When Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, a longtime lawman who learned how to be a cop on the streets of Newark, found out that he has coronavirus, he was down, but not out.
In fact, Fontoura is yearning to get back into the fight against the pandemic plaguing his section of the world.
"It's frustrating me forever that I'm not out there with my folks. I want to be with them so badly," said Fontoura from his Fairfield home, where he has been self-quarantined since being diagnosed with the coronavirus earlier this week.
"I'm very proud of the fact that the fraternity that I'm a member of has responded magnificently to this crisis," Fontoura said. "But people have to understand that we are vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than everyone else is."
The fact that Fontoura, 76, the county sheriff for almost three decades and an icon in the close-knit Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, has fallen ill is both a shock to the system and a reminder of the brutal truth of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fontoura is now one of 1,900 confirmed coronavirus cases in Essex County as of Tuesday, a number second only to Bergen County, which has just over 2,900 confirmed cases. Newark has the most confirmed coronavirus cases in Essex County, with 586 cases and at least 12 deaths.
As of Sunday, a total of 163 law enforcement officers in New Jersey have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the State Police, a number that is expected to rise as the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating.
Fontoura first realized he wasn't quite right on Friday right, with a nagging cough and a temperature that kept going up. After he was tested on Saturday, and then diagnosed on Sunday, he waved goodbye to his fellow law enforcement officers gathered at the county-run coronavirus testing site at Weequahic Park in Newark and sealed himself off at home in order to battle the virus without contaminating others.
Fontoura has witnessed mass civic dread before when as a rookie Newark police officer he served during the 1967 riot that over five violent days left 26 people dead and millions of dollars in property damage. But for Fontoura, there is no comparison to the sense of slow apocalypse pervasive in Newark, New Jersey, and all of America now, with growing unease seeping into the national psyche as the death toll mounts.
"There is no comparison to what is happening now to 1967. None. The stress, the pressure, and the concern you have for your family, your neighbors, and your entire community is overwhelming," Fontoura said. "It was a very trying and scary time for us then, but we knew that it was going to end soon and that the fires would eventually go out. With this, we don't know when it's going to end. It's still burning."
Fontoura relayed a message that he hopes will burn in the minds and hearts of those striving hard to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
"I want everybody to know that law enforcement - state troopers, county, municipal and corrections officers alike - are on the front lines, and people expect us to respond when they need us. And we will do that without trepidation or hesitation. But we need to make sure that all of our heroes out here get tested," Fontoura said. "All of our first responders need to be tested so that they don't bring this deadly virus home to their families."
Fontoura might be home with his family now, but they know how badly he wants to get back out there to help fight the war against the coronavirus. His wife, Mary, likes to joke that he still lives Down Neck, the name for the Ironbound used most by the people who call the city "Nork". The sheriff wants to prove her right. He wants to get back on the job, ASAP.
"Look, before this, I'm on the road jogging at 5 o'clock every morning. I got good genes, thank God. I take care of myself, I eat well, and I drink a little wine. I'm good," Fontoura said, noting that his doctor told him that he seems to have a milder form of the virus and that he could be back at work within ten days, but time will tell.
"I don't have any fear about this thing taking me down," Fontoura said. "I'm not going out this quick. I'm still here. And I'm going to come back stronger than ever."