Like many Americans, Andrew Cuomo was separated from some of his loved ones during the early days of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — specifically his widowed mother, Matilda — even as the New York governor became a leading voice during his daily press briefings from the center of the health crisis.
In an interview with PEOPLE, Cuomo talked about seeing his mom for the first time after months of separation (and how she was ready with pages of commentary about his leadership) as well as his family's COVID-19 scare and how his three daughters inspired him to write his latest book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
"I had great pain not seeing my mother for such a long period of time," says Cuomo, 62, of the early days of the pandemic, when he held daily briefings for 111 days straight.
"Intellectually, I knew it was right, because God forbid I infect her," he says. "But it was a very hard. My mother is 89 years old. Five months [apart] at 89 years old is a long time."
Since the pandemic began, more than 30,000 New Yorkers have died — more than any other state, reaching a peak in the spring of 799 deaths in a day.
As those numbers were bent back to zero, thanks in part to masks, social distancing and other public health measures, the governor acknowledged reopening would be difficult. He continues to face daily challenges and the state is battling "hot spots." But there hasn't been a second wave of the pandemic in New York, even as cases surge across other parts of the country.
During Cuomo's daily briefings, which were watched by many across the U.S., the governor built a national profile through personality — a mix of candor, no-nonsense and empathy — and personal stories.
His brother, CNN anchor Chris, who contracted COVID-19 in March, made appearances. The governor invited his mom and his daughters — twins Mariah and Cara, 25, and their sister Michaela, 22, whom he shares with ex-wife Kerry Kennedy — to tune in virtually at the briefings. His children also assisted with the state's pandemic response and sometimes made personal appearances at the briefings
Cuomo says that each day, Matilda watched and wrote down questions and comments. By the time they saw each other, his mom was ready for him: She had pages of notes about his handling of the pandemic, partially influenced by the many calls she'd received from friends who used to work with her late husband, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
"My mother, she had 12 years with my father as governor. Eight years besides that where he was in public service, right? She's a pro," Cuomo tells PEOPLE. "So, she had all sorts of commentary that she wanted to make, but she didn't want to do it in the midst of the day-to-day [briefings]."
When the time was right, Cuomo says that his mom "went through her pages of points, one by one."
Her biggest point, he says? How proud her late husband would be of their eldest son.
"The emotion was pride," the governor says. "She will say, 'We are so proud of you. We wanted you to know that we thought you really did a good job.' "
He continues: "The 'we' is my mother and my father. Now you could say, 'How does she know that? Because your father has passed away.' But she believes she has license to speak for him. And she does have license to speak for him. It's a beautiful thing."
Even with his mom's notes in hand, the governor knows the pandemic is not over.
His book, American Crisis, which published on Tuesday, instructs readers on how to prepare for what he calls "second half" of the pandemic. His girls say they pushed him to write it.
"From the first day, we were all saying, 'You have to write this down. You have to communicate this somehow,' " Cara explained during a joint interview with CBS News, which aired on Sunday.
While Cuomo doesn't know when life will return to normal, he says the end of the pandemic is intrinsically linked to how Americans act moving forward.
"It's halftime. The first half, the virus didn't defeat us. We pushed it back, but we didn't defeat the virus either," he says. "And there's going to be a whole second half, and we have to play the second half differently."
The governor says his days aren't much different from how they were in April, except that he feels less anxious.
"Now we have the lowest infection rate in the country," he says. "Overall the anxiety is down. And I feel a sense of control that I didn't feel."
Despite the low infection rate, Cuomo — who also faced scrutiny for some of his pandemic decisions — has received criticism for his reopening plan, most recently from the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City. There, huge numbers of people have (sometimes violently) protested the closing of large religious gatherings.
"They're not new rules. They've been in effect for seven months," Cuomo says in response. "They just haven't followed them. So every day is a new challenge."
The governor's book also includes anecdotes from life amid the isolation of the pandemic's first months. His three daughters moved to the governor’s mansion in Albany to quarantine together — what he has called the one "silver lining."
But it wasn't all happy family meals. In his book, Cuomo writes that he had to play contract tracing "detective" after he learned that Cara and Michaela had both been around a friend of their mother's who tested positive for COVID-19. The two quarantined until it was confirmed that everyone who had been possibly exposed was negative for the virus. (Mariah was also notified and immediately wanted to get tested.)
"For me, the lasting feeling was fear," the governor writes.
Later, when his daughters were at home with him, they decided to help him in his pandemic efforts, from tracking down personal protective equipment to leading a mask-wearing PSA campaign.
Now, Cara is prepping to take the LSATs and Mariah is studying for the GMATs. (Cara continues to live with her dad.)
"They figured they'd use the time to take courses," he says. "Michaela moved back into the city because she's the youngest and she's adventurous. But they're doing well."
On CBS, his daughters talked about spending time with their dad — and what he's like behind closed doors.
"Is he touchy-feely? No. But I think he is an amazingly vulnerable man," Michaela said, before turning to her dad. "Do you like that?"
"I'll take that," he joked. "I'm sensitive. I'm a sensitive soul."
Laughs aside, the governor is grateful for the unexpected time with his girls.
"It was a very intense time and emotionally intense time," Cuomo tells PEOPLE. "So I feel closer to them on a practical level than I have in years. It's not that I loved them more or less. It's just we've had more time — and time matters."
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