NEW YORK — Mark Levine, a member of the New York City Council and chairman of its health committee, dismissed early anxieties as "fear mongering." Then he and his wife fell ill.
In the weeks since their recovery from covid-19, Levine (D) has become one of the city’s most outspoken and occasionally polarizing figures, seizing on his newfound spotlight to make one of the most ambitious proposals in New York’s recent history: creation of a $1 billion Public Works Administration — but for public health.
The thought of resurrecting a Depression-era jobs program — Levine calls it the “Public Health Corps” — fits a pattern for the city councilor. As the mayor hesitated over whether to cancel the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, Levine pushed for closing restaurants and bars. “Bring hospital staff out of retirement,” he tweeted. “Cancel vacations. Allow docs to work in another specialty. This is wartime.”
He pushed for racial-disparity data, which captured the attention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), among others in Washington. He publicly debated hospitals’ practice of turning away sick patients — and was scorched by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) for it. (The mayor called him “irresponsible, inaccurate and unfair,” although Levine was proved right.) And even as hospitalizations and deaths peaked, Levine was adamant that “every single measure of this pandemic is an undercount. Every. Single. One.”
Now, as city officials weigh how to reopen from a weeks-long shutdown, he has advocated reopening beaches as “a relief valve” — or, he warned, “we’ll have a dangerous level of lack of compliance on social distancing.”
With more than 157,000 confirmed novel coronavirus cases and 17,000 deaths as of Wednesday, New York City remains a global epicenter of the pandemic and joins the rest of the nation in a syzygy of possible turning points: growing calls for loosening restrictions, fears about the virus’s probable second wave, and piercing optimism about advances in vaccine development.
At this moment, the city’s 8 million residents — 21 percent of whom have been infected, according to estimates from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) — find themselves teetering on the precipice of either a recovery from the virus or a resurgence of it. And despite the triangulating swirl of barbs and bluster coming from City Hall, the governor’s office and the White House, the next steps taken here will be determined, by and large, by public health officials and those who oversee them.
A city council member since 2014, Levine, 50, has become to many this city’s unlikely pandemic political conscience. “Mark Levine has become the Anthony Fauci of the New York City Council,” said fellow council member Ritchie Torres (D), referencing the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert who is helping to guide the federal government’s response. “Like Fauci, he has a calm and cerebral approach that puts people at ease in a moment of crisis. Both colleagues and constituents look to Mark to guide them through complex issues surrounding covid-19.”
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), whose congressional district includes Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood, overlapping with Levine’s jurisdiction, agreed: “In this fight, he has kept his feet on the ground and asked for things that often don’t seem to be popular or part of the script but really make a lot of sense.”
Though his perspective is shaped in part by having been personally stricken by the virus — his wife experienced a 103-degree fever for 15 days, he said — Levine is not a doctor, and his political compass can do 180-degree turns. To de Blasio’s fury, he leaked the city’s dire contingency plan to use public parks as temporary burial sites, seemingly to provoke social distancing compliance and to highlight how deadly serious this pandemic had become. To even his allies’ bewilderment, he also advocated for the reopening of public beaches, a move widely criticized as reckless when it happened in Florida. (Asked what informed his viewpoint, Levine pointed to a media report he’d read.)
“It can be an advantage not to be an actual scientist,” he said in an interview. “I can be more of a bridge.”
Throughout the crisis, Levine has become a fixture in the local, national and international media, including several Spanish-language programs. There’s a natural reason people are paying attention: He oversees the city’s $1.6 billion health department. But his credentials are more extensive, giving him broad, poignant insight into flash points surrounding the pandemic.
He knows schooling from his days as a bilingual math and science teacher in the South Bronx and his time as Teach For America’s New York City director. He knows financial insecurity and behavioral economics from his founding of Harlem’s Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union. He knows mass transit from serving as transportation chair of his Manhattan community board.
Levine is fluent in Hebrew and Spanish and small-talk smatterings of Arabic, Bengali, French, Greek and Gujarati — “enough to shock store owners,” he said. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, a master’s in public policy from Harvard and now, suddenly, a spotlight.
