NEWARK, NJ — Days after New Jersey began allowing retail to reopen for curbside pickup, Newark officials found themselves tasked with reigning in eager business owners performing manicures and selling merchandise on the city’s sidewalks.
Mayor Ras Baraka, likening the state’s one-size-fits-all guidelines to a free-for-all, said things don’t work the way in Newark that they do in other places. That’s why officials, who laid out a phased local reopening plan on Thursday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, are leveraging the city’s Reopening and Recovery Strikeforce to create their own best practices.
“People were trying on pants on the sidewalk. People getting their nails done on the sidewalk," Baraka said. “I mean, this is the most bizarre thing you can imagine, but when people don’t have any real direction on how to get these things accomplished, they take it into their own hands.”
Newark, which registered 549 COVID-19 deaths and 6,930 positive cases on Thursday, has been gutted by the virus at rates higher than any municipality in the state. Baraka said residents' lives, rather than pools and tennis courts, and the many lost are what concern his administration above all else.
Starting June 1, the city will enter into a planning phase that will include color-coded signage displaying red, yellow and green in public places like restaurants and parks. Places like basketball courts will receive red signage to alert citizens to the hazards of contact sports as they emerge from quarantine.
This time will allow the city to prepare to ease into an actual reopening in Phase 2 around June 15.
Each phase will last about two weeks, based on data received from the Center for Disease Control’s “Opening Up America” document. However, Newark officials stipulated that all plans will change should spikes begin to occur.
The city will establish information centers in each of its five wards in Phase 1 and expand the local non-emergency call line to include a dedicated COVID-19 information hotline. According to Baraka, much of Newark’s populace receives information via word-of-mouth and often receives partial or incorrect information.
“People really do not have any idea what is, in fact, happening. They’re listening to fringe websites, they have half the information, they’re not watching my updates. They’re not watching the governor’s updates,” Baraka said.
Businesses have received letters requesting reopening plans, including how they will protect the safety of their employees and customers. A committee will evaluate the applications and offer guidance to businesses whose plans fail to meet the city’s evolving reopening protocol.
Aisha Glover, CEO of Newark Alliance and co-leader of the Strikeforce, said businesses will have to go through a process and that reopening will not be like a light switch that can be instantly turned back on.
A technology task force aimed at developing a sustainable citywide strategy for universal access to Wi-Fi and the hardware necessary for remote learning is also on the way. As far as youth are concerned, the summer will not exactly be fun in the sun as pools and other summer activities remain closed, but the city’s Summer Youth Employment program will still operate, and other programs are adapting virtually.
Eventually, the city hopes to reach a “blue zone” it’s calling the New Normal, where face coverings are strongly recommended and residents continue following CDC guidelines until a vaccine is made widely available. But going forward, officials hope to see more mindfulness to the socioeconomic factors that separate Newark, a mostly black and brown city, from other municipalities in the state’s executive orders.
Although black New Jerseyans account for only about 13% of the state's population, they represent more than 18% of COVID-19 cases. Latinos, which comprise 20% of the state's population, make up 30% of cases, according to data from the New Jersey Department of Health.
“There needs to be a lot more specificity in these executive orders in telling us what we’re supposed to do, and I think municipalities should have a little flexibility in how they execute these things,” Baraka said. “We don’t have a problem with curbside, we have a problem with the way curbside is being done, and the fact that we don’t have any input on what to do is problematic.”
Baraka is advising residents to avoid the Jersey Shore this summer, lest they return to the city with the virus. While many municipalities may be focused on getting as close to a normal summer as possible, the mayor emphasized the death toll that Newark is still reeling from.
“It almost irritates me to have conversations with people about these things, about pools and summer camps. I get it, people have been in the house for two months," Baraka said. "But the reality is that there are people that are not making it, and unfortunately those people look like me.”