Hoboken, NJ—a metro hub across the Hudson River from Manhattan with a population of 55,000—was one of the first cities to institute dramatic self-isolation measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the closure of non-essential businesses and curfews for residents. “I think Hoboken probably is the model we all need to move towards now,” said Ashish Jha, M.D., MPH, Professor of Global Health at Harvard University, in regards to the city’s approach to stopping the spread of the virus. Many other cities, and eventually states, followed suit with their own versions of shelter-in-place orders.
Mayor Ravinder Bhalla spoke with Men’s Health about the steps the city has taken to control the spread of the coronavirus, and why he believes keeping non-essential businesses closed is not only good for public health, but for the economy, as well. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Prior to becoming mayor, I had the privilege of serving Hoboken on the Hoboken City Council for over 8 years. I had a bird’s-eye view of how local government was run: the good, the bad, and everything in between. I really saw an opportunity to make a positive difference for not just me and my family, but for the entire Hoboken community, through public service in local government. I was inspired [to run for mayor] because I realized you could complain, but if you just complain and don’t get off the sidelines and actually do something, nothing really gets done. If you do get off the sidelines and get involved, there’s actually opportunity to make change.
I had known about the existence of COVID-19—which was commonly referred to as the coronavirus, at the time—since late January, just through media outlets. I was aware of its severity in China. I had actually been on the West Coast for a tour of Silicon Valley and visited a biotech firm that discussed the issue in rather explicit detail in early February. Ironically enough, the scientist that analyzed the virus and provided a presentation to myself and other mayors about the virus had concluded that it was relatively innocuous unless you were in Wuhan, China, and that it would dissipate and take care of itself over time. So my first time thinking about it in relation to Hoboken was at a biotech firm on the West Coast that concluded the opposite of what ended up happening.
Fast-forward to a few weeks later when we start seeing more cases in Italy, as well as cases popping up in Washington State. From there, it kept rolling and rolling and rolling. It started to be more on our radar once we saw a high elevation of cases of the virus in Italy.
There were a few incremental phases prior to the pinnacle [of the situation in Hoboken], where the most responsible thing we could advise citizens to do was self-isolate and act as if they were carrying the virus.
We started by closing all senior activities, and at that time [the decision] was based on data saying that seniors were a more vulnerable population for exposure to the virus. Then, we had to make a decision as to whether to close the public schools, which is never an easy decision. It was one that we made in the best of interest of our children.
That was actually followed by a decision that Hoboken was actually the first in the country to make of any city, which was to close all bars. Hoboken has a very active bar life. That was probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my term as mayor of Hoboken. We had already closed senior activities, we had already closed schools, and we had vigorously and urgently told the public to practice social distancing.
But what we observed on that Friday and Saturday night was that people were not ultimately heeding our warning. The bars were packed with people who were acting like Hoboken was somehow immune to the virus. Against the advice of my staff, I made a decision in consultation with the Office of Emergency Management, to close all the bars in Hoboken the next morning—which was Sunday morning at 11 a.m.—and make all restaurants take-out and delivery only.
Statement from Mayor @RaviBhalla on proactive COVID-19 measures including new self-isolation policy in Hoboken, new regulations including closure of all non-essential businesses in Hoboken, limit of gatherings limited to 5 people or less. pic.twitter.com/5EUqtM7Fik
After that decision was made, San Francisco followed suit, New York City followed suit, Illinois also did the same thing. Despite giving warnings, we still saw a spike in people who were gathering in clusters at Church Square Park and other parks in the city. Unfortunately, since people weren’t heeding our urging to practice social distancing, we made a decision, in consultation with the Harvard Global Institute of Health and Dr. Ashish Jha, to self-isolate the entire population. It was his professional opinion, in his words, that it was the “right thing to do” for the safety of the public.
The economic impact of the measures that the city’s taking, on small businesses and the hourly workers that work for them, is not lost on me. That was a consideration that weighed heavily on many of these decisions as it related to the closure of non-essential businesses. The fact that people may have to close their businesses temporarily or may find themselves in a very precarious financial situation—they may not get paid, they may get laid off—was one of the things that made this decision so difficult. I was very keenly aware of the adverse impact this would have for small businesses.
I just felt that as a matter of sound judgement and responsibility to the people I serve in Hoboken, I had to prioritize the safety of residents over economic considerations and over political considerations. Our sole focus had to be on saving lives. We had to put politics aside. We had to put business aside. We are very actively working to mitigate the impact on small businesses. We’re working collaboratively with the small business community that, by and large, gets it. They’re not happy about the closure, but they understand the context in which we’re operating amidst a global pandemic. They weren’t thrilled that they had to close their bar or their restaurant’s operations were limited, but we received, by and large, cooperation.
There’s a notion that we should open businesses back up by Easter, which is what I believe the president suggested. There is a currency of thought that we open up businesses soon because we don’t want the cure to be worse than the problem. I believe the president may have said words to that effect. My viewpoint on that specific notion is that it is illogical in this context. It’s illogical because we’re going through a period in New Jersey where cases are increasing at a rapid clip—we’re preparing for a potential surge, and we’re seeking more ventilators, more face masks, more PPE.
If you all of a sudden were to pull back on these measures and let businesses open, that may arguably provide temporary relief for businesses, but the belief is then you would see the virus spread exponentially in a way that it would not have if we left these measures in place. Ultimately, you’d be left with a worse environment for the economy, a worse environment for small businesses, than if you were to hunker down, take the pain on the front-end, and open up when it’s responsible to do so.
This notion that we would open up businesses by Easter I think would actually be worse for the economy and worse for small businesses. In the long run, you’re going to aggravate the pain we’re seeing in respect to the pandemic over a longer period of time. Eventually, you’re going to have to shut those businesses back down if there’s another spike. We’re already dealing with the first wave. By re-opening businesses, we’re exposing ourselves to the second wave. That’s going to not only hurt human lives, it’s going to hurt small businesses and the economy as well.
My message to [those who are skeptical of Hoboken’s approach to the crisis] is that every decision we are making is based purely on the best science and data that we have. It’s for the purpose of saving lives. To those who might not understand the gravity or why we’re doing this, my perspective is that I’d rather be overly cautious than underestimate the problem. If we take measures that are as proactive as possible, we have the best chance of mitigating or lessening the amount of cases in Hoboken.
It’s a very serious issue because we are now at 27 cases in Hoboken. We’re across the river from a city with 15,000 cases. So that cross-Hudson traffic and the extent to which we can lessen that is, in my view, critical to containing the virus in Hoboken. We don’t live in a bubble in Hoboken. We live across the river from Manhattan where you’re seeing this situation spiral out of control. We have 27 cases and that’s 27 too many, but we’re trying our best to take the most proactive measures to make sure we have as few residents impacted by the virus as possible.
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