COVID-19 comes to Maplewood and South Orange

Two towns, entire state, close down everyday life to prevent spread of disease

Photo Courtesy of CDC
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depicts coronavirus. The spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion when viewed electron microscopically, which gives the virus its name.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The two towns are feeling the effects of COVID-19, the strain of coronavirus that was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. School districts, many businesses and other organizations have closed and moved to online learning for at least two weeks. As of March 19, Maplewood has two confirmed cases. South Orange has no confirmed cases; however, a Seton Hall University employee tested positive for the virus, according to a March 18 press release from the village’s Office of Emergency Management.

“As of this moment there are over 3,000 confirmed coronavirus COVID-19 cases in the U.S. We have 98 confirmed cases in the state of New Jersey, including 11 in Essex County and one case here in Maplewood. The patient is a 31-year-old male, who does not have children and is self-isolating,” Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee said in a statement on March 15. “We will continue to provide you with updates.”

According to McGehee in a March 18 Facebook post, the second Maplewood case is a 64-year-old female with college-aged children; she is self-isolating and her household is self-monitoring.

In a statement on March 13, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum said that, while there are no cases of the virus in South Orange, she encouraged residents to stay home.

“While this is significant, we know of no South Orange residents with a confirmed case of this virus to date. Nonetheless, epidemiologists predict the virus will continue to spread, putting some of our most vulnerable neighbors at risk, which is why we must work together to take proactive precautionary measures to ‘flatten the curve,’” Collum said, referring to the graph showing the importance of preventing a spike in patients in a concentrated period of time, which would overload the health care system. “I’m sure many of you have seen the graphic from the Centers for Disease Control and the message is very simple: We all need to make modifications to our daily routine, particularly utilizing ‘social distancing,’ so we don’t overwhelm our health care system. While this will cause an inconvenience to many, I hope you will agree it is a necessary strategy to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our community.”

Collum declared a state of emergency that went into effect March 13 at 6 p.m. McGehee did not do the same but described restrictions that the township put into place in his March 15 statement.

“Effective immediately, all jitney service will be discontinued indefinitely. Starting Monday, March 16, social distancing tactics will be in effect for all resident interaction with staff at Town Hall. As a result, only the front entrance to Town Hall on Valley Street will be accessible to the public,” McGehee said. “We also advise that residents leverage the dropbox at Town Hall for transactions, such as the early bird special for the pool. Please note: There are two dropbox locations, one on Valley Street in the front and the second at the side-door entrance near Park Road.”

He encouraged residents to stay away from school playgrounds and playgrounds in neighboring towns, as well. In addition, McGehee said Maplewoodians should avoid public dining spaces, movie theaters and gyms.

“We are encouraging residents to patronize our businesses by using delivery or takeout options, as well as the purchase of gift cards to support small businesses during this highly unprecedented time. We will also be asking for merchant landlords to be understanding to all of our merchants, as well particularly to those who incur economic hardships as a result of this period,” his statement said. “For those restaurants that decide to keep their dining areas open, we will be enforcing a reduced social distancing mandate, meaning that restaurants should reduce their dining spaces by 50 percent and maintain 6 feet of distance between seating to follow social distancing best practices.”

Recycling and garbage collection will continue as planned in Maplewood. The same goes for South Orange. Jitney service is suspended in the village as well. According to Collum’s statement, all public playgrounds are being fenced, fields are not open for group activities and the basketball court is closed. South Orange, like Maplewood, is using the same restrictions for restaurants that are keeping their dining rooms open. The village also relaxed parking fines.

“The South Orange Parking Authority and South Orange Police Department will be utilizing ‘courtesy/light enforcement’ for the time being,” Collum said. “We all recognize the flexibility we need right now to better support access to curbside pickup and deliveries in appreciation for our businesses that are adapting to social distancing norms.”

In a tweeted video statement on March 16, Gov. Phil Murphy said he ordered the closure of all preschools, K–12 schools and higher education institutions beginning on March 18. All casinos, racetracks, theaters and gyms must be closed, and all nonessential retail, recreational and entertainment businesses must close after 8 p.m. Gatherings of more than 50 people are banned.

