News Ras Baraka at Citywide Men's Meetings 2018. Photo credit: City of Newark

Residents divided in Newark’s mask mandate

City leadership claims jab-or-no entry helps curb COVID-19 numbers, others argue it is ineffective and hurts the average working-class Newark resident.

Mayor Ras Baraka recently extended a citywide mask mandate and proof of vaccination until Friday, March 4. “We need to continue wearing our masks and getting vaccinated, as another form of protection, to remain on this path of progress,” said Mayor Baraka in a statement. 

The compulsory guidelines require city-goers to wear masks before entering indoor establishments and facilities. Included in requirements, entrants must show proof of accepted COVID-19 jabs. “We will continue to be guided by data, and do what is necessary to prevent further spread to protect the people of Newark, those who work here, and visit.”

Mayor Baraka, who tested positive for COVID-19 right before the Christmas holiday, shut down City Hall the day he announced his infection status. According to a City press statement, office buildings were closed from December 22, 2021 to January 7, 2022 in order for maintenance staff to deep clean all facilities. While the mayor assured City operations would continue, the efforts were their attempt at reducing the risk and potential exposure to the coronavirus. “We want to reassure you that our priority is the health and safety of our employees and citizens,” expressed Mayor Baraka.

But some citizens say the mandate will hurt the average Newarker. “These mandates are hurting poor people,” asserted community activist Afrika, who is also a historian and sociologist. Afrika draws concern citing that a considerable amount of Black and Brown residents may have traditional inoculations, but not the COVID-19 shot. For him, this stymies their ability to navigate the city and employ basic living amenities like grocery shopping.

Big city, wider pandemic-exacerbated economic gaps 

According to an Essex County report, Newark maintains the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. At 76,519,  the largest city in the state, has recorded a total of 1,189 deaths as of February 7. While any fatality due to COVID is tragic, some argue that even vaccines cannot stop future illness.

“With current data suggesting that anyone who was vaccinated more than five months ago will not be protected from Omicron and as the majority of [New Jersey] was vaccinated before August, we have every reason to believe that this will create more work for already overburden businesses and Newarkers without giving Newark any additional protective benefits,” sent Anthony Diaz in a statement to Ark Republic contesting the executive order.

Now running for mayor this June, Diaz is the co-founder of Newark Water Coalition, an organization providing clean water and environmental advocacy amidst the uncovering of lead in the city’s H2O. A grassroots and community activist who believes an administration should “use people power to reorganize the policies, procedures, and funding for public safety,” Diaz doubled down on his position. “The city of Newark needs long term solutions to the long-term problem of COVID.”

Attached to health disparities are gross wealth gaps. In Newark, the median income for residents between 2015 and 2019 was $35,199, as recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau. The wealth gap between Newark and the richest town is staggering. Millburn, located about a 20 minute drive from Brick city, has a median household income of $214,449. 

Diaz argues that masking up does not adequately deal with the healthcare inequities in Newark. “Instead of aiming for impractical executive orders the administration should use its platform to advocate for universal health care and institute health and safety committees for business[es] across the city,” he said.

Clash of the brass on vaccines orders

Citizens were not the only ones who rejected the mask mandate. Last year, Mayor Baraka as well as Newark’s police and fire departments engaged in an open battle over the former’s jab-or-no-job rules. Both union leaders in Newark filed a restraining order to stop the executive order enacted by  Baraka. Yet, he gave civil servants two options: get the COVID-19 vaccine or face disciplinary action, even termination. A judge ruled in favor of the order in September 2021.

With Gov. Murphy’s recent decree for schools to go maskless as soon as March 7, Mayor Baraka’s regulations stop a few days before Newark schools will enact a new set of guidelines. Some education leaders agree. “I am in favor of an off-ramp on masks [in schools] . . . I think it’s important to have a science-based metric that people can plan for. That’s what it seems that @GovMurphy has done,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Regardless of masks on, or masks off, city and health officials continue to monitor the well-being of Newarkers, and New Jerseyans.

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