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Eric Adams

City Is Taking Air Quality Crisis Very Seriously, Mayor Adams Says On His Way to Hang With Robert De Niro

A mayor more accustomed to photo-ops than emergencies struggled to find his footing during the air emergency

Eric Adams out on the town with Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro. (Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)

Shortly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, as his second-to-last publicly scheduled act of the day, Eric Adams rolled up to the Emergency Management Department building in Downtown Brooklyn, ascended to the agency's third-floor command center where large monitors were displaying the shifting weather conditions of the Eastern seaboard, and gave the handful of reporters and TV cameras who had assembled an update on how his administration is handling the air quality crisis of the past two days.

The situation is indeed severe, Adams and his team told the press. Air quality in New York City on Wednesday was the worst in half a century, and had deteriorated at nearly unprecedented rates. The situation remains unpredictable, the mayor and his team stressed, and unhealthy conditions are likely to persist for at least another day. They rattled off a number of steps that individuals can take to help themselves. Number one: Stay indoors, if you can. (Most City workers are still required to come to work, said the mayor, who also declined to call for private employers to allow their workers to work from home.) Number two: If you have to go outside, wear a high-quality N95 or KN95 mask.

Where might people get these masks?

"The City has also put in place a potential way to distribute masks through our firehouses and our police precincts," the mayor said. "That operation is currently being coordinated now. In the meantime, we recommend all New Yorkers take the precaution to protect themselves."

When would this potential way to distribute masks become an actual way to distribute masks? Hell Gate asked the mayor. He didn't say, but said that in addition to the possible NYPD- and FDNY-led mask distribution system, he will be personally delivering masks to public housing projects. (In an address an hour earlier, Governor Kathy Hochul had already announced that the state would begin mask distribution at key locations in New York City and around the state on Thursday.)

It would be reasonable to think that after years of the COVID pandemic, the City might have developed a system for getting necessary public health supplies into the hands of people who need them, but it appeared that the mayor and his team were building a new system, from scratch, two days into a crisis.

It feels like the City often has to start from scratch for emergencies like this, said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who distributed masks today and kept city residents updated via Twitter on the scary decline in air quality throughout the afternoon. 

"We're in the era of unprecedented crises, and that just means we're going to have to be permanently ready for the next unprecedented thing," he told Hell Gate, pointing out that the City itself wasn't ready to distribute masks, despite ample warning about air quality. "We need an automatic threshold for air quality that could serve as a warning to get ready, and then we need to immediately pivot to mask distribution, because it turns out that a lot of New Yorkers don't have them, and the City has wound down its mask distribution programs."

Levine said that the City's approach to public health hasn't changed, even after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"This is the perpetual problem with public health—it's neglected until we're in crisis, and then we revert back to underfunding and undersupporting those critical systems," he said. "I thought COVID would change that, but nothing has really changed, because of exhaustion and politicization. The lesson is really clear, though. We need permanent capacity for our public health systems, because we know that there's going to be more emergencies, and a lot of them are going to be directly related to air."

Dr. Jay Varma, formerly a public health advisor in the de Blasio administration who is now a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, told Hell Gate that mask distribution should be directed to where it's needed most—to those already most impacted by disparities in health. 

"For [the] short term, distribute N95/KN95 masks to neighborhoods of the city where vulnerability is greatest," he wrote in an email, with a focus on "NYCHA residencies, areas with the highest rates of asthma."

He also recommended getting cars off the road, a step not taken by the Adams administration or the state, and improving the City's monitoring of air quality and forecasts, so events like this don't get treated as "unpredictable." 

On Wednesday evening, Councilmember Lincoln Restler called for the mayor to declare what he deemed a "Code Red" emergency, to get unhoused New Yorkers and those needing shelter off the streets and into places with air circulation. He also called for an investigation into the City's handling of the emergency. 

Levine, the Manhattan borough bresident, looks forward to a time when events like this week's wildfire crisis won't be treated as discrete emergencies.

"When it comes to supplies like masks, a stockpile is only half the battle. Having a distribution network that can be activated means a permanent investment, and we do that for things like snow removal. That's what investments are for, events like this, where we can do mass distribution without much warning." 

Back at the Emergency Management building on Wednesday evening, Eric Adams concluded his press conference and got back into his black SUV. He changed from a sober suit and tie into a more expressive pinstripe jacket, and sped across the bridge to Lower Manhattan and the festivities surrounding the first night of the Tribeca Festival. Before he could distribute masks to public housing residents, he needed to distribute a key to the city to Robert De Niro.

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