Four Indian-American and South Asian leaders of townships discuss their challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic
When in doubt, err on the side of extreme caution. That is how Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla of New Jersey, decided to take the unpopular decision to shut down bars and restaurants in his city with the advent of COVID-19, back in mid-April.
As of April 18, Hoboken had 395 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 19 fatalities. “I am happy that today is the first day we will be reporting zero positive tests, which is a testament to our early measures,” Mayor Bhalla told Desi Talk in an interview April 20. Out of all the cities and municipalities in the United States, Hoboken is the fourth most densely populated, with New York City close behind, he noted in a daily update.
This city of just 1.25 sq. miles which is part of Hudson County, houses more than 53,000 residents (American Community Survey, U.S. Census of 2020), Yet, Hoboken has less than half the infection rate of New York City.
Regardless of his political future, Mayor Bhalla is in no mood to open sooner than absolutely necessary, but he understands the pain of small businesses and families.
Mayor Sadaf Jaffer of Montgomery Township, NJ, in Somerset County, population around 23,000, also came down hard on social distancing and school and mall closings early on, even before Hoboken. She has 63 COVID-19 positive cases, and one death, as of April 19, 2020. Along with others on the Town Council and the Health Department, she foresaw what could happen and led the planning and training of health personnel from January. The suburban community, an hour or so away from Philadelphia on one side and New York City on the other, was ready when the first case surfaced in the U.S. Under her leadership, all schools and other public buildings and parks were shut down March 12. “We wanted to be proactive,” Jaffer told Desi Talk in an interview April 20, 2020.
Mayor Hemanth Marathe of West Windsor, NJ, population 29,000, has also escaped the worst of it so far, despite half the population commuting to work in New York City in pre-COVID times.
His municipality is not fully closed down. As of April 19, 2020, he had 105 positive cases; 7 deaths; and 49 resolved, he told Desi Talk as he drove for his Township Council meeting where 5 members would meet to discuss priorities and sit “more than 6 feet apart,” he said. He followed state government protocols.
Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin of Teaneck, NJ, population 40,619 (2018), has borne the brunt of the pandemic, But as Mayor Hameeduddin reminds this interviewer his city was the first to ask people to self-quarantine on March 13, and declared a lockdown on March 14 for bars, restaurants, places of worship etc.
In an interview to Meet the Press, Mayor Hameeduddin called Bergen County where Teaneck is located, the “ground zero” of the COVID-19 outbreak in New Jersey. Today, the rate of hospitalization in his city has slowed as has the rate of infection. “It could have been worse,” he told Desi Talk April 20.
Even if numerous other factors affected these four townships, how these mayors of relatively small municipalities, coped with the pandemic, keeping a close eye on residents, commanding a level of confidence from the electorate, and moving mostly ahead of the curve, is a testament to good governance, though hard to replicate on a massive scale.
At a time when New Jersey is in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and cases are above 88,000 (88,806), with fatalities at 4,377 as of April 20, 2020, these smaller towns and cities appear to be getting results and steady as they go. As of April 20, Hudson County as a whole had suffered 492 deaths, Mayor Bhalla’s Hoboken had 19; Mercer County had 122 deaths of which West Windsor Township had 7; Somerset saw 179 deaths of which only one was in Montgomery Township; and Bergen County deaths stood at 787, while Mayor Hameeduddin’s Teaneck had 55 fatalities as of April 17.
Following are excerpts from their interviews, including reactions from some city residents, that give a picture of what is happening at the grassroots level where the rubber hits the road and public officials have to muster their resources and work with limited powers to meet the needs of residents:
Mayor Ravinder Bhalla, Hoboken, Hudson County, NJ
“We were seeing what was happening in China, then Italy, Germany, France.
We were concerned that people were not heeding warnings about social distancing … unfortunately despite our best efforts, bars and restaurants were crowded. And this although we had been messaging our community at least a week before closing the bars and restaurants.”
Mayor Bhalla was focused on seniors and school going children. But the middle demographic which came to enjoy Hoboken’s night life “were not conducting themselves in ways to prevent the spread… So we took a relatively aggressive measure.”
“He really showed a lot of vision and foresight early on,” said Vijay Chaudhuri, director of communications for Mayor Bhalla. Even his close associates advised the Mayor to hold back on coming down heavy on bars and restaurants fearing it would be seen as an overreaction, and to wait another week.
“But he (Bhalla) said ‘No. We’re not going to do that. This is a public health crisis, not a political matter. Whatever the consequences,” Chaudhuri recalls. “So he showed not just foresight, but also fortitude. He led the way on the East Coast – also on self isolation and wearing masks,” Chaudhuri added.
“The Mayor was very proactive. If he hadn’t shut down, we would have been like New York City,” said Chetali Khanna, member of the Hoboken Board of Education. “Mayor Bhalla is very diligent and sends out messages to residents and he is very compassionate and knows how inconvenient these restrictions are.” Plus, Hoboken does not have many hospitals, so Khanna thinks more people would have died is strict rules were not enforced. “The Mayor has also been very upfront. He did the best he could at the local level. I really feel Hoboken is a leading light.
As for the future, Mayor Bhalla said, “We monitor things on a day-to-day basis. We are happy that today is the first day that we will be reporting zero positive tests, which is a testament to our measures. We are testing very aggressively. And with rapid testing, which we want to expand …” the Mayor said, to capture extreme cases, then the broad section of the community, combined with with self-isolation and contact tracing.
