— Rob Astorino (@RobAstorino) October 7, 2014
Rob Astorino, New York’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, grandstanded for the cameras Tuesday, demanding that New York City airports cease receiving flights from West Africa, in order to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.
“God help us if Ebola comes into New York because we were afraid to offend someone,” he intoned, with the United Nations building providing a backdrop of the requisite gravitas. “I therefore call on the FAA today to halt air travel to New York area airports [from affected West African nations] until proper protocols are in place.”
Astorino’s announcement came only a day before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it will be increasing screening procedures for the virus at major U.S. airports, including JFK and Newark International.
The candidate’s remarks didn’t go over very well with his opponent, Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“I don’t think it works mechanically to say, ‘Shut off entry from any country,’ because what happens is you just fly to another country and…then you come in from that country,” Cuomo told reporters, according to the New York Observer. “So you can’t come in from Liberia. ‘OK, so I’ll fly to Paris, I’ll come in from Paris.’ ”
The governor has a point. There are only a few flights from West African cities directly to New York; many people flying in from the region make connections in Europe.
Also, while West Africa is ground zero for Ebola, the virus has so far spread mostly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, three small coastal nations on a huge continent. There are five weekly flights to New York from Accra, Ghana, a country that hasn’t been hit by Ebola. Liberia, the nearest nation in crisis, is more than 300 miles away. There are three flights a week from Nigeria, a nation that has drawn praise for containing the disease to 20 people. Does Astorino really think refusing air travel from Lagos will stop the spread of Ebola? Is he high?
Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit that has been at the forefront of the fight against the outbreak, says Astorino’s proposed gambit would merely make it more difficult for doctors and medicine to get into the countries that needed it. “It is crucial that airlines continue flying to the affected region,” the group responded in a statement when contacted by the Voice. “An accelerated mobilization of personnel and resources is necessary to control the Ebola epidemic.”
Though Astorino never said he wants to stop humanitarian aid, a Doctors Without Borders spokesman points out that most commercial planes at some point turn around and fly back in the direction whence they came. British Airways, for example, halted flights both to and from Sierra Leone and Liberia — and is facing criticism from Doctors Without Borders and other non-governmental organizations for hampering humanitarian efforts.
So why is Astorino suggesting something so…well, dumb? Alex Patton, who owns the conservative political consulting firm Ozean, has an idea.
“Anxiety works. Anxiety sells, period,” Patton says. “You see that in every election. My grand theory in political campaigning is: If I do something novel, I may get your attention. But it’s only when I make you anxious that I’ll change your voting behavior.”
Statewide, Astorino is running about 24 percentage points behind Cuomo. So he’ll have to make a whole lot of people really anxious.