EAST ORANGE, N.J. – Angenetta Robinson shut her door, sat at the edge of her queen bed and stuck the thermometer under her tongue. It climbed to 99. Two hours later, it read 101, then 103. She last remembers 105.
“I wasn’t checking anymore because I was in La-la Land,’’ Robinson said.
Then came visions of getting up each morning to go to a job she never had, talking to co-workers who didn’t exist. It felt real, but it wasn’t.
What was real was COVID-19 was ravaging the Black and brown community in Essex County, New Jersey, and had Robinson holed up in her bedroom hallucinating most of those 10 days in early April.
Days earlier, Robinson had rushed a sick friend to the hospital. He tested positive for the virus, sending Robinson into quarantine.
She was terrified it would spread to the four other people in the apartment she shared with family and friends, including her 9-year-old grandniece who has asthma.
“I wasn’t even scared of dying, but I just didn’t want anybody in here to catch it,’’ the 57-year-old said. “If I had to stay in here and not go out for 14 days, that’s what I was going to do.”
Steps away in the living room, her housemate, Zayid Muhammad, couldn’t sleep and started having chills.
In the days that followed, Robinson got so weak she could hardly move from her bed. Water tasted like sugar, chicken soup like turpentine. Her hair was brittle. Her skin felt like fish scales.
Her brother called 911.
At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, Essex County was among the top 10 in the country for its death rate from the novel coronavirus.
It still hovers in the top 15 months later. Much of that has been driven by cases in Newark and other predominantly Black and brown communities in the county, including East Orange, where Robinson calls home.
Housing segregation made Essex County ripe for the virus’s spread, dozens of public health experts, community activists, researchers and housing advocates said.
New Jersey addresses inequities that fueled coronavirus spread
New Jersey leaders try to address the inequities that allowed COVID-19 to hit parts of Essex County harder than communities that have more whites.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
They point to decades of housing policies – some unspoken, some written – that banned white property owners from selling homes to Black buyers. Those practices also excluded Black residents from the midcentury homeownership and wealth-building boom, and they kept communities of color concentrated in often poor and neglected neighborhoods.
Today, Essex County is home to some of the most segregated and impoverished communities in the U.S., where some residents jam together in cramped apartments, multi-generational homes and housing projects.
This reality, experts and local officials say, has contributed to an alarmingly high number of the county’s Black and brown residents catching the virus and dying from COVID-19.
“These are real people,’’ said Maria Lopez-Núnez, a community activist in Newark. “The pain’s been felt along racial and class lines. And I don’t think that what family you were born into should dictate whether or not you survive a pandemic or your ZIP code should dictate whether you survive a pandemic.”
Funeral Director John B. Houston can still hear the pleas.
Can you please pick my daddy up? Can you come and pick up mama? Can you come and pick up my uncle?
The calls came from Orange, East Orange, Newark and as far away as New York City. Notifications kept buzzing on his phone.
Death. Death. Death.
‘‘It was like living in the Twilight Zone,’’ said Houston, owner of the Cushnie-Houston Funeral Home in East Orange.
Houston and his staff picked up bodies from hospitals and nursing homes – all people of color, mostly from segregated communities nearby. The funeral business, which he said is also segregated, is often the first to see what’s coming. His funeral home handled arrangements for more than 100 people in March and April. It usually buries that many in a year.
Nothing in his 25 years in the business had prepared him for COVID-19’s deadly sweep.
“It was just heartbreaking,’’ he said.
The funeral home, a Victorian-style house on a tree-lined street, is surrounded by communities of mostly immigrants from African countries and Caribbean islands.
One recent morning, Houston bent low to unzip a tent behind his funeral home and pull back the vinyl flap. Inside were empty racks that could hold at least six bodies. Houston bought two tents and extra racks because of the unexpected spike in business. A refrigerated garage also filled up.
“All you could see was a sea of bodies,’’ recalled Houston, 61.
He called in reinforcements, including his grown children. Despite the crush of work, Houston said they took care to treat each body with respect.
“That’s somebody’s mother. That’s somebody’s father,” he said. “That’s somebody’s child.”
Nearly 2,000 people had died from COVID-19 in Essex County by mid-September, according to state health department data. Of those, about 50% were Black, 18% were Hispanic and 28% were white.
Housing and population density played a major role, experts say.
The urban centers have blocks of apartment buildings and multi-family homes, said Eric Forgoston, chair of applied mathematics and statistics at Montclair State University.
