In a press conference Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced former Gotham mayor and failed presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg has volunteered to head up the state’s efforts to trace the contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus. Bloomberg also pledged $10 million to the effort so its not clear if he volunteered for or purchased the position, but Cuomo seems happy to give it to him either way.
Bloomberg’s task, which he seems super for eager for, will be to assemble an army of up to 35,000 part time workers tasked with tracking down the contacts of coronavirus victims, and then organizing that data. To say a threat of government overreach exists here would be the understatement of the decade. Bloomberg, whose reputation as a nanny is only outstripped by Mrs. Doubtfire and Mary Poppins, is arguably the worst person to hand such power too.
This is the same Mike Bloomberg who while mayor tried to ban large soda sizes and get salt taken off the table at restaurants. He is also a devotee of the powers of the police state. Although both programs were at times defensible, both “Stop, Question, and Frisk,” and the surveillance of Muslims increased dramatically under Bloomberg. His entire political brand is that big government and experts know best and the little people should just shut up and listen.
Contact tracing in New York will give Bloomberg’s new unelected branch of government vast power to interfere with and control the lives of citizens while building up databases of information about them. And as far as New York City goes, as the epicenter of the outbreak, it’s not even clear that contact tracing would be effective.
Cuomo said Wednesday that according to the information he has seen he believes New York City has a 10 percent infection rate. That’s 800,000 people with the virus. How on earth do you contact trace 800,000 people? The answer, as Cuomo admitted, is you don’t, you have to target smaller subsets.
This creates its own set of civil liberty issues. Reports have shown that the virus is hitting black and Latino communities hardest. Will Bloomberg do as he did with Stop, Question, and Frisk and implement the policy mostly in those areas? Will black and Hispanic neighborhoods be under guarded quarantine while the rest of the city celebrates its reopening? Has any of this been taken into account?
The argument for aggressive contact tracing, even at this late stage of infection that it isn’t designed for, is that we have to listen to the medical experts. It’s true we have to listen to them, but we don’t have to obey them. The number of people who actually follow every piece of sound medical advice they get could probably fit in a high school football stadium, if we still did that kind of thing. Like people, governments take expert advice and balance it against other legitimate societal interests.
Michael Bloomberg is a man of two mayoralties. Under his leadership the city, especially the outer boroughs flourished financially, but at the same time, his 12 years in charge are speckled with attempts at governmental overreach. That is not the temperament we need for the person leading a program with arguably unprecedented power to reach into everyone’s lives.
Just as Democratic voters were right to reject Bloomberg’s attempt to bankroll himself to the presidential nomination, New Yorkers should reject his money and influence landing him this very sensitive assignment. A time of emergency like this one, in which both the state and its citizens are tempted to forgo some rights for the greater good, is a very dangerous situation. All too often power that the government takes from the people “just for now,” never seems to find its way back to the people.
Even if Michael Bloomberg didn’t have, as Andrew Cuomo might put it, a diminimus view of individual rights, he would still be a wrongheaded choice for this important position. As a partisan hot off a presidential primary run and an avowed enemy of President Donald Trump, he is far too political a selection. Will he be focused on tracing Covid-19 or will he be having Twitter spats with the president?
The last thing anybody needs in the midst of the coronavirus response is more drama. Putting Bloomberg in charge of tracing efforts drags a five-act play of baggage on stage. If New Yorkers must be traced and isolated, the person in charge must be far more neutral than Mike Bloomberg and far more respectful of individual rights.