For the past year, Bay Ridge has struggled with the pandemic. We’ve lost loved ones, and there has been grief both public and private. But early in 2020, politicians began to push their own narratives. At a moment when we all should have been talking about staying safe and healthy, conservative politicians fought back against masking, lockdowns, and social distancing. The story they pushed was tempting to many: they used peoples fears about the economy to override science and safety.

On today’s episode, Ed Yoo returns to the show. Ed is the Director of Strategic Research at the NY State Nurses Union, but today he’s speaking to us as a local Bay Ridge resident. We last spoke to Ed in early 2020 about a proposed Emergency Room that was in development for the old Victory Memorial hospital site. A year later, so much has changed. Ed will help us analyze how Bay Ridge responded to COVID. We explore how early COVID data was hidden or flawed, and lay into both Democratic and Republican politicians who used fearmongering about the economy to undermine our pandemic response. Along the way we uncover some disturbing data that is yet to be revealed about our local hospital system, and make some armchair predictions on what a true post-COVID economy might look like for our local stores and businesses.

The 77th Street Subway Stop in August of 2020 | Photo by Daniel Hetteix

Audio Bookmarks

Show Notes

Hyper-Local COVID Data

Part-way though the episode, Ed and Dan discuss Radio Free Bay Ridge’s COVID tracker. We set up a custom algorithm that took city data and narrowed it down to just our neighborhood. You can check out the entire data stream over on our COVID tracker page.

Restaurants and Dining in a Post-COVID world

Ed mentions a South Korean study on indoor ventilation and its effect on transmission rates. The Washington Post covered the study when it was first released back in December of 2020. You can read the full study in the Journal of Korean Medical Science. We’ve also found this article from El País to be a very good overview on indoor transmission, complete with helpful diagrams and animations.

We also discuss how restaurants may be faced with new grading systems in the future. The food service industry is already predicting a shift, with multiple articles coming out discussing the increased role ventilation will play in the future of restaurant design. Archon Fung, David Weil and Mary Graham, co-directors of the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, have argued for exactly what we discuss in the podcast: updating and expanding our health grade systems to reflect virus protections that are in place.

Show Transcript

Expand to view the entire show transcript (lightly edited for readability)…


Dan: Hey! Welcome to Radio Free Bay Ridge. I’m Dan, and this is your hyperlocal progressive podcast focusing on beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Today we are hopefully book-ending this pandemic crisis. I’m joined in our virtual studio with Ed Yoo. Ed, nice to see you again, man.

Ed: Yeah, good to see you Dan.

Dan: It’s been almost a year since our last episode where we talked about an emergency room coming into Bay Ridge.

Ed: I think it’s been a little over a year actually. And shortly after you and I recorded that episode, we went into lockdown. A few months into the pandemic I remember going back and listening to our conversation about the potential of going into lockdown and the virus. I wish I could tell 2020 me how optimistic I was being.

Dan: We were kind of being a little leery about calling it a pandemic versus an outbreak. “Oh, we gotta be careful with these words. We don’t want to start a panic…”

Ed: Yeah. It really does feel like a decade has passed since we spoke. I have thought quite a bit about parts of that conversation. One of the things that immediately happened when the governor declared the “New York On Pause” (or whatever the hell he called it), he immediately declared that we had to scale up our hospital capacity by several thousand beds.

And I remember thinking in that moment, “Oh, I was just talking to Dan about how when Victory Memorial closed, we lost a couple of hundred hospital beds in the neighborhood.” And a lot of those themes we had talked about were dialed up to eleven. We were talking about just a couple of hundred beds and the governor declared that they had to scale it up by at least a few thousand.

Dan: Yeah.

Ed: When he was at his peak popularity, for those of us who track this stuff (especially for the underserved communities in our city) I just remember thinking the governor is complicit in the problem. He is responsible for the subtraction of hundreds of hospital beds during his term.

He was desperate to inject private ownership into a hospital system that remains non-profit by law. You’re not allowed to have private equity or private ownership of acute healthcare facilities. They’re all non-profit corporations. But he was desperate to try to get some of that capital into our system.

Dan: We spoke about that in that episode. If anyone listening now is like, “Wait, what about that?”, go back to that episode. And you’ll kind of see where we were coming from with it.

Failures of Contact Tracing

But let’s start off with contact tracing because that’s failure number one that we found. Contact tracing was done so poorly. And it was willfully misinterpreted. It was used to explain why people could keep their businesses open.

I remember Nicole Malliotakis back when she was an Assembly Member say, “Hey, we should open all the restaurants because the spread is three percent (or whatever it is) from restaurants.” Remember that shit? That’s because you can’t contact trace a restaurant. To contract trace, the restaurant has to literally take the number and name of everyone who walks in, not just the person who pays. All the customers.

Ed: Yep.

Dan: If you ate out at all during outdoor dining in Bay Ridge (which was lovely by the way)… no one’s takin’ my name! If I’m not the person paying, no one is taking those names. So of course the numbers for contact tracing are going to be low and under-report that spread happened indoors at restaurants. Duh.

Ed: This was a nationwide problem, not just a New York City problem and not just a Bay Ridge problem. From the beginning the de Blasio administration sourced contact tracing and the hiring of contact tracers to a nonprofit, ceding responsibility of coordinating it internally. Those of us who were watching this were very skeptical because you have a gigantic municipal health system that can help coordinate the response to this. If the city had ever resourced it properly, the municipal health system would have been the centerpiece of any sort of contact trace operation.

