayor: I think there's a lot of different things happening. The, you know, the phrase, all politics is local. I think we're seeing really interesting, but different things in each place. I think, you know, Virginia is different than New Jersey is different than Long Island is different than New York City. Obviously New York City Eric Adams won a huge victory. We saw a couple of council races go to Republicans. I think the last one is outstanding in Bay Ridge, it will still go to the Democrat. I think on Long Island, clearly the criminal justice issues were very big. It's different in each place is what we're seeing. I think the bottom line is Democrats still – as a broad reality of the Democratic Party nationally, need to focus on sharp, clear messages, and kitchen table issues, health care, you know, getting working people what they deserve. This has been an uneven reality for Democrats. You know, a couple years back, I think it was 2018, there was a really consistent focus on health care in those congressional elections, and it worked around the country for Democrats because Democrats were speaking with one voice. I think we got to go back to that progressive, working people focused message. And when we're not doing that, then Democrats don't turn out to vote, and I think that's the real story here. Places where Republicans won, I think the biggest problem was Democratic turnout didn't happen, and that's what we got to work on.
Lehrer: Well, Mr. Mayor, as we head toward our final few Fridays of Ask the Mayor, before you leave office, now that the election has been held, I'd like to give you some time to talk to our listeners off the news of the week more than we usually are on some of the coming Fridays to reflect on your eight years of doing one of the most complicated jobs in the world. So, give some thought to what you might leave people with about things that you expected or didn't expect, advice for Eric Adams or future mayors, a sense of perspective for different kinds of New Yorkers, things like that. And we'll work out some specific themes in the coming weeks if you're interested. So give that some thought, all right.
Mayor: Absolutely, Brian, I would be very happy to, you know, this has been the ultimate learning curve. I have a lot I'd like to share with people and anything that I can share I hope will be helpful to Mayor-elect Adams and this city going forward. But I want to thank you also, Brian. Now, I'll certainly thank you when are our time together ends. This has been a very, very moving and rewarding experience to have a way to speak to everyday New Yorkers, you know, all out in the open in a way where people really are hearing each other, thinking together, and having a dialogue. You do something with this show that doesn't happen enough in our society. I want to thank you for that, and yeah, I'd like to do a little reflective dialogue before this is over. That would be very good.
Lehrer: Well, it's very nice what you said, and thanks as always Mr. Mayor, talk to you next week.
Mayor: Take care now.
Lehrer: Mayor de Blasio from the SOMOS conference in Puerto Rico today.