“Whether or not you’re talking about just a dense urban environment or dense housing … certainly we know that most infections are occurring within the home,” he said.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the alarming number of cases in his city terrified him. His own mother testified positive.
“I was scared. My wife was scared because I had to be outside doing all types of stuff,’’ Baraka said. “Early on nobody even knew what was happening. You don’t know who can get it. Who is dying? Why? … And then we found out, ‘Oh, Black and brown people are dying.’ That scared the heck out of us even more, especially in this town.’’
Newark, a city of about 280,000, is nearly 50% Black, 36% Hispanic and 26% white, according to Census data.
The city far outpaces neighboring towns with 8,981 cases of COVID-19 as of this week, according to county data. More than 650 Newark residents have died from the virus. In bordering Bloomfield, a predominantly white community with a population of about 50,000, there were 1,276 cases and 69 deaths according to the county data.
At one point, Baraka said, Newark averaged 300 cases a day. On April 6, 37 people died in one day. Two days later, another 37.
“We were pulling dead bodies out of senior buildings,’’ Baraka said.
Featured County, State
Deaths per 10,000:
National deaths per 10,000: 5.6
Population breakdown by race:
Entered , State
Deaths per 10,000:
National deaths per 10,000: 5.6
Population breakdown by race:
Select your location to compare with Featured County, State
Note: some areas of the United States are unincorporated or independent from a county or parish. In a few select cases, such as New York City and Denali Borough, Alaska, these areas may not be available for comparison in this interactive graphic because the scope of the data is not universally available.
Cases and Deaths
Essex County, New Jersey, has a COVID-19 death rate of compared to in your area. Essex County is also majority Black, where the share of the population that is Black is compared to in .
Rate of Uninsured
Consider your health insurance status. In Essex County, of the population is uninsured while, in your area, that rate is .
Think about your income level. In Essex County, the median household income is whereas that number is in .
Are you living below the poverty line? In Essex County, of the population is under the poverty line compared to with .
Do you own your home? Chances are Essex County has a lower homeownership rate than . In Essex County, of the population own a home compared to in your area.
Is your neighborhood majority white? Neighborhood segregation and white flight has also been a particular challenge in Essex County where the segregation index is compared to in .
Sources: Milken Institute Research Department COVID-19 Community Explorer, COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 U.S. American Community Survey. Data last updated: Sept. 1, 2020.
It was hard early on to convince residents they were vulnerable, said Baraka. News reports were “confusing and chaotic,’’ conspiracy theories were running rampant, and then there were the rumors that Black people couldn’t get the virus.
“I had to make the point salient to our folks over and over. I had to say our prescription is different from everybody else’s,’’ Baraka said. He was asked, “‘Mayor, why are they doing that over in that town?’ I had to say: ‘I don’t care what they’re doing over there. Those people don’t look like us. They don’t live like us.’”
At the turn of the 20th century, Essex County was a hub of manufacturing jobs, attracting Black Americans from the South.
Who got to live where, why and how aligned with the racial order of the time, experts said.
In the late 1800s, affluent white people who wanted an exclusive enclave formed Glen Ridge, a tony suburb west of Newark, said New Jersey City University professor Max Herman. The town had restrictive covenants to keep everyone else out, he said.
Federal and state policies also fueled suburbanization and segregation in Essex County. The Federal Housing Administration subsidized home mortgages to white borrowers while also funding highway and infrastructure projects that bulldozed Black communities.
“Newark was like an insurance capital, an office capital … It was kind of the backdoor to New York City. So the idea is if you build the highways, then you’ll bring in more commerce into the city of Newark,” Herman said. “But what it also did was had the effect of enabling people to leave the city and live out in the suburbs, mostly white people.”
Leslie Wilson, an urban historian at Montclair State University, said that not only did white people flee west, but so did some wealthier Black residents. The western communities, once mostly farmland, are almost exclusively white, he said.
“They didn’t move to a neighboring suburban ring,’’ Wilson said. “They moved almost as far away as possible.”
Local and state officials, real estate agents and homeowner associations adopted their own measures. They redlined communities considered undesirable for lending and investment. They bought up homes in white neighborhoods, moved in Black residents, then warned remaining whites property values would plummet.
“You go from an area where the schools are underfunded, where there’s potholes on the streets, where infrastructure is challenged,” Herman said. “And then you go into Glen Ridge and there’s gas lamps, manicured lawns, huge homes, but almost exclusively white.”
Essex County is No. 1 on a segregation index of counties in New Jersey, according to the 2020 County Health Rankings, a program from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Civil rights activists have long challenged the state-sanctioned segregation.
