Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York: Our COVID Nurse Ratched

The recent decision by New York's Governor Kathy Hochul imposed renewed universal COVID masking mandates, denied access to public venues to unvaccinated individuals, and imposed $1,000 fines tests 100% positive for ham-fisted political intent.  Like the fictional Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey's classic novel, Governor Hochul is an example of how elected and unelected officials abuse their transitory institutional powers by controlling access to basic necessities and punishing those who misbehave.

Hochul's mask edict, which followed a knee-jerk cessation of elective surgeries immediately after the emergence of the omicron variant, shows little regard for the knowledge acquired during the world's 18-month-long COVID experience, the intelligence of voters, and the desire for coming to terms with a new phase of disease — not to mention a lack of executive competence and an inability to take into consideration the likely negative consequences of her executive action.

Hochul announced abruptly on December 10 that all New Yorkers would be subject to the new rules, starting December 13 and continuing until January 15, when they would be reviewed.  The rationale was an uptick in upstate New York cases.  Not deaths.  Not hospitalizations.  Cases.  Yet all New Yorkers are subjected to the new rules.  The order actually states that no small businesses or local governments were consulted.  Enforcement is left up to local governments with no guidance.

Many of the state's county executives have no intention of going back to the 2020 model.  So far, more than a dozen have said that they will not enforce Hochul's order.  The incoming county executive in Long Island's politically important Nassau County has also declared it a waste of resources.  More are likely to follow because they have the common sense to avoid deploying law enforcement officers against small businesses and fed-up voters.

The county executives also want no part of the counterproductive effects of the mask order.  Hochul's action punishes businesses with $1,000 fines per incident if customers or employees violate the mask mandate.  It comes at a time when restaurants and retailers are hoping to recoup monetary losses during the first COVID shutdown.  New York reaps billions of dollars from its sales tax.  How many customers are going to shop in Connecticut, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, where universal mask mandates have been lifted?

Employers in New York City had just begun luring workers back into brick-and-mortar workplaces.  The Hochul order is a disincentive for them to return to the office.  This is yet another setback to the economic recovery of New York City and its transportation infrastructure.  New York's average unemployment rate is 6.9%, and New York City's is 9.4%, compared to 4.6% for the nation.  But instead of focusing on the state's economy, Hochul is fixated on getting people vaccinated.  After nearly one year of availability, the number of adults willing to take the shots has peaked.  

More thoughtful and politically intelligent Democrat governors in states like Colorado, New Jersey, and North Carolina are looking to 2022 and trying to adapt public health solutions to the changing environment.  As New Jersey governor Phil Murphy recently stated at the Democratic Governors' Association winter conference, constituents are "sick of masks, being told what to do in terms of vaccines," and are looking for an exit strategy for COVID.  They are also keenly aware that economic prosperity and inflation are larger concerns for voters than COVID.  Nationally, retail sales were up a paltry 0.3% in November over October.  Adjusted for 0.9% inflation, they were down 0.6%.

The reason why Hochul is even worthy of discussion is that she is a highly visible example of a political hack accidentally elevated to great power but lacking the requisite decision-making abilities required of the office.  She failed to consult important constituencies.  She didn't conduct any analysis of intended and unintended consequences to her state's economy and her constituents' well-being.  She failed to gain support for her action.  She insulted her constituents' intelligence.

With her closest Democrat rival in the 2022 gubernatorial primary eliminated, and with current attorney general Letitia James's decision to run for re-election for her current position, there is no political need for Hochul to pander to the far left.  The two potential Republican gubernatorial candidates, former Westchester County executive Rob Astorino and Congressman Lee Zeldin, have been excoriating Hochul for her cluelessness.

After nearly two years of COVID, the goal of the chief executive of every state and of the federal government should be devising an exit strategy to normalcy and economic prosperity.  Judging from their actions, a few governors like Kathy Hochul are rooted in a Nurse Ratched mindset.  Perhaps they believe that the strict mandates used by Andrew Cuomo in 2020, which gained him brief national celebrity, will win them kudos from voters in 2022 when COVID is endemic.  Fighting today's battle with yesterday's playbook is not a winning strategy.

Linda R. Killian is a local Republican chair in New York State.

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