Making it through the pandemic | A Q&A with Ras Baraka

Published: Feb. 15, 2022

Few jobs can be more challenging than running one of the country’s most densely populated cities during a pandemic, yet even in a place often known for its crises, the leadership Newark received from Ras Baraka was often commendable.

He set up dozens of Covid testing sites in every ward, established a robust contact tracing program, erected hundreds of permanent and pop-up vaccine facilities with help from Essex County, saved countless lives of seniors and homeless, and distributed more than 8 million meals to the most vulnerable.

Baraka’s vaccine mandate for city employees, which had no testing option, drew broad compliance and withstood legal challenges from police and firefighter unions; and his vaccine passports for public places made Newark a safer destination than most.

The mayor met the Star-Ledger Editorial Board Thursday to discuss how he got Newark through the pandemic, which some predict could lead to a run for governor in 2025. The conversation was edited for brevity.

Q. After two years, 76,000 COVID cases, and 1,199 deaths in your city, what are the most important lessons you have taken from this ordeal?

A. The importance of communication. People are looking for direction, information and support, so communication is incredibly important. I tried to express that to other people during this time and give a sense of empathy for others. That’s the thing that got us through, that people care about each other and care about the city as a whole -- more than just themselves.

Q. You just extended the city’s vaccine and mask mandates, but only for a short term. You must sense that we’re entering a different phase here.

A. Absolutely. The numbers are going down, hospitalizations are going down, people are not as severely sick as they were. New data is out that says people who had high symptomatic cases of COVID could be free from severe sickness and death as well. So with total vaccinations and others who actually had COVID, it puts us in the safe space.

Q. What are the city’s current vaccination rates?

A. Ages 12 and up, we’re 74% fully vaccinated, and 91% had at least one shot. But between 12 and 17, it’s still low. It had taken time to get the 17-to-19s vaccinated, but they did, by the grace of God. But there’s more work to do with the 5-to-12s, and in that case, it’s about encouraging parents.

Q. The governor just announced that school kids could take off their masks in a few weeks. How do you assess that risk?

A. The governor is in charge of millions of people, and those buckets of people are in different counties and municipalities and wards. I have to care about the people of Newark, so things we do are a little different. I’m thankful that our governor follows science, unlike some people around the country I thought were a bit off their rockers. If we decide to do something different, we won’t be too far behind what’s happening on the state level.

Q. Would you like to see the governor extend vaccine mandates, perhaps eliminate testing options?

A. The way he did it was right. We’ve been asking for him to allow municipalities to have some flexibility to do what we think is right, based on what our health department sees here. I know it’s difficult for the governor to make unilateral decisions. But it’s important that he gives us the flexibility.

Q. Should our state consider adding the COVID vaccine to the school immunization schedule, as California is about to do? Wouldn’t that lift a big burden for a mayor with 60 schools and 35,000 students?

A. It would lift a burden for us, but in Newark, there are schools that have high infection rates and some that don’t. And the superintendent has to make certain decisions for the whole district. So some of those people get angry because they don’t have those issues, while others are angry because they want him to go further. I understand that predicament. It definitely would make it easier for the state to do it.

Q. So this September, should COVID vaccine be required for school kids?

A. I believe so. Look, this whole thing has been so politicized, and I think everybody is responsible for it. But we act like we never had vaccines before in this country – that’s just ahistorical. You even need a yellow fever shot to enter some countries. You need the MMR shot to go to school, so yeah, there should be a mandate. But right now? In order to do that, I think it would cause more chaos than it would be helpful. It should have happened early on, with all leaders on the same page and putting politics aside.

Q. Other leaders have complained about pushback when they tried to impose restrictions, and you had to deal with it regarding vaccine passports and the no-testing option on the mandate for city personnel. Are other leaders too skittish about that?

A. The pushback is real. They’re on your social media, emailing you, talking to you. The noise is huge. So yeah, elected officials are often guided by that. I just felt that it was necessary to do the things that we were doing, in spite of the pushback. I got a lot of people in the city who said that they appreciated what we were doing, and I heard from the other side. You just have to weigh that, because I was getting information twice a day, and the stories I was hearing were heartbreaking. Honestly, I didn’t care what would happen politically; one way or the other, I just wanted to get through this time, and history would judge us the way it does.

Q. Do you have a sense of how it did affect your political standing, whether this helped or hurt?

A. I don’t know, honestly. People talk to me about that all the time, and when I find myself falling victim to that, I think about the father I met: He brought COVID home, his wife and his daughter caught it, they all went into the hospital and 10 days later he was the only one that came out. I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. So I said, “Listen, if this means I can’t be elected anymore, then so be it.” I do what I need to do. My family and friends live here, and that’s not a political matter.

Q. The impact of this pandemic will be felt mostly in our urban areas. How does this affect your long-range plans, such as the Newark Master Plan and other development projects?

A. There are some things, absolutely, that we weren’t thinking about pre-pandemic. It could be something as simple as the health department stocking masks and other items. It could be expanding Wi-Fi to specific neighborhoods faster -- before we were doing rec centers, now it’s about getting broadband to every household in the city immediately, in case schools have to shut down. How are we organizing housing, giving people more open space in a city of more than 70-percent renters. We talk about clinics to prevent overcrowding of emergency rooms, which are too often used as a primary care facility. The pandemic made it more emergent and urgent for us to get this done.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-16 02:51:45 -0800