NJ Advance Media's Payton Guion reports
Outside his home in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, Ryan Haygood watched for two weeks as his city struggled to come to terms with the significance of the coronavirus outbreak.
Even though Newark Mayor Ras Baraka was ahead of most other cities in New Jersey in his response — he first began holding daily briefings on March 16 — city officials were still having difficulties keeping people at home and non-essential businesses closed.
“A couple of weeks ago it was clear there were people in the city who were taking it very seriously and others who were not," said Haygood, president and CEO on the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. "You could drive down the street and see” a lot of people out.
Newark police started with warnings, issuing some 300 over a four-day period in late March. But some residents still weren’t following the city and state orders to stay at home. In the past week and a half, Newark police charged more than 900 people and closed around 50 businesses for violating orders from the governor.
The level of noncompliance is especially concerning in Newark, a city with a population that might be disproportionately at risk of succumbing to the coronavirus.
Data from across the country suggests that black Americans are more susceptible to the coronavirus than the population at large, due to a combination of factors, but largely down to a higher than average prevalence of underlying health conditions, like high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes, public health experts say. In Chicago, some 70 percent of those who have died from coronavirus are black, while only about 30 percent of the city’s population is black. Newark’s population is 49.7. percent black, according to the most recently available Census data, compared to 15% of the statewide population.
“I really, really am concerned about what those numbers will look like in Newark, Camden, Trenton and Irvington,” Haygood said. “It preys on the underlying conditions you find mostly in black people."
Early research also suggests that poorer communities are seeing much greater spread of the disease. That means Newark, with 28% of its residents living in poverty, nearly 3 times the national rate, according to Census date, could be facing a perfect storm of factors that intensify the crisis.
“Our lack of access to healthcare makes it even worse,” Baraka said in his video press conference on Wednesday. "We’re falling victim and that’s why it’s that much more important to protect ourselves, to follow these orders.”
The initial numbers from New Jersey would seem to bear out these very concerns. Of the 1,700 people in the state who had died after contracting the virus as of Thursday, 61% were white, 22% were black, 6% were Asian, less than 1 percent were native or Pacific islander and 11% were still being investigated. Compare that to the breakdown of the state population, which is 72% white, 15% black and 10% percent Asian.
As of Wednesday, 1,939 people in the city had tested positive for the virus and 92 had died, Baraka said. Both of those are among the most of any municipality in New Jersey. (The state as a whole has reported 51,027 cases of coronavirus and 1,700 people have died, as of Thursday afternoon, Gov. Phil Murphy said in his daily briefing.)
Complicating this picture, though, is incomplete data and limited testing — two issues that have bedeviled the coronavirus response, nationally and statewide, from the start. Even though African-Americans in New Jersey already appear to be disproportionately represented in deaths, we won’t have a clearer picture until the state starts releasing more specific demographic data. So far, the state has only released the high-level death numbers broken down by race.
Murphy said Thursday that state officials were focused on the impact of the virus on African-American communities.
For now, though, Newark is preoccupied with slowing the spread of the virus. Wade, the health director, said it’s especially important for those with underlying health conditions to follow city and state orders on staying at home.
“Don’t risk going out if you don’t have to, and for individuals who have those particular (underlying) conditions, don’t allow even family members to come in if they don’t have to,” he said.
And In that respect, the daily drumbeat of stories about noncompliance in the city — including one night in which Newark police cited 161 people and closed 15 businesses — illustrates how seriously leaders are taking the issue.
Anthony Ambrose, Newark’s public safety director, said police wrote nearly 1,000 summonses in the last week and a half — no other town in New Jersey has reported close to that number.
“We don’t want to give you a summons, we want to save lives,” Ambrose said.
The effort seems to be working. Ambrose emphasized the daily number of summonses have been falling as more people are staying inside; on Monday, he said, officers wrote only 34 summonses for people violating the order to stay inside, way down from the numbers last week. No non-essential businesses were found to be operating that day, either. He stressed that educating the public has been the most important factor in decreasing the number of people being charged.
On Tuesday, Haygood looked out his window and saw just two people, both carrying grocery bags. He noted this was a positive change from the previous couple of weeks.
“I don’t think initially people appreciated the situation," he said. "But now there are very few people out around where I live.”
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