With a coronavirus test positivity rate of 19%, the city of Newark embodies the battle against COVID-19 in America’s northeast, a region that has so far avoided the second wave of infections that has been hitting the rest of the US and Europe for several weeks.
The streets of Ironbound, usually one of the liveliest neighborhoods in Newark – the most populous city in New Jersey with 280,000 residents – are near-empty as temperatures drop and COVID-19 cases soar.
“Since they announced two weeks ago that Newark’s rates were almost double the state rate, it’s a ghost town,” says 63-year-old Belinda Luis, the co-owner of Evolution Fitness gym.
Newark – a majority of whose residents belong to minority groups and household income is less than a quarter of the New Jersey average – is currently registering more than 200 new coronavirus infections every day.
Mayor Ras Baraka has imposed a nighttime curfew on weekdays starting Thursday, in addition to the mandatory closure of non-essential businesses at 8 pm every evening, which was implemented at the end of October.
The orders have been unpopular, but as Baraka points out, they are not as stringent as back in the spring when the virus first wreaked devastation here and in neighboring New York.
“We are not doing half the things this time around that we did then and in fact we probably should be doing all the things that we did then… because the infection is as bad as it was then,” he said Thursday.
Newark is bearing the brunt of a second wave that was feared for months and is now sweeping New Jersey.
The state, which has one of the highest population densities in the US, recorded more than 3,500 new cases in 24 hours Thursday, November 12, more than 7 times the rate of a month ago.
Democratic Governor Phil Murphy ordered restaurants and bars across the state to close at 10 pm every night beginning Thursday.
He said a gradual approach is best, judging the situation “different” from the first wave when there was little testing and tracing.
Leaders in New York state, where the positivity rate is 2.95%, are also adopting a measured strategy.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that from Friday all bars and restaurants must close at 10 pm. He also banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says he might close schools if the positivity rate in the city touches 3%. It is currently 2.60 percent.
After effectively resisting a resurgence of the virus that swept across many parts of the US over the summer, the northeastern United States is now on alert, from Pennsylvania to Maine.
“Covid fatigue is definitely setting in,” said Baraka.
But some heads have turned at this week’s announcement from pharma giant Pfizer that a vaccine could be on the horizon.
Governor Murphy fears that the annual Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, when families get together, will lead to more spread of the disease.
Any gathering that includes members of other households would mean risking “your dinner table becoming a COVID hotspot,” he warned on Thursday.
In Ironbound, a neighborhood with a large Brazilian and Hispanic population, many are alarmed by the lackadaisical attitude towards health protocols shown by some Newark residents.
“Some people still don’t want to wear a mask,” said 19-year-old Rutgers University student Bola Ayuba.
“Throughout this whole time the Brazilian restaurants, they still held parties, under wraps. In the restaurant yard; or they created bunkers,” said Luis, who also owns a restaurant as well as her gym.
And now that Newark is under stricter conditions than the rest of the state, some residents head to nightclubs in neighboring areas and return with the virus, she says.
“Newark is paying the price,” she said.
Luis fears that if the viral infection rate fails to drop, authorities will close nearly everything again, just like they did in the spring and summer when her gym was shut from March to mid-August.
“It’s destroying the community,” she said. – Rappler.com