Cities in hard-hit Essex toughen social distancing enforcement

Residents of four cities in Essex County — now second in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Jersey — are being told to stay home or face fines and other penalties, as part of a stepped-up crackdown launched Tuesday by the mayors of Newark, Orange, East Orange and Irvington.

“Many of us are listening but there are some of us that have not gotten the picture, which allows the virus to continue to spread,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “As a result of that we are instituting Operation Lockdown.”

To date, public health officials have confirmed 2,262 Essex County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and 69 deaths linked to the virus. Most are in Newark.

Compliance with the social distancing order has been elusive. At the state’s daily press briefing on the crisis Wednesday, Col. Patrick Callahan reported that police in Newark had reported 131 incidents Tuesday in which they issued 125 summonses and closed five businesses for failing to comply with the governor’s orders about social distance and how businesses are expected to respond.

And on Monday, Newark police reported 21 incidents and wrote 161 summonses and closed 15 businesses, Callahan said

Ted Green, the mayor of East Orange, said that taking a regional approach is key to slowing the spread of the virus in cities where residents can easily to go back and forth. The new aggressive steps include police patrolling the border of East Orange and Newark, he said.

“So people think when one store is closed in Newark and you can run up in East Orange, then guess what, if we catch you, we will fine you,” Green said.

Under “Operation Mobile Wellness Checks,” Green says anyone in East Orange who is caught walking around after 8 p.m. without a reason deemed essential under social distancing rules will be ticketed.

“If you’re not where you’re supposed to be at a certain time, we’re going to fine you,” Green said.

“It has to be an essential reason why you are out,” said Chief Phyllis Bindi of the East Orange police, citing going to a store to pick up medicine as an example.

“We are just encouraging everyone as a community to get on board with us,” she added. “We’re just saying the same message over and over: Help us, help you. Practice social distancing.”

Lee Clayton, a resident of East Orange, gets how high the stakes are.

“When people aren’t listening they put their own family at risk,” he said. “When people are not listening you’re putting my family at risk. The quicker the people follow the rules, the quicker we can get on with our lives.”

Green also said city officials are working with businesses on how to keep their operations clean and safe.

To be sure, compliance issues are not limited to New Jersey’s cities.

Callahan on Wednesday also reported three other enforcements actions elsewhere in the state, including a citation for the operator of an indoor soccer arena who had been warned to shut down over a week ago, and 10 adults being cited in Lakewood over what he termed “a gathering.” Two adults were also charged with child neglect in the Ocean County community.

Callahan also said that State Police were partnering with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and Lakewood Police “in an effort to ensure 100% compliance” with the governor’s executive order.

“When law enforcement has to go to a large gathering, regardless of which municipalities it is, those law enforcement officers exposing themselves, as well,” Callahan said earlier this week. “This is a close-up, hands-on profession. We cannot do this profession from six feet away sometimes.”

He went on, “If you’re not thinking about yourself, at least think about our first responders and our law enforcement, because we are going to take action.”