One of the things that was laid bare, nationwide and across our state, was the decimation of public health departments. Usually when localities are looking to cut budgets, the first thing you cut are the dozen nurses on staff to go who do public health work across the region. You rely on your acute care facilities to do the same thing. “Oh, this is fricative. We’re just getting rid of it.”

Dan: Yeah.

Ed: And New York City has the same mentality about our municipal health system. It’s chronically underfunded. They really should have played a large part in the response. Especially around things like contact tracing.

Now, to your point, I remember Nicole tweeting that out. I remember many people tweeting out that number. And quite frankly, the other thing that they should have fucking remembered is that restaurants were operating at a very limited capacity the entire time, and were closed for quite a bit of time, too.

Dan: And we were looking at data from other countries. We were seeing that it was extended indoor exposure, after a certain amount of time, that dramatically boosted your likelihood of getting infected.

Ed: There was even at South Korean study, I think, where they actually measured how the virus moved around inside an enclosed space.

People thought the six foot rule was some kind of magical barrier that protected them. But if the room you’re in is not properly ventilated, you’re basically inside a box that has more and more poison filling up around you. You can’t diminish that risk by just standing a little further away from someone, especially because we know now that the virus is airborne and aerosolized.

A Lack of Stimulus

All the theater around cleaning for example. The colored zones drove a lot of us crazy who were trying to actually measure this. Because those zones, yes, were developed by some very thoughtful policy wonks… but they were also developed for a purpose, which was to keep the economy open.

The biggest common thread that runs across the political spectrum (it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat) was that you wanted to keep the economy up and running.

We as a nation are really enamored with short-term economic progress and fail to think about the long-term ramifications of that kind of thing. It really bothered me for a long time in the beginning of the pandemic that we didn’t have a disciplined locked down or make a concerted effort to send bailout and COVID stimulus directly to working people. People wouldn’t have had to worry about putting food on the table or losing their jobs.

Dan: Yeah.

Ed: Instead we had to attach a lot of weird morality to relief.

I remember seeing a piece on the BBC about the gentleman that owns HOM, the boutique and restaurant over on Third Avenue. It’s really worth a watch. He lost both of his parents. He inherited a lot of their debt and he has to operate his business. He talks about the visceral impact that it had on his bottom line. The entire time, all I could think was: that guy probably got what sounds like a lot of money. Probably like 10, 20 thousand dollars with COVID relief. But when you do the math and do a rough division by employee about the amount of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) loans that people actually got in the neighborhood, they’re only getting just under 10 grand per employee. And they had to operate three quarters of the year without any additional stimulus.

If we had a more disciplined lockdown, or if we had directed more stimulus money at the right places, I believe we could have reopened our economy (coupled with the increased vaccination rate) much earlier than we’re going to. And much more safely.

Dan: When we as a podcast first said “Trust public health experts” we were assuming that, for Democrats and Republicans, this would be a non-partisan thing. To keep people alive. It turned into this war between a narrative about public health and a narrative about the economy. It was as if they’re mutually exclusive. When in fact, the economy is subservient to public health. People need to be alive to enjoy the economy.

Ed: If you’re sick and you’re dead, you can’t buy stuff. You’re absolutely right.

Dan: There must have been focus groups and shit, ’cause that “economy” shit did play. Trump at the time was not taking it seriously. So the rest of the GOP had to come up with an angle: “Oh, we just need to keep the economy open and keep it normal.” But we can’t operate as normal during a pandemic! Right across in Staten Island we had Mac’s Pub.

And what was weird was seeing GOP members not argue for more stimulus.

Ed: Yeah.

Dan: The total amount that Bay Ridge got for PPE loans was not much.

Ed: No. If you account for all the businesses within our zip code, I don’t have it in front of me, but it was like $30 million dollars. Might have been a little more.

Dan: It sounds like a lot.

Ed: It’s really not. If we’re serious about treating this like a public health crisis, in the beginning of this pandemic we should have been focused on keeping ourseves safe. Keeping our loved ones safe. The less people that were out and about the stronger our overall recovery response could have been.

We should had picked the right focus from the beginning: help people stay at home. Help them meet their monthly or annual expenses in some cases. Let small business owners be a part of that. If you’re paying their employees, then they don’t have to worry about paying their employees.

From my own personal experience with this: we have a young kid. We had to keep her home for awhile. Childcare is a huge issue. Tons of people left the workforce to facilitate this. If I’m the GOP, I should not have thought, “To save my local economy, I need people to pretend like nothing is happening. Just go into businesses and spend money.” That is the most ludicrous response.

What We Knew and What We Didn’t

Dan: We have to remember the timeline too. Justin Brannan early on said, “Go out and eat at your local Chinese food restaurant. Because they’re hurting.” But then again, we have to understand what we knew and when we knew it. It was very early on.

Ed: Yeah. That’s fair.

Dan: Very soon after that we were like, “No, don’t do that. Don’t go to any restaurants.”

Early on Andrew Gounardes was very much against the yellow zoning when there were some schools that technically hadn’t opened yet, even though the yellow zone lockdown was lifted.

And we also have to understand that we still don’t know the full extent of COVID. We’re talking about thie like, “Ah, we know what COVID is”… but we have no idea what this does to children.

Ed: Yeah.

Dan: We have no idea what long-term effects there are going to be. People who are asymptomatic, we’re assuming right now that they were fine… but that can very much not be the case.

Ed: Absolutely.

Dan: We don’t know.