“I am cautiously optimistic … about the proverbial curve that we are trying to bend. If not at the apex, we are nearing the apex. So we are asking residents to double down. It is harder to do when the weather is so good.”
“So now is not the time to reopen, relax, but to redouble efforts because we’ve seen what’s effective in keeping infections lower. To open incrementally, and try to get to a place of more flexibility. I’m not sure it will be responsible to put a number of days on that. It will take time to see if the (lower) number is not an aberration, and that the curve is really flattening. We will base that decision on science.”
Mayor Sadaf Jaffer, Montgomery Township, Somerset County, NJ
“We were preparing, anticipating COVID-19 for quite some time. We began training our first responders and Emergency Medical Services in January. Our Health Department was very much on top of it. We have meetings every other week in January and February. So when the first proven cases appeared in the U.S. in March, we advocated for social distancing, hand washing.
But we wanted to be proactive. So we closed our building to the public on March 12. We closed schools also the same day.
We were hearing people say we should not have closures until we see community spread. I and other professionals though why should we wait. By that time it would be too late,” opined Mayor Jaffer whose ancestors hailed form Kutch in India, but whose mother was born in Pakistan and father in Yemen.
Other factors that worked in Montgomery’s favor were it was more than an hour from big metropolises; houses in the township are far apart, and there’s no real ‘downtown.’
“We have to be vigilant,” Mayor Jaffer says about the future. I feel a sense of responsibility and was dreading hearing about the first death,” she said, but could not provide details about the person due to privacy concerns.
“It’s worth it to be as cautious as possible,” she said about the future of reopening. “We’ve seen from other pandemics, if you do something, people say you over-reacted. I would rather they said that.”
She is going to wait till health and public safety professionals tell her the town and its parks and pathways are open for public use.
Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, Teaneck Township, Bergen County, NJ
Elected in 2010, Mayor Hameeduddin announced this January that he would not be running for another term. Now there’s COVID-19, and it’s not going away any time soon. Municipal elections are scheduled for May 12, 2020, and everyone is expected to receive a mail-in ballot.
“We’ve done a lot,” since COVID-19 raised its head in New Jersey. “We were the first to ask for self-quarantine on March 13; and we declared a lockdown for restaurants, places of worship etc. March 14,” Mayor Hameeduddin said. He raised the alarm for needing ventilators at the Holy Name Medical Center, and feared for his residents, urging state and federal assistance.
Not only has the rate of hospitalization slowed, the rate of infections appears to have come down. “At this point people are taking things seriously. Everybody should take personal responsibility,” about how they act, he said.
“I am more concerned about how small business is being affected by the quote-unquote stimulus from the federal government. Banks are not lending right now and the way they are lending has to be looked into,” Mayor Hameeduddin said. “The real small businesses are not being taken care of. How do we take care of these people,” he said. “And how do we look after those who are living paycheck to paycheck.”
“Logistically we are in a very challenging situation to meet needs of people,” he conceded.
“We are going one step at a time. I’m proud of the way my constituents have taken this. They understand what needs to be done,” he said.
“We (Teaneck) still have the most cases in Bergen County,” he added. “But the numbers are in control in terms of rate of infections. Only thing we can do right now is socially distance and take personal responsibility for protecting ourselves.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a spike unless people stop social distancing and start opening up. Then there will be a return by Summer,” he contended.
Mayor Hemanth Marathe, West Windsor Township, Mercer County, NJ
Mayor Marathe’s town is bigger in terms of population (29,000), compared to Mayor Jaffer’s, and he has had 7 deaths so far, but he sounds confident things are under control.
But the world has changed over the last month radically, he says, including the entire focus of the government. Just a month ago, he was discussing the building of a complex, and now it’s all about COVID-19.
“People are afraid so the most important thing is to keep them informed. So I update them every night on how our township is doing.
Half of our towns people work in New York. So I was worried how many cases we might have. But luckily there has not been an exponential growth.
So I am optimistic it will level off. Daily, we get a few cases, but not an exponential rise.
He closed government and schools when the Governor declared an emergency.
“We are not fully closed, or fully open. Our Municipal building is open but not for the public. Employees are coming in a staggered way and every aspect of government is kept functioning.
I have not closed the parks for individual activity. People have been fairly good with keeping their distance in the parks.
We have an urgent care facility which has been testing whoever wants to be tested. We don’t have a hospital in town but there is a hospital in the County about ten minutes away, and they do have capacity.”
The Mayor attends in-person meetings regularly to deal with matters of government.
“Ours is a suburban area. We have homes on lots that are at least half acre. We certainly don’t have an issue with closeness. We have few apartment buildings.”
About resuming normalcy in the future, Mayor Marathe says, “Not until the state government lifts the state of emergency. And that’s not until middle of May.”
His constituents he says, “seem happy” to receive his regular updates. though people are afraid of how things are going to develop and how they could be affected.
Despite this seemingly calm situation, Mayor Marathe says, “Things are not normal by any stretch of the imagination. But we are trying to keep it as normal as possible.”
His mother lives with him and his wife, and the Mayor says they are all doing well. “My mother likes to quilt, watch TV, and talk to friends. My wife Punit, works in a pharmaceutical company.”
Mayor Marathe was elected in 2017 and the next election is in 2021.
“I always say nobody can predict the future, but yes, I plan to run for re-election,” he said.