NYTimes: Coronavirus in N.Y.: Head of Port Authority Tests Positive

The following article was published in The New York Times on March 9, 2020.


By Matthew Haag and Patrick McGeehan

Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region’s major airports, bridges, tunnels and bus terminals, has tested positive for the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced on Monday.

Mr. Cotton is one of the most prominent public officials in the United States to have contracted the virus.

Mr. Cuomo said that Mr. Cotton, who had been overseeing the Port Authority’s response to the virus, had self-quarantined at his home and would be working remotely.

“He has been at the airports, obviously, when many people were coming back with the virus,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news conference. Mr. Cuomo suggested that Mr. Cotton might have been infected as part of his work on behalf of the authority at Kennedy International Airport, noting that it “was one of the main airports for people coming in on those overseas flights.”

Reached at his New York City apartment on Monday morning, Mr. Cotton, who is in his mid-70s, said that he had no obvious symptoms of the virus but declined to comment further. “I’m in self-quarantine at home at the moment,” he said.

His wife, Elizabeth W. Smith, who is the president of the Central Park Conservancy, has also tested positive for the virus and was working from home, a spokeswoman for the organization said on Monday afternoon.

“She was tested after experiencing mild symptoms over the weekend,” the spokeswoman said. “As a precaution, a dozen members of Smith’s administrative team are also self-quarantined for two weeks. No other staff has tested positive for the virus.”

The Central Park Conservancy is a nonprofit that helps renovate and refurbish the 843-acre park in Manhattan.

The Cottons are now among the 142 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York State, which has some of the highest number of cases in the country, many of them concentrated in suburban areas of New York City. Thousands of students were not in class on Monday as school districts and colleges, including Columbia and Hofstra Universities, tried to limit the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr. Cotton decided to have himself tested for the coronavirus after learning that someone he knows outside the Port Authority had tested positive for it, according to a colleague who talked to Mr. Cotton on Monday.

He received the result of his test on Sunday night, said the colleague who did not have clearance to discuss the matter publicly beyond what was in the agency’s statement.

Mr. Cotton had not visited any of the Port Authority’s airports or other public facilities in the last few days. He worked at his office in the World Trade Center on Friday and met with some members of his staff there that night.

Some of those staff members were isolating themselves at home on Monday, but none were sick, Port Authority officials said. Senior officials who had worked near him were being tested for the coronavirus, the governor said.

A Port Authority spokeswoman said that agency employees who were in “close contact with him in recent days” were also working from home on Monday. She did not say how many employees that involved.

Mr. Cotton also attended a breakfast on Thursday morning at the Modern, a restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan. Known as the Excellence in Transportation breakfast, it is an annual event hosted by the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University.

A spokeswoman for Union Square Hospitality, which operates The Modern, said that out of “an abundance of caution,” the restaurant would be closed on Monday evening for a “deep cleaning to fully sanitize the restaurant” before reopening on Tuesday.

Mitchell L. Moss, the director of the Rudin Center, said that Mr. Cotton was one of several prominent transportation officials in attendance, including Patrick J. Foye, the chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner.

Mr. Foye, whose agency operates New York City’s subways and buses, said on Monday that he had not met Mr. Cotton in person “in some time.”

“By all indicators, he appears to be in great health,” Mr. Foye said at a news conference.

New York state’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, said the “Department of Health has determined that the earliest possible date of concern for transmission was Friday,” according to a statement provided by Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo.

Mr. Moss said he learned of Mr. Cotton’s positive test only after Mr. Cuomo’s announcement, which led to a flood of calls and texts to Mr. Moss’s phone. He said he and his staff were working from home on Monday as a precaution, but that he did not know of anyone else who attended the breakfast who was sick or had tested positive for the virus.

Mr. Moss said the news about Mr. Cotton should not scare commuters or travelers who use the Port Authority’s facilities because Mr. Cotton was the chief executive of the agency that runs them, not an operational manager.

“He’s the executive director,” Mr. Moss said. “He’s not collecting the tolls, he’s not piloting the planes and he’s certainly not driving the buses into the Port Authority.”

The broadcast journalist Katie Couric said on Monday that she saw Mr. Cotton on Saturday, the day before he received the results.

Ms. Couric said in an email that she saw Mr. Cotton on the street in the morning in a chance encounter. She said they had a short conversation but did not touch.

Given their brief encounter, Ms. Couric said, her doctor and state and federal health officials told her she likely had a “very low risk” of getting the virus and did not need to self-quarantine.

Nonetheless, she said, she would work from home the next several days and watch for possible symptoms.

“Their instructions were to continue practicing good hygiene, and to simply monitor my health,” Ms. Couric said.

Mr. Cotton had worked as a lawyer for about two decades at NBC Universal, where Ms. Couric was a longtime host of NBC’s “Today” show. She said they were longtime friends.

Some members of Mr. Cotton’s staff learned of his test results just before Mr. Cuomo made the announcement. It was not clear how many of them would be tested or how many had been quarantined.

“I could have been in contact with Rick Cotton,” the governor said, who added that he had not tested positive for it.

The Port Authority operates the New York City area’s major airports — including La Guardia, Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International Airports — and employs more than 7,000 people.

La Guardia is not an international airport like Kennedy, which is the primary gateway to New York City for international visitors and travelers.

Mr. Cotton, a friend and ally of the governor, has run the agency since 2017. Mr. Cuomo appointed him to the position.

Mr. Cotton’s office is in the headquarters of the Port Authority at 4 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, the office complex that the agency built and rebuilt after it was destroyed in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.