“The time for us to make our strongest and most direct actions to date to slow the spread of the coronavirus is now,” Murphy said. “Starting tonight, I am strongly discouraging all nonessential and nonemergency travel in New Jersey between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. This will remain in effect for the foreseeable future. We want everyone to be home and not out.”

Murphy said that businesses that are necessary for the public’s welfare, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, medical offices and gas stations may remain open after 8 p.m.

“We do not take any of these steps lightly,” he said. “We know that each comes with its own set of impacts on residents, families, communities and businesses. But at this moment, our paramount concern must be to flatten the curve of new cases so we do not overload our health care system. We all must take seriously the need for social distancing that can help slow the spread of coronavirus.”

The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission will grant two-month extensions to driver’s licenses, registrations and inspection stickers that expire in March, April and May.

Prior to Murphy’s announcement, the towns were already heading this way, with similar townwide regulations being put into place. If residents are unsure about closures, updates can be found at www.southorange.org and www.twp.maplewood.nj.us.

A statement from Assemblyman John McKeon on March 16 said that the state assembly had a voting session that day to take action on bills to stop the spread of the virus.

“The General Assembly plans to convene a voting session on Monday, March 16, to take immediate action on a number of legislative initiatives designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and respond to the needs of local governments, businesses and our residents during this pandemic,” McKeon said. “As of now, the state Senate plans to take similar action by Monday, March 23.”

According to McKeon, 25 items were on the agenda. Included were measures allowing county clerks to have an additional week to mail ballots for the 2020 primary election; one to permit remote instruction and virtual learning to count for the 180-day school year requirement; another appropriating $20 million from the general fund to the Department of Education to support school facility cleaning and sanitization; and a measure to require health insurance and Medicaid to cover testing and treatment of COVID-19.

South Orange and Maplewood jointly announced a Senior Support Fund to protect older residents in the towns. Administered by SOMA Two Towns for All Ages, a GoFundMe campaign has raised $10,651 as of March 16.

“As our community takes necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we want to take special steps to support some of our older residents,” a statement from Collum on March 14 said. “Our older South Orange and Maplewood residents are the most vulnerable to this disease. In addition, the many recent cancellations of activities and programs are meant to provide protections, but this can also mean that our seniors are without the services they need, including food, shopping, transportation and medication. We are also developing initiatives to address social isolation in a meaningful way, such as ‘phone a friend.’”

Before Murphy’s order that schools close statewide, the South Orange–Maplewood School District had already shut down. In a statement on March 13, Superintendent Ronald Taylor said that schools in the district would be closed from March 16 through March 27. Distance learning was scheduled to begin March 18.

“Monday, March 16, and Tuesday, March 17, schools will be closed utilizing the district’s unused calendar-embedded emergency school closure dates. These days will be utilized as we are traditionally governed by an inclement weather closure,” Taylor said in the statement. “The decision to transition to distance learning is a precautionary, proactive measure in an effort to minimize the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Field trips, school-based activities and events, and ancillary programs will be canceled until further notice, according to the statement. Access to the buildings will not be permitted while they are closed except to select personnel and approved visitors.

“Please know that we take this decision very seriously and are being as thoughtful as possible to ensure equity and access in our preparation,” Taylor said. “It is our goal to provide support both academically and systemically to the most vulnerable families in our community. We know that schools are not just buildings where learning takes place; for some, ‘school’ is a vital part of their food security and a virtual bridge to a generational opportunity.”

Food delivery will be available for district families who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program or are in need of food support. Those families should contact Karen Weiland at 973-762-5600, ext. 1850, or kweiland@somsd.k12.nj.us.

“In addition, starting on Wednesday, March 18, we will provide bagged lunches/breakfast during our closure for those families who qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program — no one will be turned away,” Taylor said. “Additional communication regarding distribution centers and pickup times will be provided shortly.”

He said other details will be shared as they become available.

“We are in uncharted territory and there will be many questions and challenges that arise in the coming weeks, and we will all work together to do everything we can to support our students and help them progress,” Taylor said. “We will be communicating additional information to families and students, including how to get help with technology-related matters, picking up of student’s personal belongings — if applicable — and other details. This will not be perfect, but under the circumstances, we will stretch our resources and do our best to support our 7,200-plus student body.”

