In Lakewood, a daily battle to secure compliance with social distancing order

Lakewood Police blocked off a stretch of Ridge Avenue on Thursday, turning cars away to prevent crowds from gathering at a Hasidic funeral, the latest in a series of actions they’ve taken in recent days to compel compliance with state COVID-19 public health orders in this sprawling Ocean County township.

Despite emphatic public health messages about the need to stay home and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that has now killed nearly 650 in the state, officials here say achieving wholesale compliance has been an ongoing battle.

“We are frustrated by it. It is a topic of conversation at least a half dozen times a day,” said Ray Coles, mayor of the township that’s home to more than 100,000 people. “And we’re doing everything we can with the religious community to get the word out.”

Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order 107 banning all parties, celebrations and public events on March 21, but it’s apparently been a tough sell with some folks in this large Orthodox community accustomed to frequent social gatherings. Lakewood has been among the municipalities in New Jersey that are mentioned by State Police Col. Patrick Callahan frequently during his daily reports on incidents that resulted in citations and arrests for non-compliance with the order.

Authorities in Lakewood — where local police have partnered with state and county agencies — have charged people for hosting such events as backyard weddings, a bat mitzvah and an engagement party. Recently, 14 were charged at a funeral.

“The police went after there and issued a summons to anyone who wouldn’t disperse immediately,” Cole said. “When somebody passes like that, people sometimes don’t think straight. They get emotional, they allow those emotions to take over.”

Rabbi Aaron Kotler — the president of the Yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha, said to be one of the world’s largest schools for Orthodox Jews — says that while many residents don’t like the restrictions, most do obey the executive order.

“They were wrong. We begged them not to. They were wrong,” he said of the funeral attendees. “And we’re happy law enforcement cracked down on them.”

Kotler also cited an example of members of the community who are managing to observe tradition and adhere to the guidelines. “That same day, there was another funeral, that 10,000 people dialed into a funeral by Zoom for Zvi Rothschild, which we arranged.”

He pushed back against those who would make generalized assumptions about the community.

“The statement that Lakewood is not observing the social distancing rules is simply — it’s flat-out false,” he said. “Out of 130,000 people, there are going to be a few people who make mistakes.”

Social distancing is particularly important in Lakewood because it’s a COVID-19 hot spot. As of Wednesday, Lakewood logged 450 of Ocean County’s more than 1,200 positive cases. At least five rabbis have died.

Kotler suggests the Lakewood outbreak might be traced back to parties held in early March, before the executive order was signed, in honor of Purim, an annual festival dating back 2,500 years.

Both he and the mayor noted that other locations are having persistent problems with non-compliance. In Newark, with some 800 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, police have launched mobile patrols to crack down hard on violators, issuing hundreds of summonses and closing down numerous stores.

Reports from across NJ also include suspects’ spitting at or drooling on police officers, and claiming they are positive for the coronavirus. Charges leveled in those cases have included aggravated assault and other indictable offenses.

Murphy has taken to calling all who violate social distancing orders “knuckleheads,” no matter their motivation for doing so.

“A knucklehead is a knucklehead,” he said Friday. “We need everybody to get with the program to comply to get us to 100% in compliance.”

At the same time, he and others have warned about the dangers of harassment and other bias crimes against any ethnic or religious groups related to COVID-19.

“There’s zero tolerance,” Cole said. “But we also have to be careful, because we’re also seeing a lot, a huge increase in anti-Semitic remarks and even threats to the township.”

State Health Commission Judith Persichilli on Friday made an appeal to religious leaders to help state officials keep people at home, especially during the Easter and Passover holidays, which both begin next week.

“We hope our faith leaders will reach out to the members of their congregations and remind them that they should not be gathering for religious services or for meals until the ban is lifted,” she said.

“I cannot think of another time when we need each other more,” she added. “So we encourage leaders to notify their congregation of any livestreamed or televised services that may be available and provide them with suggestions on how they can create meaningful celebrations at home without gathering with others.”

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