Ed: You said it exactly right. We’ve learned a lot more since the beginning of the pandemic, for sure. But there’s a lot we still don’t know because we’re trying to study it while a lot of places were locked down.

Children are a great example. They were the first group we locked down and rightfully so. But you can’t study kids getting COVID if they’re not out and about in the places that you think they might get sick. When all these studies came out about low transmission in schools, I just remember that our local Facebook groups really took to that to heart. And, you know, I can’t blame parents wanting to put their kids back in school.

Dan: Plus, we didn’t give anyone enough stimulus. People weren’t going to their jobs. People were laid off. Some people were laid off because they had to go watch their kids.

Ed: Absolutely. My partner is an educator. She works in the New York City school system. She will say over and over again: Zoom is not an appropriate replacement for the classroom.

Dan: No.

Ed: One thing that is not talked about enough is that teachers like her really innovated quite a bit in that space. They were forced to. A lot of our kids are going to benefit from that kind of innovation, long-term.

But when they were studying the effect on children, they were not in the places that you think they would get sick. And a lot of the studies were conducted in that low period over the summer when our numbers were way down in a more manageable place. We’re going to need to do a lot more study to really understand what transmission, infection, and outcomes look like in children.

And luckily, at least on the vaccine front, the first studies have been released on adolescents. It looks like the effectiveness of the vaccine is even higher in younger people than us. These are all encouraging signs, but like you said, there’s a lot we still don’t know.

And a part of that is 100% our fault. New York City did not implement any kind of mandatory testing regime. That’s also true for most of the country. All testing is voluntary. There isn’t somebody going around just taking a swab of every single person in our zip code. And there should have been. That would have really told us who’s getting sick and who’s well. That would have told us what the actual positivity rate is.

And one other point you brought up earlier, which was community transmission. That was largely ignored by policy makers for quite some time. They were only going off positivity rates, which again…

Dan: Is a function of testing.

Ed:  It took months, at least from my perspective, for people to talk about infection rates while controlling for population. That, coupled with the positivity rate, is a much more effective measurement of what’s happening. So for example, if you’re looking at Bay Ridge at its peak spike (which was still a lot lower than some of the zip codes around us) we were getting close to 10%. But that means thirty, sometimes forty new cases per 10,000 residents. That’s pretty freaking high.

Dan: Yeah. We didn’t get a very high positivity rate. But that winter crisis mode where we really spiked hard… testing didn’t increase during that period. I was interpreting the amount of testing (because it was all at-will testing) more as an indicator of how afraid people were. Testing didn’t spike even though we were all getting much, much sicker.

Ed: 100% right. As people were trying to find daylight, I think we were latching onto trends in one bucket of information over another. You can’t blame anybody for this. We were talking about the end of the pandemic in the beginning of the pandemic.

Reaching Herd Immunity in Bay Ridge

But there’s a segment of our neighborhood that does not believe in the efficacy of masking…

Dan: Yup.

Ed: …or the efficacy of vaccines. That’s going to be a huge problem. There’s two reasons for this.

One, New York City has its own homegrown mutation and variants of the COVID virus. It’s the reason that our case counts and hospitalization rates are starting to go up.

The second point is we know that the vaccines are effective against them, we think. But we don’t know for sure.

If Bay Ridge is going to come out on the other side of this, the people who don’t believe in masking, who don’t believe in vaccines… to neutralize them, there has to be a critical mass of people who DO believe in it in order to achieve herd immunity. That lets the freeloaders remain freeloaders instead of becoming vectors.

So some people don’t believe in the science of vaccines, which is totally ridiculous. But then you have another group of people who are not getting the vaccine. And they have a reason that I feel nothing but sympathy for: the public health system works against them.

There’s a deep mistrust in certain communities of color of our health system. That is because the health system did things like sterilize them involuntarily. It ran experiments on them. And there’s a lot of documented evidence for different health outcomes for people of color, because when they’re in pain they’re not believed, or people don’t believe that they’re sick.

Going back to the neighborhood, all these folks who want to go eat in a restaurant again… all these people who want to send their kids back to school… if we want to return to normal, then we better hope that at least seventy percent of our neighborhood will get the vaccine. Because we’ll have some modicum of herd immunity.

Now, the other thing that we don’t know is: if the virus mutates again, will the current vaccine be effective? As they keep developing new vaccines to combat the new strains that might start coming out, we need to make sure enough people believe in the vaccine to get it.

The other thing is, masks may not go away.

Dan: If there is a new variant, masks are the best way of halting its spread. ‘Cause we’re going to have to wait another certain amount of time before a vaccine would be available for a new variant, like the way we get a yearly flu shot. Until then the best way of restricting that spread, even if you were already vaccinated, is with masks.

Early on people were still hopeful that we could get rid of this just through masking and lockdowns. But now, all these behaviors are something that we’ll probably have to keep on the back burner and be ready to turn on again when variants come up. That’s because have too many people not masking or not doing anything at all to control this.

Ed: I think it transcends political affiliation. I think it transcends a lot of demographic information that we make assumptions about. If you looked at our heat map, when it came to positivity rates that happened after Thanksgiving, yes, the worst places were largely places that we would identify as having more conservative folks.

But then, you can’t explain why huge parts of Brooklyn and Queens where essential workers live also were spiking, right? I think I just did, but what I’m saying is: these behaviors don’t exactly track by certain measures that we would use to explain other things in our society. So we need to be ready to do this again. We might have to do it again forever.

