Gov. Cuomo In Legal Trouble Over Coronavirus Briefings

Every day, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been taking the stand in front of New Yorkers to give updates about the COVID-19 pandemic and explain the state and federal governments' efforts to stop contagion, find a cure, and reopen the economy. But now, the Democratic governor is under fire for apparently failing to employ a key staffer to be by his side during these briefings: a sign language interpreter.

There are four deaf New Yorkers suing Cuomo over the lack of a televised sign language interpreter at his daily briefings, the New York Post reported. The service is reportedly provided by every state, and by choosing not to have one, Dennis Martinez, Douglas Nguyen, James Hallenbeck, and Jill Wildberger claim Cuomo is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The nonprofit Disability Rights New York is also on the residents' side in the federal lawsuit. 

According to the lawsuit (via the Post), there are at least 208,000 deaf residents in the city and thousands more in the rest of the state, who need access to "critical information" disclosed in the briefings, so keeping them out of the loop due to their disability is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs argue, "New York is the only state that has never provided televised in frame ASL interpretation of its COVID-19 briefings." 

But the fight is less against the state and more against Cuomo, as Mayor Bill de Blasio has included a sign language interpreter during his own coronavirus briefings.

Andrew Cuomo's accusers don't buy his solution

The controversy surrounding the lack of an in-frame sign language interpreter is something that was brought up to Governor Andrew Cuomo before the issue turned into a full-blown legal battle, per the New York Post. The Disability Rights New York — who received complaints about Cuomo's briefings from deaf New Yorkers when they began on March 1, 2020 — sent the governor a letter on March 24 explaining the gravity of his decision and the frustration it's caused amongst the deaf population.

Cuomo reportedly responded three days later, per the Post. In his letter, the governor wrote that his administration had already been providing closed-captioning for the televised press conferences, and starting on April 3, they'd provide real-time sign language interpretation on their website.

However, the plaintiffs don't think that is much of a solution, as closed-captioning is often inaccurate and not available on many channels or websites where the briefings are live-streamed. Plus, New Yorkers without internet access are unable to obtain any of the critical information about the novel coronavirus that the governor delivers daily. 

"Governor Cuomo's briefings have briefed the public on important developments, and provided commentary on the government's response at the local, state and national levels. Many deaf New Yorkers cannot understand Governor Cuomo's briefings without live televised (American Sign Language) interpretation in the frame," the suit reads, according to the New York Daily News.

Some New Yorkers are losing their patience with Gov. Cuomo

Because they don't have access to the information being shared at the daily press briefings, the plaintiffs argue in their 2020 lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo that 23-year-old Jill Wildberger (one of the four New Yorkers suing the governor) wasn't aware of the executive order requiring New Yorkers to wear a face mask. 

This lack of knowledge, the suit says, put her and others around her at risk. Two other plaintiffs don't have computers (and therefore, no access to the live-streamed press conferences), and one of them only learned of the stay-at-home order when his brother told him about it, the lawsuit states, according to the New York Post

Another plaintiff, 30-year-old Dennis Martinez, who lives in Brooklyn and works as a deaf service advocate in Harlem, claimed in the lawsuit that he has to search for sign language interpretation videos of the briefings on social media platforms, "delaying timely access to information." In other words, not all New Yorkers' needs are being met.

Andrew Cuomo's team refuses to give a straight answer

With their lawsuit, filed in the Manhattan federal court, the four deaf New Yorkers are asking a judge to order New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to provide live televised sign language interpretation at all future coronavirus briefings. Additionally, the Disability Rights New York filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (via the NY Daily News).

Apparently, Cuomo and his team are well aware of the lawsuit, and while the governor has not personally responded to the legal drama, his spokesman Rich Azzopardi tweeted on April 29, 2020 that closed captions are always available for televised briefings and an ALS (American Sign Language) stream is provided on the state's website for all conferences. 

"We'll review the suit, but we've been moving heaven and Earth and working with the Albany press corps to reduce density in the room and respect social distancing standards as we fight this pandemic," Azzopardi told the New York Post, echoing the sentiments of his tweet. As for how the lawsuit plays out, only time will tell.