Op-Ed: One Size Does Not Fit All for Reopening Urban New Jersey

The unique needs of the state’s urban, suburban and rural communities and their diverse populations must be understood when drafting public policy

Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement to lift the shelter in place order across the state is of great concern to the members of the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association.

According to state Department of Health data, African Americans make up 20% of the 12,303 people who have died in New Jersey from COVID-19, while representing only 13% of the state’s total population —many of whom reside in urban communities.

This disproportionate death rate is evidence that our urban centers must reopen with great caution, with slow, methodical strategies that must differ from our suburban and rural neighbors.

We understand that making blanket COVID-19-related orders for a state as demographically and geographically diverse as New Jersey is a challenging charge to communities and local leaders. For example, an order to open parks may be appropriate and safe for the 30,000 contiguous acres of Stokes State Forest and High Point State Park in Sussex County, but not for the crowded basketball courts of Newark and Paterson, where proper social distancing is impossible. Urban communities such as Irvington have a geography of only 2.9 miles with a population of nearly 80,000 residents and are much more populated than suburban communities of similar size. Residents in municipalities such as Roselle and Perth Amboy have difficulty accessing transportation to testing sites.

What’s more, many undocumented residents feel uncomfortable getting tested for fear of being quarantined and unable to work. Considering the fact that the undocumented population is restricted from receiving money via the CARES Act, a positive test could threaten their only means to financial stability and the livelihood of them and their families.

Furthermore, there have been inconsistencies in establishing testing sites throughout the state. For instance, a FEMA testing site was never opened in southern New Jersey. Currently, testing sites are operating in the Bridgeton-Millville area, through a Federal Qualified Health Provider. It would have been more appropriate, however, if these sites were opened at the same rate as was done for northern communities. The rate of infections was not as drastic in the southern area of the state, but if this region had a state-sponsored site at the onset of the pandemic more lives may have been saved. Given that access to testing has been inconsistent across New Jersey, we are uncertain of the most accurate count of coronavirus cases that currently exist in the state. This further drives the need for clear and even more measured phases to be established by the members of the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association in conjunction with the governor’s office to properly manage reopening in our unique communities.

With the governor’s latest reopening orders, we are faced with enforcing rules in our cities that contradict the state orders. For example, we have legitimate concerns about allowing block parties, a staple of summer city life, until we see our COVID-19 infection rates plummet to low, single digits.

But with the state allowing outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people, it will be more difficult for us to educate and inform our residents as to why they should not hold these gatherings. In the current tense environment over the wanton police-brutality death of George Floyd, it also creates an unnecessary spark of unrest if our police try to enforce the rules we believe will keep our residents safe.

There is an implied message to the statewide relaxed restrictions that the threat of the virus has dissipated. While it has been reduced, we feel without continued proper social distancing, testing, contact tracing, and further mandating of PPE and mass sanitizing of public spaces and venues, the number of infections will begin to rise, which the data has proven is lethal to our communities.

We strongly urge the following policies to keep our urban residents safe and healthy:

  • engaging with the mayors in the association to establish separate guidelines for reopening that addresses and supports the unique needs of urban municipalities;
  • a declaration from the governor allowing for flexibility and autonomy in the mayors’ strategies to reopen;
  • a state plan to address liability issues that cities may face as they adhere to executive orders or push back on those reopening orders. These actions may cause them to face lawsuits from businesses and citizens alike;
  • guidance from the state on resources available for contact tracing and testing of residents and municipal staff;
  • availability of resources for testing undocumented immigrants, many of whom make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce in our state;
  • support of S-2350/A-4132 to allow furloughs and continued health care coverage, noting that furloughs can’t be voluntary, and cities must have the flexibility to use this tool when needed.

We put forth these suggestions with the understanding that many municipalities have unique circumstances and face different pressures to reopen, and the governor must find a balance of all those needs while always putting the safety of the state’s residents first. We ask that urban mayors are provided the leeway to also act with the protection of the lives of our residents at the core of our actions. Further, we understand that our infection rates have decreased due to our significant work with the governor to establish guidelines during the coronavirus onset. We ask that the same consideration and opportunity to collaborate be given to the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association to work to reopen with public health and safety at the forefront of decisions in urban municipalities.