NEWARK, NJ — In August, Newark, once the COVID-19 epicenter of New Jersey, was touting a remarkable feat in curbing its infection rates from 60-plus cases a day at its peak to fewer than 20 a day by June.
It was a win in the battle against the virus, but not the war. Starting Tuesday, Newark is cracking down on restaurants and businesses after the city saw it’s the highest increase since May 23 over the weekend, 101 positive cases, bringing its infection rate to 11.8%.
What’s driving it, Mayor Ras Baraka said at a Monday press conference, is the city’s East Ward, where the Ironbound, Newark’s popular nightlife sector, brings folks from all over the city to enjoy Portuguese and Brazilian fare. East Newark’s denser population is also thought to be bringing its infection rate to more than 25%.
North Newark is also seeing lesser hotspots that have officials concerned. Overall, Newark is now responsible for about 62% of positive cases in Essex County reported since Friday.
The uptick in positive cases is taking place in a city where 673 residents have died and 10,041 have contracted COVID-19. The new measures being taken by the city include:
- All stores except supermarkets, pharmacies, and gas stations will close at 8 p.m. every day. They will be allowed to deliver and take out with no indoor ordering or lines.
- All restaurants, bars, etc. must close their indoor service at 8 p.m. and outdoor service at 11 p.m. They must also take temperatures of all patrons coming inside and ask them if have they been in contact with anyone with COVID-19. Restaurants remain at 25% indoor capacity.
- All barbershops, beauty parlors, nail salons, and related establishments must have appointments only and no waiting inside.
- All gyms must clean and sanitize for the first 30 minutes of each hour. During that time, people can stay inside or return after the cleaning. Everyone must wear masks.
- All indoor establishments must have sanitizer available.
- City Hall will be open by appointment only.
- The City will close all recreation centers to everything but school-related programs for essential employees.
- The City is encouraging all employees to be tested immediately and periodically thereafter.
While restaurants will be allowed to continue takeout and delivery, any lines or crowd gathering outside or inside will spur intervention from the city.
“We have closed places down,” he said. “We issue business licenses, we issue liquor licenses, all of these things give us leverage over some of these places. The problem is that there are so many, and we rely on cooperation and for everybody to have a community-minded attitude.”
All sports activities and open park practices and games in the East Ward are canceled, including Halloween events. Baraka said the city is discouraging all parties, indoor and outdoor festivals, and large family gatherings until further notice — that means trick-or-treating, too.
“This may seem desperate, but this is a desperate moment. We’ve gotten through this before, we’ll get through it again,” Baraka said. “While I’m concerned, I’m not afraid because there was a time when the positivity rate was at 68%. We are far away from 68%, and we did what we needed to do to get away from those numbers.”
The state is also sending more contact tracers and rapid result tests to Newark to help mitigate. Baraka said while contact tracing has been effective, they need more tracers, and they need results sooner to contain the city’s growing numbers.
Across the Hudson, New York City saw similar increases starting in September, with 27% of its cases concentrated in 10 zip codes, according to the state of New York. Other states like Wisconsin, Florida, Utah, Missouri and Iowa are also dealing with rates above 10%.
While Newark was previously below New Jersey’s current 5.2% positivity rate, percentages change, and so do attitudes. As people fall prey to misinformation or become less concerned about the virus despite the more than 200,000 Americans who have died from it, state and municipal governments may have more trouble containing spread than before.
Baraka said that while there are too many people who have become lackadaisical about who they allow in their homes, he has confidence that Newarkers will do what needs to be done to control positivity rates in their community.
“By the grace of God, that has not been the majority of our story in this town. There are people who run around and say all this stuff, 98% of those people don’t live in Newark,” he said. “The reason (our rates went down) was because residents listened to what we told them to do.”
Sabino Araujo, a manager at Lisbon Wines & Liquors on Ferry Street, said he witnesses restaurant owners in the Ironbound disregard health regulations daily and isn’t surprised by the East Ward’s alarming positivity rate. While the curfew will impact business, he puts the responsibility on those who have not been following the rules.
“I agree with the restrictions. I see a lot of these owners, and what they care about is getting one more customer, not people’s safety,” he said. “What matters is people’s health.”