The Post-COVID Small Business Economy

Dan: You mentioned earlier how poorly we seem to be able to understand long-term economics, and how we fetishize the short term. I can imagine a future where in addition to checking out a restaurants food rating, you check out their infection ratings. Or instaed, you might make assumptions based on an entire neighborhood.

So maybe one neighborhood says, “Oh, we need to get Staten Island reopened fast! That way all people who want to eat can come out here… because freedom.” But the long-term result of that is: if you’re in a neighborhood that’s known for having opened early and has lax guidelines, that’s going to hurt your bottom line for years to come.

As we start moving into a post-COVID world where this is more normalized, we’re going to decide where to eat based on community spread, or things like that. I don’t Bay Ridge to suddenly turn into a place where consumers think that all the businesses won’t require you to have a mask on. That’ll crash our economy for much longer.

We will enter a world where consumerism will be partially defined by public health and safety.

Ed: As it should. I would hope that at some point we’re able to measure our businesses in terms of “Is their restaurant properly ventilated?”

Dan: Employee guidelines. How do they treat their employees?

Ed: Do they test their employees? Do their employees have access to reliable PPE when necessary? If your building is not up to date (which might not be their fault), do they have the appropriate means to protect their employees and protect their customers?

Dan: What does the city do to get closer to this in the future? Do we make outdoor dining permanent? Do we take away certain amounts of our roadways, because having the two or three cars parked there matters less than an expanded area for 10 people to dine?

Ed: Public space has to be truly public. Outdoor dining, the minute it happened, people were just like, “How come this doesn’t happen all the time?”

We went to one of the strolls pre-pandemic. We were walking up Third Avenue. People were just like walking around. Kids were playing in the street. This is the way it should be all the time.

If I’m a business owner and I’m thinking about ways to mitigate potential lockdowns and ways to mitigate potential safety issues… reclaiming space outside their business is definitely something they should be petitioning for.

Now, some of the outdoor spaces went a little overboard. They just basically built a box on the road. But overall, I saw some amazing spaces built outside businesses that quite frankly should have been bigger. They should be able to do this year round, and then doing major expansions during the warmer months.

Dan: We’ve had friends of the podcast ask us like, “Hey, do you know if anyone’s doing open streets on Fifth Avenue or Third Avenue?” That could become the new Summer Strolls, but multiple days a week. And I think people would be really into that. By the way, if anyone wants to start working on that, DM or tweet us at the podcast. We’ll start hooking people up.

But also I do want to acknowledge that there are some inequities in the street front dining too. Some areas are in front of a bus stop. Some areas have benches or blocking street furniture. Some businesses are just too narrow, so they don’t have that much sidewalk space. For example, Royal Diner on Fifth has a doctor’s office next to it. That meant it could expand its outside dining to include both of those storefronts, because the Doctors office was closed and not using it.

So there are inequities, but there are also positive inequities. Some corner businesses that normally did not have much indoor seating at all actually had more seating, just with the outdoor seating alone. They expanded. You could not fit that many people in Caffè Café.

Now I’ll probably be releasing this at some point, but I walked through and documented the number of seats on every single outdoor dining establishment in Bay Ridge last year.

Ed: Of course you did.

Dan: I just want to wait. Once we get back into summer I’m going to go check again and see how they’ve changed and how they’ve improved. Then I’ll release that study.

Ed: People are positively engaging for the first time on reclaiming street space. I think that that’s just a huge benefit that I’m excited about.

You know, businesses can flourish if you target the ones that actually fit into the local economy. You look at who maxed out on some of the PPE loans… maybe the Bay Ridge Volvo dealership shouldn’t get millions of dollars.

Dan: Yeah. Bay Ridge Volvo isn’t a mom and pop. Small businesses got nowhere near what they needed because the process for those loans was very difficult. It favored large businesses that really did not need it, or did not employ that many people. Compare that to a restaurant that has servers, waitstaff, cooks, et cetera. And in tight spaces.

And there needs to be a much bigger discussion on direct aid. It seems like that was a dirty word among Republicans. I don’t know why giving people money to be safe is not just a universal thing that everyone can get on board with.

Ed: Giving people money to save their business too.

Dan: It’s going to  cost more now cause we didn’t do that.

Ed: Absolutely. We’re finally getting around to stimulus part two. The Biden administration got it done. I believe Nicole voted against it. And that’s a shame because that’s the direct relief that her local economy needs, and quite frankly should have gotten back in the third quarter of last year… and the fourth quarter of last year. If we’re serious about relief this shouldn’t be the last stimulus package.

Local Republicans Ignoring COVID

There are other places where you can affect real relief, and not just by putting money in people’s pockets. Rent forgiveness. Forgiveness of debt incurred during the pandemic for individuals and for businesses. This would be a huge benefit. That’s a conversation that I wish all of our local politicians would have.

Some of them are having that conversation the best they can, but really a lot of these things need to be implemented at the federal level. This is just me personally speaking, but I have been severely disappointed by how Nicole has performed in her legislative duties. If I were her, and I really cared about the local economy of her district, I would have done everything I could to bring stimulus money to the district.

Dan: To give Nicole a break (which I very rarely do), we also got our new City Council candidate who is running against our Democratic incumbent Justin Brannan.

Let’s look at Republican Brian Fox. I’m looking right now at his Facebook page, where he has his campaign platform in the about section. It has issues, all of which are tied to COVID, but he never mentions the virus.

