New Jersey’s largest city is starting to wind back the clock on its economic reopening, the clearest indication yet the Garden State’s recovery from the pandemic’s first wave is at risk of regressing.
“We have to do whatever we need to do to drop those numbers now,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “It seems desperate but it’s a desperate moment. We got through this before, so we’ll get through it again.”
With coronavirus cases spiking statewide, Baraka on Monday morning ordered non-essential businesses and restaurants in Newark to close their doors at 8 p.m., effective Tuesday. Beauty salons, nail salons and barbershops will only be able to offer their services by appointment and gyms and health clubs have been ordered to close for at least 30 minutes each day for sanitization.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is assisting Baraka’s directive by bolstering contact tracing and testing capacity in the majority-minority city, which was once squarely at the epicenter of the global pandemic. Murphy on Monday told reporters his team was also assisting Newark with messaging and enforcement of social distancing rules.
“They have a painful history with what happens when this thing flares up,” Murphy said. “We are right beside them in the steps he’s taken and the ones we’re taking with him.”
While Murphy for weeks has said he’s weighing incremental measures to rein in New Jersey’s declining public health picture, and that the state is the ultimate authority on Covid-19-related restrictions, Baraka’s new orders go further.
An executive order signed by Murphy in March specifically bars municipalities from issuing directives and restrictions that contradict those of the administration. In addition to potentially engendering confusion, a patchwork of local directives could have the effect of causing residents in hotspot municipalities to travel to neighboring towns for dining, shopping or recreation, potentially accelerating spread.
That’s an acute worry for health officials across the state given the Covid-19 data that came in over the weekend. The number of Covid-related hospitalizations, particularly in the state’s northern counties, is higher than it’s been at any point since July. The state has started averaging more than 1,000 new cases per day in recent weeks — 1,223 new positives were reported Monday — and the rate of transmission indicates viral spread is accelerating.
Essex County, where Newark is located, reported 133 new cases on Monday, more than any other county in the state.
Almost 230,000 residents have tested positive for the virus since March. An estimated 16,292 have died.
Even against that backdrop, Murphy said he doesn’t view Baraka’s order as anything other than “steps at the edges that we think are smart steps but are not counter to our executive orders.”
Murphy’s original executive order “remains in place and if there are any local restrictions that pose an obstacle to the statewide response then we’ll take a look at those. But right now, we don’t feel the steps Mayor Baraka’s taken pose an obstacle in any way,” Parimal Garg, Murphy’s chief counsel, said during the governor’s briefing on Monday.
Given the recent surge in cases, it’s likely Newark will not be the last local government in New Jersey to take more direct action to combat the pandemic.
For roughly a month, ever since the state started seeing warning signs of a second wave as cases surged in college towns and in Orthodox communities around Monmouth and Ocean counties, Murphy has said his administration would use a “scalpel” to tackle isolated hotspots.
In that sense, Murphy justified his support of Newark’s tailored restrictions as being in line with his deployment of more contact tracing and testing resources to Lakewood, a heavily Orthodox community in Ocean County that experienced a dramatic spike in new cases around the Jewish holidays earlier this month.
Public health data in Lakewood, along with the rest of Ocean County, have improved over the last couple of weeks. Newark is a “different community, obviously, different dimensions, but [we are using a] similar playbook,” Murphy said.
“It won’t be the last community we’re doing that with, unfortunately,” he said, adding that at this stage, with case totals and hospitalizations still at a fraction of what they were at the pandemic’s peak, he doesn’t envision any “crushing statewide steps.”
“That remains on the table but we do not believe those steps match the moment in terms of where cases are coming from,” Murphy said.
Even within Newark, the approach isn’t necessarily uniform.
During his press conference, Baraka said city officials will be emphasizing enforcement and messaging in Newark’s East Ward.
While 11 percent of the city’s Covid-19 tests came back with positive results on Sunday — more than double the 4.48 percent reported at the state level, which Murphy said is “too high for our tastes” — the recent spikes are even more dramatic in the Ironbound section of Newark’s East Ward that’s home to a bustling shopping, dining and nightlife district and a large Portuguese and Brazilian population.
In one East Ward zip code, spot positivity exceeded 25 percent this weekend.
“We’re going to assess it after two weeks. If this has no impact, or if the numbers continue to rise we will” be moving forward with more restrictions, Baraka said. “We are trying to be as methodical as possible, and as cautious as possible, taking into consideration people’s economic livelihood, but also the lives of people in this community at the same time. That “gives us an opportunity to see if we can draw the cases down in East Ward but also see what happens in the other wards around the city.”
This isn’t the first time Baraka has pushed for tighter lockdowns amid rising case totals. The mayor, a former activist and educator who came to power in 2014, raised eyebrows in the early days of the pandemic when he instituted a local curfew prior to Murphy’s March 21 stay-at-home order.
Last week, local officials announced that they would be delaying the start of in-person instruction through the start of the new year.
“All of us have to be disciplined. I think we have one more shot at this,” Baraka said. “This is the last leg of it – we need to stay disciplined and fight through this thing until a vaccine shows up sometime next year.”
— Katherine Landergan and Carly Sitrin contributed to this report