NEWARK, NJ — Newark’s famed Ironbound dining scene, offering flavors of Portugal, Brazil and Latin American cuisine, has attracted visitors far and wide over the decades to a historically stigmatized city. 

But now, restaurants are saying that they are on the brink of closure due to the coronavirus and what they call “harassment” from city government. As city officials struggle to gain unity in a 10-day shelter-in-place advisory in Newark — whose COVID-19 test positivity rate is now 21% citywide and more than 40% in the Ironbound area — more than 20 business owners from the Ironbound section told TAPinto Newark they have faced intimidation and retaliatory tactics. 

On Friday, Newark continued leading the state in reported infections with 142 new cases and one new death, bringing the total since March to 12,602 and 708, respectively. Mayor Ras Baraka said during his daily coronavirus live stream on Wednesday that at least 60 deaths have been isolated to the Ironbound area. 

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The restaurant owners, who have convened under an informal syndicate called the Newark Businesses Association, said that during a virtual meeting between the city and the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce New Jersey (Câmara de Comércio Brasileira NJ), Baraka threatened to revoke their businesses licenses if they did not cooperate with the shutdown. 

“The Brazilian Chamber of Commerce went on Zoom and asked (Baraka) a bunch of questions, and asked what he would do if businesses don’t close. (Baraka) said, ‘As the city, we provide the business licenses, and they need a fire and a health certificate. We can take those away,’” a member of the Newark Business Association, who was present during the meeting, said. 

The members of the group asked not to be identified by name for fear that they would suffer additional repercussions from city government via Newark Code Enforcement, the Fire Department and the Department of Health and Community Wellness. Several members reported their establishments have already been shut down or had their licenses suspended without receiving written notice or being advised as to their specific infractions. 

Elsewhere in the city, restaurants declined to provide comment when asked if they would close for 10 days, saying they were fearful of repercussions. 

Others said they have waited endlessly for the health or fire department to perform inspections after reapplying to get their licenses back. One Ironbound restaurant owner said he has been waiting since mid-August.

The members of Newark Business Association also complained that guidance from the city is delivered by word of mouth and inconsistent. They said Code Enforcement and other departments advised business owners that the shutdown was mandatory. 

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s statewide executive order, municipalities cannot enforce mandatory COVID-19 policies that exceed the scope of what the state has issued. Baraka sparked confusion last week when he announced during a WBGO 88.3 FM appearance that the city would “lock down” from Nov. 24 to Dec. 4. 

“We are going to lock the city down,” Baraka told WBGO’s Michael Hill last Thursday. “We want people to shelter in place for 10 days, that’s the period that the CDC gives us for people to isolate themselves or quarantine themselves, and we only want folks to come out for essential purposes.”

While the city later advised the shutdown was only an advisory, a senior official within the Baraka administration, Andrea Mason, sent out an email to members of the Newark People’s Assembly on Monday stating the shelter-in-place order is mandatory despite state guidelines. 

“The ‘shut-down’ is mandatory. Please adhere to the guidelines in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” the email said. “If you have any questions, I can try to get an answer for you within the next few days.”

The city would not respond to requests for comment regarding the e-mail or allegations from business owners. A spokesperson from the governor’s office said that the city’s request for residents to stay home was consistent with the state’s order in an advisory capacity, but did not address the legality of the revoking licenses and certifications to encourage cooperation. 

“Mayor Baraka is asking all Newark residents to stay at home and limit travel to essential activities. This advisory is entirely consistent with the Administration’s position that New Jersey residents should be particularly vigilant as COVID-19 continues to spread,” the state spokesperson said. “As Governor Murphy has repeatedly noted, any legal orders or enforceable restrictions issued by municipalities or counties must be consistent with New Jersey’s statewide framework.”

Murphy previously said during a press conference that while he understands the desperation some municipalities feel, he won’t tolerate local officials who step out of the boundaries of the statewide order.

“They’re up against it and I don’t blame them for trying to turn over every stone,” Murphy said recently. “We can’t have a patchwork. We continue to work with them.”

New Jersey continues to follow a nationwide surge in cases, with Essex County at the head of the pack. Statewide, the COVID-19 positivity rate has surged to more than 9%, prompting Murphy to limit indoor gathering to no more than 10 people and to order indoor dining to close at 10 p.m. 

On Nov. 12, Murphy signed Executive Order 195, granting permission to municipalities to regulate non-essential businesses with operating hours beyond 8 p.m. 

Newark did so prior to the order, setting a curfew in area codes  07105, 07107 07104  of 9 p.m. weekday curfew and 10 p.m. for weekends. All non-essential businesses have been ordered to close at 8 p.m. since early November, and all restaurants and bars must close their indoor service at 8 p.m. and outdoor service at 11 p.m.

Last week, Newark police also began closing streets leading Down Neck from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. and requiring residents of the area to show proof of address to enter, which has further devastated restaurants. 

Multiple members of the so-called Newark Business Association say they are not willing to close for the 10-day period. While they support the governor’s rules, they expressed frustration with what they called  “rogue” and disorganized enforcement of rules that exceed the state’s order. 

“We’re just begging, imploring, to be able to compete with other businesses in our state and for our mayor to follow the governor’s executive order,” one member said. “I don’t think we’re asking for a lot.” 

The Newark Business Association added that its members resent allegations that restaurants are primarily responsible for the Ironbound’s uptick, noting that they take as much care as possible to keep their employees and customers safe. The organization self-enforces strict health and safety accountability and does not allow in members who disregard the state or city’s regulations. 

“I have 70 to 80 staff who are out of work right now, and I know that I require testing every two weeks,” another member stated.

Multiple Newark Business Association members also said that individuals from the city have handed out pamphlets showing the Ironbound as a COVID-19 hotspot to their customers. They fear the lasting impact that a reputation as a dangerous area will lead to a neighborhood of empty storefronts.  

“They came to my establishment, I was legally allowed to be open, and they handed out pamphlets while people were eating. ‘Hi guys, we just wanted to let you know you’re right here in the red zone,’” a member said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was like ‘Are you guys serious?’”

All the members of the Newark Business Association and their workforce have been crushed by the city’s alleged actions, they said. Their employees, many of whom are undocumented and therefore ineligible for most COVID-19 relief, are struggling to make rent payments and feed their families. 

Baraka has said that $2 million in relief, up to $25,000 per business, would be made available to establishments that cooperate with his shelter-in-place advisory. More than a quarter of that money will be sectioned off for the three most affected zip codes, 07105, 07107 and 07104. 

Another $2 million will be set aside for up to three months of rent for residents. But the members of the Newark Business Association said they cannot afford a 10-day closure, and that they no longer trust the city’s grants process after many failed attempts to secure funding throughout the pandemic. 

“Do you know how many staff members I have telling me they don’t have enough money to eat next week? Or to feed their families? Supposedly this is a sanctuary city,” a Newark Business Association member said. 

On Wednesday, Baraka said he was facing backlash from the media, business owners and a city council member advising business owners to stay open. 

“Any council person who is advising businesses that they should stay open in the middle of our lockdown is someone who doesn't support the people of this community,” Baraka said. “In 07105, which in part is the Ironbound, 4,048 positive cases and 60 people have died.”