Reading from his platform: “I support law enforcement.” Listen, number one, crime hasn’t been increasing. We just had a couple of days ago, the 68th precinct in Bay Ridge say crime is at an all time low. Only petite larceny has gone up a small amount. Listen back to our reforming the NYPD episode. You’ll learn about the major crimes index. But whether you use the Major Crimes Index or not, overall we have the lowest amount of crime that we’ve ever had in Bay Ridge.

Still, crime has increased in certain parts of New York City. But you never see people who blame progressives for rising crime rates acknowledge that we’re also in the middle of a pandemic. Lots of people are unemployed. Lots of people have been laid off. This affects crime. But of course, in Brian Fox’s platform, no mention about COVID.

Moving on to “Quality of life”. He mentions tagging and trash piling up on street corners. Again, we’re in the middle of an economic recession because of pandemic. Of course trash pickup had been cut! I think Brannan managed to get it brought back up to twice a week on the avenues because people were complaining about the dirtiness. But when we talk about collective sacrifice, come on guys, we can acknowledge that trash is the least of our problems when people are dying. It is tied back to the pandemic.

Next is “Continued support of our seniors and the disabled.” [Dan reads through the platform] He mentions healthcare. He mentions community centers, making things accessible, mentions that it’s a NORC. But yeah, again, no mention of COVID in that. And we have one of the most homebound populations. Trying to get people vaccinated in our neighborhood was (and is) a huge problem. Again, not mentioned.

“Continued support of local businesses.” This is what we were talking about. Reading from Brian Fox’s platform: “This is an area that is very close to my heart being that I am myself, a small business owner. I plan to work with the Third Avenue Merchants Association and other organizations to create local events and giveaways and fundraisers to stimulate small businesses and create an e-commerce platform. Under my leadership, I will defend our local businesses.” How are you going to do that without acknowledging we live in a post-COVID world? How are you going to do that without mentioning the science? How are you going to do that without mentioning that the elephant in the room for the next few years is going to be how everything ties back to the fact that we politicized and bungled one of the biggest public health crises in living memory?

Bonus Material! Brian Fox’s Complete Platform (via. Facebook 5/13/2021)

Campaign Platform:

Support of Local Law Enforcement: The continued support for our local law enforcement has to be one of the most important topics. It is our local cops that keep all of us safe and put themselves out on the line to prevent us from general harm. I’d like to have more cops on the beat, especially on all major streets and avenues. I also want to RE-FUND THE POLICE in response to the current councilman’s dangerous defunding efforts of our NYPD.

Quality of Life: There has been a growing bout of tagging, vandalism, theft and quality of life crimes. This is something that should never be integrated and accepted into any community as normal and yet everyday it is. Our fellow renters and homeowners pay way too much money to live in fear of crime, or with trash piling up on the street corners. I’ll be working with the Dept. of Sanitation on a regular basis to ensure that our streets get cleaned promptly but more importantly, remain that way.

The Continued Support of our Seniors and the disabled: Unfortunately, this is an area that is not being paid nearly enough attention by our current leadership. I will work with our current community centers to ensure that there is consistent levels of healthcare and prescription drug coverage, entertainment, transportation and programs. Furthermore, I’d like to create more community outreach by adding more community centers. I also plan to make our community fully accessible for seniors by next year. Lack of reliable accessibility and poor transportation alternatives for seniors is truly unacceptable for our district in the year 2021. I am proud that our part of Brooklyn is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) and I will always make senior citizens my top priority.

The continued Support of local businesses: This is an area that is very close to my heart, being that I myself, am a small business owner. I plan to work with the 3rd Ave. Merchants Association and other organizations to help create local events, giveaways, fundraisers and more, in order for small businesses to communicate and advertise in a more streamlined manner and help them effectively reach local consumers and customers. I will be working with individual owners to create e-commerce platforms for them to sell items and goods online as well. Under my leadership, we will support our local businesses and defend them against a City Council and Administration that has destroyed so many and put the rest on life support.

Ed: I couldn’t agree more. For several cycles now the conservative parties have all been eschewing science. There has been documented rhetoric at all levels on the right when it comes to not believing in the scientific process.

I think that the GOP, in order to protect who they perceive to be their core group of voters, they won’t say the right things… even if they themselves might believe in rigorous scientific processes and outcomes. And Fox’s platform that you just pointed out, he is a great example of that. He wants this core group of people who are always going to vote Republican to come out and vote. And many of them are not motivated by hearing about how to keep people safe from COVID. Quite frankly, many of them might not even believe that there’s a pandemic happening

I think Brian Fox actually took a picture with the man that ran against Mathylde Frontus. Right?

Dan: Yeah. Mark Szuszkiewicz. He was at the Capitol protests. This is a QAnon crazy dude.

Ed: He’s a Q guy.

Dan: We’re not getting classical GOP candidates. We’re getting Q. And it’s nuts.

Ed: If you are concerned about having unity in our political rhetoric when it comes to the pandemic (and coming out of the pandemic and making sure that people stay healthy) you need both parties to be on message about this.

In the United States we take pride in our natural propensity to protect freedom of choice and people’s individual opinions. But you don’t get to choose to believe in the pandemic. You don’t get to choose to believe in vaccines. You don’t get to choose to believe in the measures that you’re supposed to take to keep people safe.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the most conservative person out there. You should believe that over 500,000 people have died. You should believe that hundreds of people have died in South Brooklyn. You can’t choose to believe it. We need our political leaders to be leaders. I think that there are GOP politicians out there who are capable of doing this. I haven’t seen many of them, but I believe that they’re there.