The March 16 Board of Education meeting was closed to the public. It was livestreamed on SOMAtv, and residents were able to submit questions and comments via a Google Docs form.

Also announced before Murphy’s order, the Essex County Schools of Technology shifted to online instruction for at least two weeks. In a press release on March 13, the county Board of Education President Edwin Leahy, Essex County Schools of Technology Superintendent James Pedersen and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said that students will be continuing their studies from home.

“After consulting with our school officials and public health officer, I believe keeping our students home and holding online courses are the right things to do. It is unfortunate that our students will be missing out on school sports, activities and camaraderie with their fellow classmates, but holding classes online will enable them to continue to learn,” DiVincenzo said. “By keeping students away from larger gatherings, we hope to prevent the spread of this virus.”

The district has three schools: Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology in Newark, Essex County Newark Tech in Newark and West Caldwell Tech, which is temporarily located at the former Bloomfield Tech building in Bloomfield.

“The Essex County Schools of Technology is fully committed to the success of each student, and every effort is being made to offer continuous instruction during the period schools are closed. Our instructors have already created at least two weeks of learning tasks in each subject area, which students can access and complete online,” Pedersen said. “Students without internet access will be provided with hard copies of assignments and all students are expected to complete their assignments, which will be assessed so that they can be awarded the appropriate credit. Students and parents will also be able to communicate with instructors and school administrators through our Virtual High Schools portal to further support the online learning.”

According to the release, students in the county school district who receive free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch will receive a food package every day that can be collected at Payne Tech. Collection for freshman is 9 a.m., for sophomores 10 a.m., for juniors 11 a.m. and for seniors noon.

DiVincenzo announced cancellations across the county in addition to the schools closing. In a press release on March 13, he said Turtle Back Zoo, Codey Arena, county golf courses and senior buildings in the parks system will be closed for two weeks.

“We are taking precautions in order to keep our residents safe and prevent any possible exposure to coronavirus,” DiVincenzo said. “One of the ways to reduce the spread of the virus is to prevent community spread by avoiding large gatherings, such as races and festivals. We are doing everything we can to ensure that our residents feel safe. I encourage the public to follow CDC precautions and wash your hands after using the restroom, coughing or sneezing, and after coming in contact with frequently touched surfaces.”

The State of the County address that was scheduled for March 23 will be postponed, along with Census Day at the zoo, which was scheduled for March 28 and 29; the Cherry Blossom Bike Race on April 4; and the Cherry Blossom 10K race on April 5. Both Cherry Blossom events were supposed to be at Branch Brook Park.

“Other precautions being taken at Essex County offices and institutions to minimize the risk include the following: Additional procedures have been implemented at all county facilities and buildings to enhance the cleaning and sanitizing of offices and areas where the public gathers, such as waiting rooms,” the release read. “The visitation schedule at the Essex County Correctional Facility has been modified. Also, additional measures to medically screen detainees entering and being released from the ECCF have been implemented. The visitation schedule and outside passes for patients at the Essex County Hospital Center have been suspended.”

People dropping off forms at the Essex County Welfare Department are being asked to mail them, email them or put them in drop boxes in the office. The vehicles that are part of the Essex County Transportation program have been cleaned and sanitized and, according to the press release, the county has created partnerships with Uber and Lyft to provide additional transportation options if necessary.

“The congregate meal program offered by the Division of Senior Services as part of the Senior Cafe in the Park program and at other locations throughout the county have transitioned to a grab-and-go format and, in some cases, to home-delivered meals,” the press release read.

In an update on March 16, a press release from the county said all nonessential employees will be working from home; all parks, playgrounds, dog parks, senior buildings, community centers and athletic fields are closed; visitation at the Juvenile Detention Center has been suspended; the Essex County Clerk’s Office has suspended all nonessential services, including the issuance of passports, IDs, notary publics and walk-in services in its vaults; and the Board of Chosen Freeholders are reducing office hours to 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Elsewhere in the county, Sheriff Armando Fontoura announced that the sheriff’s office will be suspending all foreclosure sales and executions for evictions and ejectments until further notice.

