Baraka: Re-opening Newark too fast could be 'lethal'

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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (City of Newark photo)

By Bradford Mason

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is making it clear: If this city re-opens too early there could be deadly consequences.

As states across the country being to re-open some businesses and public spaces at coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to rise, Baraka said that Newark will not be following anytime soon. He also cited the city's high Black and Latino population and the devastating impact COVID-19 is having on people of color. Recent statistics from the American Public Media Research Labs show COVID-19 mortality rate is nationally 2.7 times higher for African-Americans than whites. 

"As mayor of a largely African-American and Latino community, I feel this swell of political maneuvering and popular opinion will be lethal to our communities," Baraka said. "Most health experts say we should see a decline in new COVID-19 cases for a period of 14 days before a state or local government considers the first stage of re-opening. Even then, the situation is precarious, and a new spike would necessitate another shutdown. Here in Newark, we are seeing declines, but they are not sustained enough. We need to make data-driven decisions based on contact tracing and testing, but nowhere in the country have those tools be utilized on a grand enough scale to make a grand-scale decisions."

Last weekend, New Jersey State Parks and our Essex County Parks were opened for passive use, as were golf courses, with the caveat that masks must be worn and social distance maintained. Baraka says pressure is mounting on urban mayors like him giving residents the idea that this COVID-19 crisis is passing, and they can go back to working and playing as usual.

"New Jersey is a microcosm of the nation and the landscapes they govern are very diverse in geography, population density and demographics," the Mayor said. "They must make decisions that somehow apply to all their constituents and this is an impossible task. "The 'greater good' is an elusive target. What might be good for the people who want to hike in the 30,000 contiguous forested acres of Stokes and High Point State Parks in sparsely-populated Sussex County, may not be good for the people who crowd the Branch Brook Park basketball courts off Clifton Avenue in Newark."

Baraka added that for cities like his to reopen, population density and demographics must be taken into account. Newark has more COVID-19 deaths than 14 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. 

"Right now our greatest growth in COVID-19 infections is among essential personnel, including our police, firefighters, health workers, and others who come in contact with the public daily -- bus drivers, store clerks, cafeteria workers, sanitation workers -- all those people who take risks everyday to make our lives feel a little more normal," Baraka said. "Wearing masks and gloves and practicing the best social distance they can doesn’t make them immune. That’s evidence of the danger that remains in our community and we should remain on high alert."
 
At a press conference on Thursday,  officials outlined the Newark Contact Tracing Program. Nearly 300 volunteers have been trained by Baraka's Contact Tracing Task Force to telephone residents suffering from the virus and their families to investigate with whom they had contact, both before and after becoming infected. This will enable the city to develop databases to slow the spread of the virus; to protect the most vulnerable populations; monitor populations difficult to track; and clear frontline workers for continued work. This tracing data will also help Newark develop strategies on how, when and where to reopen businesses and begin its economic recovery.

The Newark Contact Tracing Task Force is led by Newark Alliance CEO Aisha Glover. It will utilize methods used by medical scientists for almost 50 years to both understand and potentially inhibit the spread of infectious disease. The City’s strategic alliance with Partners In Health, a global public health organization which has led contact tracing efforts to battle Ebola and H1N1 viruses, will play a critical role. 

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