Cuomo’s Hidden Hospital Data

Dan: There are Democrats too that are to blame. We had Cuomo manipulating nursing home statistics. This is a bipartisan thing.

Ed: Absolutely.

Dan: We don’t bash Cuomo all the time on Radio Free Bay Ridge because Cuomo rarely deigns to come down to Bay Ridge to be a local thing I can report on. And by the way, go listen to me and Ed’s other episode where we shit on Cuomo quite a bit.

Ed: And we haven’t done it quite enough on this episode. You brought up the nursing home coverup, which I think we could have devoted an entire conversation to.

But if you took the same level of scrutiny to what happened in our hospitals during COVID, he would have resigned. It was that bad. I remember at the peak of it never being able to do any zoom meetings at night because we were debriefing our executive committee leaders across our union. These are people who were on the front line, who were telling us about the war zones that were inside their hospitals. In peace time, these hospitals are chronically understaffed. They were suddenly forced to deal with patient loads that were several orders of magnitude above what they’re safely capable of handling… and without proper PPE in the beginning.

The New York Times pointed out over the summer that there was a direct relationship between how well-resourced and staffed hospitals were to patient outcomes.

Our state is really bad at COVID transparency in general. It took, of all people, Bill Hammond from the Empire Center, a paleoconservative policy wonk, suing the Department of Health to get that nursing home data released. That really put Cuomo’s popularity into a tailspin.

As soon as that data was released, my team and I at the Nurses Union, we put in a similar information request for hospitals. Like, we said, “Okay, you released the nursing home data. Like, why can’t you release this for hospitals?” He wouldn’t do it. We’ve gotten two denials so far.

A lot of researchers in our state have pointed out at how awful our state is at transparency in general. But specifically on COVID, we don’t know how bad it was in our hospitals. We know how bad it was based on what the people that work there tell us. But if you want to know how many positive cases there were in Maimonides Hospital between March of 2020 and present, we don’t know that. We don’t know how many people died there either.

To me, that is just as important as knowing how many people died in the nursing homes. And I think that Cuomo is thanking whatever deity is looking out for him right now that people haven’t made a stink about what happened in our hospitals. I believe that if we really knew what happened, he would have had to resign.

Dan: I’ve seen that on the personal side too. My mom was one of the first people to get COVID. We didn’t know it at the time. It was Valentine’s Day. There were neurological complications. Early on we thought it was all pneumatic. We thought it was just the lungs.

Ed: No, no, no.

Dan: Now we know. It can cause blood clotting and neurological issues.

Ed: Renal issues.

Dan: And then she had a massive hemorrhagic stroke.

I was with her in the hospital, just as things were starting to get serious with COVID. Back then, you could walk into the hospital. But by the end of her recovery, after a month or so, that’s when things changed. Now I needed to sign in. Now they’re starting to ask if I’ve had feverish conditions. They started locking down on her last day in the hospital.

So then we moved over into the nursing home system. And so I got to experience the nursing home system. She was locked down and I couldn’t see her for seven months. This was at a local Bay Ridge nursing home. And she’s been describing the horrors. Not knowing what’s going on. A floor at this nursing home dedicated just to people who were sick. Trying to set up isolation wards within the nursing homes.

And I can’t imagine what was happening at the hospital at the very same time. And my mom is not going to be in any of those COVID stats. The data doesn’t really exist for the early days of the crisis.

Ed: No.

Dan: …because we weren’t tracking it.

We talk about the big spike in the winter because that’s the only spike we have really reliable data for. We don’t know how bad it was early on.

Ed: No we don’t.

Dan: I imagine the hospital data would be a great way of trying to reveal what was happening there. Looking at similar conditions that we obviously may have misdiagnosed. But we’re not going to see that data.

Ed: Not unless of course organizations like mine and others prevail on getting more transparency out of the Cuomo administration.

First of all, I’m really glad your mom’s doing better. I’m really glad you told your listeners what your mom’s experience was in the nursing home. I think one of the things that I’m hopeful for coming out of all of this is that all of our acute care facilities, all of our long-term care facilities, are going to see real reform. Because the nursing home industry in New York City and New York State is rife with corruption in ownership.

They operate on the thinnest of margins because they’re forced to. The reimbursement for nursing homes is not great.

Dan: Broken ratings systems that are gamed based on number of falls and misreporting and all of that.

Ed: Absolutely. And not staffed properly, either. All these places point to their labor costs as their biggest expense, which of course it is. But there’s entire bureaucracies built around just billing for things. So there’s a lot of administrative overhead that people don’t account for either.

But anyway, in this construct that we find ourselves in for elder care, my grandmother got COVID too. In her nursing home she was isolated for a week. And the only reason she had contact with the outside world is that my mother is a registered nurse. She was able to go visit her because she knew how to don and doff the Personal Protective Equipment properly. So when my grandma came off the isolation ward, my mom was able to go visit her and check on her. But most people did not have that luxury. I think that your example where you couldn’t see your mother for seven months… that is a very common story.

And on top of that, there are people who lost their loved ones that just have no idea what actually happened, because it happened during a time where there was just no reporting or transparency on the issue.

And this was done under a Democratic administration. Theoretically they should be all about transparency and better reporting. Instead, what we got was obfuscation. Total fabrication in some cases.

Hyperlocal Data Transparency

I think at a local level if we’re going to deal with this appropriately moving forward we just need to have better information. We can’t just trust that a bunch of government policy wonks will have all the solutions. There are a lot of organizations out there that work in parallel providing relief to our community. Government shouldn’t discount that.