In 1947, the New Jersey Afro-American newspaper in Newark submitted testimony to a congressional committee examining postwar housing shortages in Essex County.
The newspaper complained prejudice was a barrier to housing opportunities. “We are moved particularly by the tragedy visited upon our colored citizens and other minority groups by municipal and State policies as well as by private groups,’’ the testimony read.
The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court banned racially restrictive covenants. But that didn’t eliminate housing discrimination or white flight. By the late 1960s, discontent about segregation and other civil rights issues reached a boiling point.
In the summer of 1967, Newark police arrested and beat a Black cab driver. During days of unrest and violence, 26 people were killed, millions of dollars in property destroyed and the city forever changed.
The uprising was about more than the beating of John Smith, experts and locals said. It was fueled by decades of systemic inequities that entrenched and empowered white people and corralled many Black residents into shoddy and crowded housing.
“We were confined to houses owned by someone else who had moved to the suburbs,’’ said historian and activist Junius Williams. “It perpetuated their wealth at the expense of people who couldn’t move.”
The protest sped up the shifting demographics of the city.
In 1950, Newark was 83% white. By 1970, according to the first census after the rebellion, the white population had dropped to 44%. By 2010, it was 28% white.
“A lot of people think that the rebellion was the only reason white people left and went to the suburbs,” said Williams, who moved to Newark in 1965 to help fight racial injustices there. “No. White people were leaving Newark long before that. They were leaving because they could.”
In the wake of the uprising, the Newark Area Planning Association, a group Williams co-founded, helped negotiate a deal with the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry to, among other things, set aside land to build affordable housing.
Williams has been working with Baraka, son of the late poet and activist Amiri Baraka, on a plan to turn the Fourth Precinct where the cab driver was beaten into a museum.
Today, Newark is dotted with blocks of low-rise public housing developments many built to replace decaying high-rise structures. Nearby are older Victorian-style homes on tree-lined streets. Sprinkled among the communities are high-rise senior citizen buildings.
Newark is also home to an international airport, power plants, the largest garbage incinerator in the state and a sewage treatment plant. In those surrounding neighborhoods you can smell and almost taste chemicals in the air, said Lopez-Nunez, deputy director at the Ironbound Community Corporation, a social justice group.
“It’s pretty rough when you’re stuck at home’’ amid the pandemic, she said.
But in recent years there has been an influx of new businesses downtown. Not far from City Hall, an ornate building with a gold dome, sits a Whole Foods and Starbucks. One recent afternoon, cranes hummed every few blocks.
This revival draws white visitors during the day for work and entertainment, but many leave by nightfall and return to homes outside the city, Wilson said.
The pandemic laid bare inequalities that still exist, including segregation and overcrowded housing.
“It really just went after people who are vulnerable, from our elderly citizens to folks who are often struggling with a lot of other issues, economic issues, housing issues,’’ said New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, a former mayor of Newark. “People who didn’t have the privilege of being able to isolate themselves.’’
That’s what happened in Robinson’s apartment.
Night sweats and fatigue left Muhammad, who was temporarily staying with the family, so drained he could hardly push up from the brown chair in the living room. He was nauseous, barely ate. Then came shakes, chills.
“It was like being a junkie on withdrawal while at the same time having somebody like Joe Frazier beat the hell out of me,’’ recalled the 59-year-old community activist, who boxed in his younger years. “It was really bad, and very dark.”
Muhammad had taken steps to ward off the virus – popping vitamin C, wearing masks, pulling on latex gloves and venturing out only when necessary.
“It’s very sneaky,’’ he said.
He got the virus anyway. He suspects he may have gotten it from Robinson.
To prevent others from getting it, Muhammad used a sponge and bleach to feverishly wipe the sinks, the utensils, the countertops. And as much as he could, he stayed in a corner of the living room. Others sought safety in their rooms.
Meanwhile, Robinson’s condition worsened, and an ambulance crew took her to the hospital. She doesn’t remember those early days in the hospital. It was a haze.
She returned home four days later, walking with a cane. She has since returned to her job at a distribution warehouse lifting boxes and operating a forklift. She still sometimes has shortness of breath.
Muhammad, who has lung issues, didn’t have health insurance and didn’t go to the hospital. He had heard horror stories about people dying there, alone.
“I’m a Black man in America,’’ he thought. “I can’t take that risk.’’
Instead, Muhammad turned to a free city program that helped people who needed to isolate, including those who are homeless and those with no place to quarantine at home. For 14 days, he stayed in a room on the sixth floor of a boutique hotel downtown. Food was delivered outside his door. He was tested when he got there and when he left.
