COVID-19: The Newark Response

In the hours after the federal government announced it was rerouting all flights from Wuhan, China to eleven American airports including Newark Liberty International, Mayor Ras J. Baraka called an emergency meeting of his senior staff. It was February 2, just weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak showed the world how dangerous and communicable the disease could be and just days after the first case in the United States was diagnosed 3,000 miles away in Washington State.

“I had to develop a plan,” said Dr. Mark Wade, the City’s director of Health and Community Wellness. “Resolute, Mayor Baraka declared, ‘We have to do it. We can’t depend on anybody else.’ Right from the start, he got us working collaboratively to develop best practices to keep our residents safe, and how to maintain those practices with vigilance and sacrifice.” Mayor Baraka’s employed many strategies to combat COVID-19, all either unique or groundbreaking for American cities, and all saved untold lives. “Everything the Mayor did was designed to protect Newark citizens in every way possible,” Wade said. “Foremost, was to protect their immediate health, but there were also steps to sustain that health as we fought, and continue to fight, through this pandemic.”

Health consists of not only physical health, but mental and emotional health and stress reduction in trying to allay the fears and uncertainties of the residents as they worry about food shortages, layoffs, and money to pay rent or mortgages. The early days of the pandemic brought confusion and for some, panic.

Working with every department, Mayor Baraka put health and safety protocols in place, readying the City for swift and proactive response as the disease began its insidious march through New Jersey. On March 14, Newark recorded its first case of COVID-19. The very next day, an executive order placed a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and extended deadlines for tax payments, water, and sewer bills. Just two days later, Mayor Baraka ordered non-essential businesses closed by 8 p.m. and sit-down service in restaurants ended. Take-out/delivery services could continue. Knowing the elderly were particularly vulnerable, City senior and recreation centers closed and visitors were banned from entering senior residential buildings. To further help reduce transmission, the Mayor banned gatherings of 50 people or more, including church services and cultural events, a controversial move at the time but one that proved prudent.

By the week’s end, the pandemic continued to spread and take lives. Newark ordered schools closed, a City-wide 8 p.m. curfew went into effect, public gatherings were prohibited, and all non-essential businesses were ordered to close. On March 18, Mayor Baraka began a daily Facebook Live coronavirus briefing, which he maintained for at least five days per week over the next six months. Thousands of residents watched the programs, anxious to get the latest COVID updates; the briefings continue now three times a week.

“This showed his commitment to keeping the residents directly informed and allowing them to be in constant, virtual contact with him,” said Sondra D. Roberts, the City’s communication director and architect of the Facebook briefings. “The Mayor fielded questions, dispelled rumors, and bolstered morale during a difficult time. I think it showed how deeply and personally he cares about the health and well-being of Newark residents.”

On March 21, utilizing Public Safety technology and Health Department information to track victims of COVID-19, strict shelter-in-place rules for the three hardest hit areas of the City were instituted, then expanded city-wide four days later. Residents received warnings to stay inside except for essential needs or medical emergencies.

Long before the United States Congress could agree on the first stimulus package, Mayor Ras J. Baraka announced a much-needed series of financial interventions totaling $6 million to support residents and small businesses. Funding guidelines indicate $2 million in small business grants; $1 million to “Live Newark” for homeowners and prospective homebuyers; $1 million in rapid, short-term housing for the homeless and other most vulnerable residents; a fund for landlords and commercial building owners whose tenants can’t pay rent; a $750,000 arts initiative investment; and a $1 million investment in community-based non-profits that serve Newark residents.

The Mayor orchestrated a four-city lockdown with bordering East Orange, Irvington, and Orange; called for a “Newark Day of Prayer and Fasting”; and instituted “Be Still Mondays” to give non-medical essential workers a break.

Meanwhile, under the guidance of his brother and Chief of Staff Amiri Baraka, Jr., other life-preserving measures were taking place. Meals by the hundreds of thousands delivered to the City’s most vulnerable residents allowed them to stay sheltered and not risk infection to shop for food. Between the City, the Board of Education, and private partners, over 2 million meals went out. The programs continue. Approximately 1,800 of the City’s 2,000 homeless were given meals and 24-hour shelter to protect them from transmission and their infection rate of 2.3 percent was much lower than City and national averages. By the end of April, Newark began walk-up testing and contact tracing — the first city in the state to do so. “There is no way to estimate how many lives were saved by these measures,” said Dr. Wade.

By June, with the worst of the infections and deaths behind it, the City began taking cautious steps toward re-opening with recommendations from the Newark Reopening and Recovery Strikeforce. In his September State of the City address, Mayor Baraka spoke of the City’s monumental response to COVID-19. “We have not only dramatically reduced the positivity rate of COVID-19 in our city, we have managed to flatten it altogether,” he said. “In fact, the reproductive rate in Newark is less than one percent, which is an indicator of how well you have controlled the spread. This is the gold standard. This is Newark stronger, Newark leading,” he explained. “But I want us to be clear this virus is pernicious and stubborn. We are not in the clear yet. We have to maintain our fight, be vigilant and consistent, look out for our neighbors, and our children. Wear your mask. Wash your hands continuously. Practice social distancing, get tested, and work to preserve our city and not put it in harm’s way.”

The Mayor’s words proved prophetic as COVID rates rose across the country, in New Jersey, and inched up in Newark as well. The City had re-opened, but the Mayor, true to form, immediately went into action. He reinstated a version of “Be Still Mondays” asking businesses to close at 7p.m., and again went on the offensive during his Facebook live briefings reminding residents the pandemic was still lurking. Part of the new offensive, the “Newark vs. COVID-19” campaign, provides for the distribution of thousands of masks, t-shirts, and flyers around the City to keep awareness raised.