For example, I remember when you guys at Radio Free Bay Ridge put up your first dashboard. You built it with the city data. I remember thinking to myself immediately, “I’m so glad Dan did this.” Because I literally was thinking to myself, “Oh, I should try to isolate Bay Ridge in this data, because I really want to see what’s happening on a local level.” And I just couldn’t do it because I was so busy working on the zoomed out views from our organization.

By the way, I don’t know if your listeners ever had a chance to go look at this stuff. But what you did in that beginning period was just really phenomenal. I don’t think anybody had taken the pains to actually go in and clean up the data.

Dan: Yeah, it was really messy. There would be days where the total number of infections would go down. The cumulative total. And it was confusing for Bay Ridge because apparently they were saying, “Oh, sometimes we were accidentally reporting the zip code of the hospital, not the zip code of the person.” But there are no 11209 public hospitals. Was the Department of Health counting the VA hospital? But I think that’s a different zip code too. If anything, the numbers should be going up dramatically, not dropping. And other days it would just be zeroed out for three days straight, and that would throw the percent positive number off entirely. So I had to make some custom algorithms to ignore days where there were negative numbers of new cases. That’s what the city and state were providing us.

Ed: I remember showing my team. You were exposing all the flaws that we were sort of aware of, but they don’t surface as much when you’re taking a citywide view or even a borough level view. Big snapshots doesn’t really expose a lot of those things. I just remember showing my team and saying “Look, we have to caveat the shit out of this.”

That was because you had access to the data, and we had access to the data. We were able to use it to make informed decisions. If we don’t have the proper information, and if there isn’t accountability for our government to provide it on a regular basis… then we’re always going to struggle.

And by the way, the city got its act together. If you noticed, three weeks ago or two weeks ago, our city finally put in latitude and longitude information. (laughter) It took over a year for that to happen. I’m not going to ascribe blame. There’s really poorly compensated people working to maintain these things.

But at a certain point, you have to say, “Look, if we’re going to track this properly, and give our communities access to their information, you have to have transparency.” All the stuff we’re seeing at the city level, where they’re tracking things like demographics and things like that, the state’s not doing it as well.

Not only that. You know the facility level and zip-code specific data we talked about? Not just for New York City, but for the entire state? I know for a fact that the New York State Department of Health has that level of data. If you look at the state level visualizations, it has to be summing something. And the state can’t report how many hospitalizations it has if it doesn’t know which hospitals they’re coming from. So they very clearly know this.

But if you go to their dashboard, there’s nowhere to download the data. It was a running joke on Twitter for a while for researchers and wonks. We measure our intrinsic happiness by whether or not the download icon on the dashboard is grayed out or not.

And all joking aside. Someone like you, who is embedded in the community and knows the local issues, accesses that data. Then you process it for our neighborhood to see and understand in a way that relates to us. There’s nobody at the state level or even the city level who focuses on what specifically is happening in Bay Ridge. They’re not going to do that.

Dan: And it’s important for all of our listeners. Go and look at that data. I didn’t get a degree in data science. This is something that anyone can go and toy with.

Ed: Absolutely.

Dan: And the more people who know that language, the better we all are. And not just for public health, but for all kinds of things. The economy, et cetera.

COVID and Anti-Asian Hatred

But in the end, you also don’t need to be an expert to know where to place blame on this. (laughter) Again, we’ve been talking about data failures, but this was a failure of leadership at the highest levels of federal government. It’s where everything should come from. You can lay blame to many individuals down that chain. But everything that the GOP and Democrats did were in relation to the mood that was set by our president at the time.

Ed: There was a lack of a robust federal response from the beginning. Bring the States together. Create a unified policy. Make infrastructure an issue. Have resources available at the federal level, like FEMA, the military, whoever. The White House had those structures that they could have activated. They did not.

Because quite frankly, President Trump spent four years dismantling a lot of it, including by the way, an entire pandemic response infrastructure that the last Republican President, George W. Bush, was all about. George W. Bush is probably one of the worst presidents in history when it comes to my own personal viewpoints. But when it came to the pandemic politics, he was very devoted to making sure that we’re ready for something like this. At first, that was shocking to me, but it shouldn’t have been. Because that’s just a rational thought process.

With Trump, you can draw a direct line to what’s happening in our Asian American communities across the country to his insistence that we call it the Wuhan virus or the China virus. That lack of leadership really was the genesis of a lot of the struggles that we had locally.

Dan: During the Trump administration we had a big resurgence in the narrative of illegal home conversions, locally. It was often a mask for anti-Asian hatred. (Sarcastically:) It’s “illegals”, but we mean “illegal conversions”. “We don’t want Asian people moving into Dyker Heights.” That kind of shit.

There have been consistently, over the last four and more years, local “concern” about Asian spas and shit. We just saw a shooting targeting that. I couldn’t help but think that there are people here, in our neighborhood, that could have that same level of psychotic disconnect. A lot of that hatred was already here.

Ed: I totally agree. Trump is not the cause of anti-Asian racism. Like you said, that’s something that’s been an evergreen issue in our community. He just made it okay for it to be visible and present in a much more obvious way.

The language that he used around the China virus. The Wuhan virus. All the disgusting things our neighbors have been saying about “dirty Chinese people” when they talk about that stretch on 86th where all their businesses are. When they talk about the kinds of food that Asian-Americans eat. There’s an amazingly racist and misinformed thread about eating bats was the cause of COVID and all that kind of bullshit.

