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Leadership when it counts from Cuomo, Poloncarz and Burstein

Leadership can be hard to define but easy to spot. New Yorkers, and particularly those in Erie County, are for the most part watching a master class in how to take charge in a time of upheaval.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, his health commissioner, Dr. Gale Burstein and especially Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are rising to the occasion as the times call for hard decisions to protect the public health.

Cuomo was singled out for his leadership on Sunday by two prominent health officials – Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who was commissioner of the federal Food and Drug Administration from 2017 until last April.

“I think Andrew Cuomo has been leading very far ahead,” Gottlieb said on the CBS News program "Face the Nation." “I think he’s been very aggressive in doing a good job.” He said he wished New York City’s public schools had been closed. By Monday morning, they were.

So were all schools in Erie County. Poloncarz made that decision on Sunday, making fast use of the authority that came with the state of emergency he declared. School officials were quick to agree, moving toward distance learning until at least April 20. It’s all in the name of stopping – or at least slowing – the transmission of COVID-19. “We don’t want to become like Italy,” the county executive said.

In that suffering country, more than 1,800 people have died from the novel coronavirus, including 368 just between Saturday and Sunday. Such figures should sober anyone who thinks governments are overreacting to the threat. It’s real.

Poloncarz is leading based in part on Burstein’s expertise. Her leadership in the opioid crisis and other matters should give county residents confidence in her abilities.

We are in uncharted territory and there will be mistakes and unintended consequences that must be addressed. County officials seemed slow last week in providing information, for example, but that may already be improving.

But it is clear that avoiding Italy’s misery requires “flattening the curve.” Social distancing slows transmission and allows the medical infrastructure to cope with the most serious cases. That can vastly reduce the risk of fatalities. It’s what Cuomo and Poloncarz are attempting to achieve by limiting the size of gatherings to no more than 50 people.

Those who still think governments are going too far need to understand that if elected leaders waited until the need was obvious, it would already be too late.

Cuomo and Poloncarz are making a difference. This won’t be easy, but they’re taking the right approach.

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