“Our important elemental concern is to ensure that members of the Essex County community are safe and healthy, which is why our office came to this decision,” Fontoura said in a press release on March 13. “Our hope is that by curtailing these types of interactions and face-to-face events, we will help stop any spread of contagion during this crucial period of outbreak.”

He said the suspension will be in effect until the state and county have both concluded that the public health emergency has passed.

“We will continue to work hand-in-hand with the local, county and federal governments to monitor the coronavirus crisis as it unfolds,” Fontoura said. “If any Essex County residents have questions regarding this matter, we urge them to call our Civil Process Division, who can be reached at 973-621-4116.”

PSE&G is doing something similar. In a press release on March 13, the power company said it is temporarily suspending shutoffs of electric or gas service to residential customers for nonpayment.

“As we continue to monitor developments regarding the coronavirus, PSE&G recognizes that some of our customers may be negatively affected by issues related to the pandemic,” the press release said. “As always, our priority is the safety and well-being of our customers, employees and the communities we serve, and our thoughts are with those experiencing difficulty as a result.”

The policy will be in place through the end of April. New Jersey American Water is doing the same.

“In an effort to keep our customers safe during the coronavirus pandemic, New Jersey American Water will be placing a moratorium on discontinuing service shutoffs at this time. We will continue to evaluate this moratorium as more information becomes available. Additionally, New Jersey American Water will begin the restoration of service to previously shut-off customers,” a press release from the company read on March 13. “The restoration may take some time, but we will work as quickly and safely as possible. If a customer’s service has been turned off prior to March 12, 2020, we will restart their service.”

NJAW also specified that the water goes through a filtration system that prevents viruses from spreading through water.

“It is important for you to know that New Jersey American Water’s drinking water treatment barriers provide protection that includes filtration and disinfection of our surface water supplies — e.g., those from lakes, reservoirs or rivers — and disinfection of our groundwater sources — e.g., underground wells,” the press release read. “These treatments are effective in removing and/or inactivating viruses. Our water meets all current federal and state drinking water requirements.”

As many grocery stores and retail establishments are hastily restocking supplies, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office issued a press release on March 12 that the Division of Consumer Affairs is cracking down on price gouging.

“The division is redirecting its investigative resources to keep up with the increased pace of price-gouging complaints, dedicating approximately 55 investigators to inspecting retail establishments throughout the state,” the press release read. “The surge comes as the division has received approximately 270 complaints — including approximately 100 received over the last 24 hours — from consumers alleging price gouging or other unfair businesses practices in the sale of items related to the public’s concern about COVID-19.”

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal called on state, county and municipal consumer protection personnel to stop merchants from profiting off the crisis.

“We have declared a zero-tolerance policy for price gouging and other unfair business practices that prey on consumers concerned by the COVID-19 pandemic and we must use every available resource to enforce the laws that protect New Jersey consumers,” Grewal said. “Today I called on New Jersey consumer protection offices at all levels to join forces to swiftly investigate and put a stop to any merchant seeking to take financial advantage of consumers trying to stay safe and protect themselves and their loved ones from the spread of this virus.”

Despite the disruption of everyday life, in an updated March 15 statement, Collum praised village residents for helping one another.

“In the past few days, I have witnessed the generosity of people who are delivering food and donating funds to our vulnerable populations. I have seen many of our businesses take drastic and necessary measures to implement safety precautions to protect their customers, ranging from virtual classes to curbside delivery,” she said. “I’m also following the various advocacy efforts of our neighbors who are tracking and commenting on legislative bills that will provide relief to individuals and businesses who may be financially decimated by the coronavirus. You’re all really stepping up!”

She also complimented those who are following health guidelines.

“But to me, the most impressive actions have been those of personal sacrifice and extreme behavior modification in committing to ‘social distancing.’ These are the folks who have remained at home either alone or with their immediate family and greatly adjusted their lifestyle to be one of necessity versus convenience,” Collum said. “I, along with my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, salute you and am doing the same.”

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