If there is documented evidence of somebody putting out that kind of rhetoric and believing it, that should preclude you from ever attaining higher office.

Dan: I know that there are some people that are running for office, or want to run, that said racist shit. But they’ve expunged their social media records as it became clear that what they said were easily searchable terms.

Ed: As my second favorite hyper-local social media account Bay Ridge Bigots likes to say (which, by the way, people haven’t seen it, they should go check it out…)

Dan: It’s amazing.

Ed: …it’s wonderful.  Screenshots are forever.

You cannot hold office and believe these things and expect to be a good leader. Trump is the prime example. And all of his progeny too, both actual progeny and political progeny. They are prime examples of people who should not be put into leadership positions anymore. Because they have been proven to not believe in science and not believe in making sure that people are protected. And all that nasty rhetoric around China…

By the way I’m not Chinese. I’m Korean-American. But it really does (pause) roll downhill.

You know, just one last personal story on that front. You know… my wife took our daughter out once. My daughter is mixed race. A gentlemen took it upon himself to comment “What a nice Chinese baby” my wife had. And I just remember, like… that’s the kind of stuff that that rhetoric is elevating. Right?

Dan: Yeah.

Ed: And it starts there. And then it ends with people complaining about “dirty Chinese” in our neighborhoods. And I think that if we’re going to come out of this normal… and by the way, we didn’t talk about this enough: Normal should not be the goal. We need to be better than normal because if we’re just normal we’re going to go through another fucking pandemic.

There has to be a new normal. Our elected leaders need to be held accountable. And I don’t know if Joe Biden is the answer to that. But he certainly has created mechanisms and infrastructure that leads me to believe that he will do a better job than Trump.

And on a local level, if all of a sudden Nicole turns a corner, I’d be happy to acknowledge that. If she turns around and says, “Stop shitting on Chinese people. Stop shitting on Asian Americans. And I’m going to advocate for more relief to our community.”

Politicians Refusing to Get Vaccinated

Dan: Maybe this is where we wrap up, which is: politicians should have been the first ones vaccinated. Because they need to do the work of our government. But Nicole wasn’t one of the ones who got vaccinated.

Ed: Yeah.

Dan: Congress had its own supply of vaccine early on. Nicole did not vaccinate. This was not very well reported on. She kind of let it slip in a local news article when she was trying to hype up the pop-up vaccine center on Staten Island. It said she was going to get her shot there. And I was like, “Holy shit, you don’t have it yet.”

This was after the whip and the minority house leader we’re trying to argue that Congress should reopen in person. Because things were slowing down. And that votes were happening too slowly. Nicole infamously was talking about how the COVID relief thing was passed in “the middle of the night.”

And it was because, you know, everything was remote. You couldn’t do anything in person. And a lot of them were at CPAC at the time…. (laughter) and that’s why it was done late.

So Nicole was part of the reason that it was done late because she didn’t vaccinate. Nicole had her own congressional supply! But instead, she is going to use the public supply at a PR event. She’s going to use a vaccine dose that was shipped to our neighborhoods when she didn’t need it. She could have gotten it elsewhere. She’s taking someone else’s vaccine. For a photo op.

And I even don’t think she took a photo or a video of her getting the vaccine. She didn’t say, “Hey, it’s safe.” The people who need to see that shit are exactly the people that follow Nicole.

Vaccines Are Safe and Effective

Ed: If you haven’t gotten the vaccine yet, they are effective.

There was a lot of amazing science behind it that Dan could probably devote another entire episode to. But basically, because medical researchers were looking into other Coronaviruses, they manufactured the first prototype within the first few weeks of January of last year. It’s an amazing thing that folks should read into.

It works and people should get it. The more people that get it, the safer we’ll all be. Our neighbors need to be safe. Our neighborhood needs to be safe.

Dan: I got it. I’m sure you’ve gotten it.

Ed: Yeah.

Dan: Go get it. Unless there’s a major health risk where your doctor has said, “This is a risk for you”… get your vaccine.

Ed: By the way, I got my second dose and I was totally ready to spend a day with a fever and stuff. And it turned out it was fine. People should be ready to feel crappy after the second dose, but you know, some people are okay.

Dan: And do it because you care about your neighbors. Do it because you care about people like my mom. She got it from someone. Do it because you care about your loved ones. Do it because you care about your local businesses, if you don’t care about human beings. (laughter) If you care about your local businesses, apparently, more than people. If you care about Salty Dog or whatever, fine, do it for Salty Dog! (laughter) I don’t care. Do it for any reason! Just do it.

Ed: That should be where we end it. If anything else, please get the vaccine for Salty Dog. (laughter)


Dan: Alright. Ed, thanks so much for coming on, man. It’s always great to have you. I think we have great conversations when you get two data wonks in the room talking about really serious and important issues.

Ed: No problem. What I hope people take away from this conversation is: the information that we alluded to in this episode is highly accessible. You don’t need an advanced degree to understand it. And I think it really empowers you in your daily life. I have no formal training on any of this stuff. And it’s accessible to me, so I think it would be accessible to everyone else too.

Dan: So that’s our episode everyone. As always follow us on @RadioFreeBR on Twitter. Check us out on Facebook. Go to our website at where they’ll have show notes and more data. You can check out those COVID stats that we had mentioned earlier and a lot more.

So until next time everyone… stay free, Bay Ridge.

This episode was recorded on April 1st, 2021 with Daniel Hetteix and Ed Yoo in our digital studios located in beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. All post-production and editing was done by our producer, Daniel Hetteix.

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