His learning curve hasn’t flattened, he said, acknowledging having addressed plenty of questions about the crisis with “fairly mushy answers.” Call it an occupational hazard.
“Public health is where hardcore science meets public opinion,” Levine said. “The best science in the world isn’t worth anything if you can’t make it compelling.”
That has meant, for example, throwing cold water on what he called “irrational exuberance” around antibody tests, dubbing the science — which has so far shown both “false negative” and “false positive results” — a “dose of reality.” He has said, too, that New York City cannot get ahead of the virus until daily new infections drop below 500. They’re now at least 1,300, conservatively.
He laid out public health benchmarks that need to be met for 10 to 14 days before there’s further consideration of restarting key sectors of the economy and then noted on Twitter that “so far we haven’t hit any of these marks for even 1 day.” And he has rallied behind the city health commissioner, Oxiris Barbot — who is a pediatrician, not an epidemiologist, pathologist or virologist — calling her a “sober, science-based” leader managing “one of the toughest jobs on Earth” despite calls from some council colleagues that her initial misreading of the crisis merits resignation.
Without many analogues nationally — although he closely monitors developments in Chicago and Los Angeles — Levine stays informed on a steady diet of BBC podcasts, TVE1 Spanish news, and Kan Hadashot Israeli television. He has scrutinized missteps in Japan and Singapore. And citing models that suggest a substantial undercount of the loss of life after Hurricane Maria brutalized Puerto Rico in 2017, he said New York’s citywide death toll is likely far larger when accounting for a surge in the number of people who’ve died at home during the crisis.
Now, the city needs a temporary 15,000-person Public Health Corps, Levine said, calling such an undertaking “almost unprecedented” in the nation’s history. “We essentially have to do the equivalent of building FDNY in 30 days, an agency of that scale and complexity,” including “a new transportation system, new telemedicine system, and hoteling for thousands,” he said. Targeted inclusion of homeless and undocumented New Yorkers is a must, he added.
Levine’s approach throughout the crisis has not won universal praise here. De Blasio declined to be interviewed for this report, as did Corey Johnson (D), the city council’s speaker, and Demetre Daskalakis, the city’s deputy commissioner for the health department’s division of disease control. In a statement, Johnson said Levine “has worked tirelessly to help us navigate this crisis” and that he intends to “work together to help our city weather this storm and come out stronger someday in the future.”
Front-line essential workers were more forthcoming. “The answers to the scientific questions are unsatisfying. We can’t guarantee safety. It’s unsatisfying to hear that,” said David Reich, the president and chief operating officer of Mount Sinai Hospital. “To Mark’s credit, he’s able to hear that without losing it. He’s a cut above some of the other [politicians] who don’t want to hear about uncertainty because they want answers.”
Craig Spencer, the epidemiologist who is director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, which is in Levine’s district, concurred. “Sometimes he’s had a different take than other people in the city,” said Spencer, who survived an Ebola infection in New York in 2014, “but that’s because he’s done a really good job of reaching out and understanding what’s happening in emergency departments.” He also hailed the council member’s commitment to bilingual messaging.
But being all science-based in this pandemic is not exactly terra firma. Studies about this novel virus are largely being shared before the peer review process. The general social distancing rule of six feet can become much greater in some studies. What was thought of as an infection of the lungs turns out to affect heart and kidney function, too. What was once discussed almost exclusively as an infection afflicting the elderly also causes sudden strokes in the young. Medicine is as shifting as the nation’s new normals.
Levine’s tweets have shifted, too. He has deleted at least five during the crisis. His explanation was terse: “Too despondent.”
As debates roil and actions drag, Levine keeps another tweet front of mind, one written by Tom Frieden, a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and onetime New York City health commissioner. On April 6, Frieden tweeted a timeline of stay-at-home orders for 41 states and D.C. New York was fourth, three days after California. “2 days later & NYC deaths would have doubled. Days earlier & so many deaths could have been prevented,” Frieden wrote.
“We should take that to heart and use extreme caution before every step we take to slowly reopen our economy,” Levine said. Or else what? “Our ERs will start filling up again.”