NEWARK, NJ — Newark's favorite rite of spring is when the 5,000 cherry blossom trees in Branch Brook Park explode in a flowery flash of pink, white, red, and purple bringing beauty to the eye of thousands of beholders.
Although nature has plagued the spring of 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic, the power of the flowers is still drawing people to the park despite the official cancellation of the annual cherry blossom festival.
"I can't stand being cooped up. I need fresh air," said Tony Klufas, who came down from Bergen County to Essex County's best-known park earlier this month to lessen the alienation created by COVID-19-induced isolation. "I know the coronavirus is out there. But I'm human. I need this."
Klufas's comments, made on the same day Gov. Phil Murphy instituted a statewide stay-at-home order, echo a common sentiment during a strange and scary time when close contact with others could lead to grave illness, or even the grave itself. Even a week after the stay-at-home order, people were walking through the park, maintaining their social distance from each other.
The formal undoing of this year's cherry blossom festival, scheduled for April 4-19, came as normal life in Newark, New Jersey, and all of America became gradually undone as the COVID-19 outbreak spread, its viciousness particularly virulent in the tri-state area.
Neighboring New York has by far the highest incidence of coronavirus cases, with over 59,000 confirmed cases reported as of Sunday and 965 dead.
Meanwhile, New Jersey has the second-highest number of cases in the nation, with more than 13,000 confirmed cases as of Sunday and 161 people dead.
Newark, the Garden State's largest city, has had its own share of suffering, with over 200 confirmed cases and at least four dead.
The society-wide sense of creeping dread, fueled by a rising death toll, is inexorable these days. Yet the cherry blossom trees still bloom throughout Branch Brook Park as Newark blends into Belleville, a natural knockout of despair, a relentless reminder of new life.
"Look, I've got bills to pay," said Anthony Rolandelli, the owner of Original Chris' Red Hots hot dog truck, located for years at the same spot on Heller Parkway near Branch Brook Park Drive, as he paused from selling a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut, along with a black cherry soda, to another avid customer. "We're here all year round. Our family and our neighbors, they trust us. That's one of the main reasons we're still here now."
"I'm here to help out my guy," said Manny DaSilva, a resident of Newark's North Ward, as he waited on line while maintaining social distance from the other customers. "You can't stop what's happening, but you can support local businesses. Plus, I just can't stay in the house anymore. I need my chili dogs."
About a quarter-mile away, Vikas Nekkanti, of Secaucus, carefully placed his three-year-old daughter, Myra, on a cherry blossom tree branch before he took her picture, not far from where a few older men sat on benches by a bocce court, speaking softly in Italian. For Nekkanti, social distancing makes sense, but he thinks that the American authorities tasked with slowing the spread of the pandemic could have done more.
"All of the closings and regulations have been appropriate. But we should've made testing mandatory, like South Korea did," said Nekkanti, posting to that country's hardcore clampdown on the coronavirus, including an early push toward mass testing, rigorous contact tracing, and mandatory quarantine for anyone near a carrier of the virus. "Still, it's been gorgeous out, and I don't want to sit at home. I think this place is big enough, and if you watch yourself and maintain basic social distancing, you can still have a good time."
Klufas, who came to the park with a small group of friends, brought up how having a good time has become paramount to some people, instead of protecting themselves and those around them.
"There's a lot of anxiety and worry now, and alcohol is everywhere, along with partying. Some people say parties aren't illegal if you don't get caught. [Forget] that," said Klufas, shaking his head, a leery smile on his face as he examined the fine line between clever and stupid. "Nobody should be partying in a big group. Nobody. Still, people shouldn't be running scared, because they should be washing their hands anyway. Even a seven-year-old kid knows this."
Many people have indeed adopted the cautious credo of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is widely viewed as one of the most trusted public officials locked in combat with COVID-19.
"I like it when people are thinking, I'm overreacting," Fauci said in a recent interview. "Because that means we're doing it just right."
Most of the people who are coming to Branch Brook Park to see the blooming cherry blossom trees seem to be trying to get the advised social distancing protocols right. They stare at the evanescent fluorescence with wonder, touching at a distance what they came to see. Meanwhile, people who stay inside wonder why those chasing cherry blossoms might be choosing slow suicide, potentially risking their lives while staring at something that will soon be gone.
Nevertheless, back at his hot dog truck, Anthony Rolandelli looked out at a world transformed, changed utterly by a deadly pandemic, and expressed his faith in better days to come as beauty was born in the trees standing around him.
"It's going to be all good once you've made your mind up that's the way it's going to be," said Rolandelli, handing out trios of hot dogs to more customers from his truck's window. "We definitely want to stay here. But only time will tell."