When Muhammad returned to Robinson’s apartment, everyone was COVID-19-clear. “It could have been worse,’’ he said. ”We could have all gotten sick.”
Housing is one of the primary social determinants of health, experts said, and homeownership is the primary driver of wealth.
“COVID was never the great equalizer,” said Michellene Davis, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at RWJBarnabas Health, a network of independent health care providers in New Jersey. “It was the great magnifier. And so it has been magnifying inequity, lack of access, health disparity, all of it.”
It’s no accident that Newark and other predominantly Black cities in the state were disproportionately hard hit by the pandemic, said Ryan Haygood, president of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice. Residents in those cities also experienced major wealth gaps and other inequities.
“Coronavirus is so devastating because it preys on the most vulnerable,’’ he said.
Doug Massey, a sociology professor Princeton University in New Jersey and a renowned expert on residential segregation, called the disparities “a conglomeration of disadvantages.”
The segregation of Essex County is emblematic of what happened in most major metropolitan regions during the 20th century, he said. But because New Jersey is sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia, the suburbanization there was much more rapid and much more complete.
People who live in these segregated communities are essential workers and use public transportation, putting them at risk for getting the virus, Massey and other experts said. Some others commute to New York City, another hot spot.
Dubra Shenker’s 65-year-old husband, Vic, tested positive for COVID-19 in March. They suspect he got it on his train commute to a Manhattan hotel, where he helped set up for large conferences.
Shenker grew anxious as her husband shook with fever, chills and a hacking cough. Friends offered advice.
“Don’t take him to the hospitals in Newark,” she was told.
Shenker dropped her husband off at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, a majority-white suburb.
“It really was a split-second decision,’’ said Shenker, realizing she wouldn’t be able to visit. “I want to take him to the best hospital I can find, frankly, in the wealthiest neighborhood I can find, because that’s where he’s going to get good care.”
He has since recovered.
Alarmed by the outbreak’s spread and frustrated by the state’s slow response, faith leaders, community activists and city officials ramped up their own efforts. They handed out masks, served up hot meals of fried chicken and fried whiting, gave out bags of groceries, set up testing sites and went door to door swabbing noses in public housing complexes.
“Jesus didn’t wait for his disciples to come to him,’’ said David Jefferson, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark. “We couldn’t wait for people to come to us in their cars.”
New Jersey scrambled to set up enough testing sites and lagged behind dozens of other states providing racial breakdowns of COVID-19 cases, said Leslie Kantor, chair of the Department of Urban Global Public Health at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“It was challenging at first just to get the test, get any kind of testing going … much less collecting demographic data,” Kantor said.
Jefferson, who hopes to also set up a clinic to treat COVID-19 patients, said some of the same people coming to get tested desperately need groceries.
By 8 a.m. one recent day, people started lining up two hours before volunteers handed out bags of food at Metropolitan’s outreach center.
The line started at a side door, stretched up the long walkway, curved around past the white tent used for coronavirus testing, then into the parking lot already filled with cars.
The church’s Willing Heart Community Care Center is a few blocks from what was once a pandemic hot spot. Many in line, said Maryanna Williford, are the working poor.
“That’s what breaks your heart,’’ said Williford, who oversees the center’s programs. “Food is so expensive, and the rent is so expensive.”
Inside, swarms of mostly senior citizens, wearing masks and gloves, plucked cans of sliced carrots, tuna fish and Campbell’s salsa de pollo from yellow plastic bins. With assembly-line precision, teams stuffed bags with raisins, cereal and granola bars. Most of the French bread and rolls had disappeared by 11 a.m.
Jefferson said government officials have “absolutely not’’ done enough.
“They’re not there. They’re not in it. They don’t feel it.’’ he said. “They don’t see the long lines. They don’t see the mother with no diapers and people who don’t have on a mask.”
Fifteen minutes away in Orange, Gaynor Singh and his wife, Carol, inched their way to the front door of Saint Matthew AME Church on a recent morning.
They stopped at the blue tape to distance themselves from others in line for a free coronavirus test.
They took a seat inside a small room where Andrea Shanay Lee gently tilted back their heads, held their necks and pushed a swab into their nostrils.
“That’s not so bad,’’ said Gaynor Singh, 71, a retired licensed practical nurse.
It was the third time the couple had gotten tested.
“It’s better to know,’’ said Carol, 71, a retired teacher in Newark.
Testing at Saint Matthew has been underway since late May. Sometimes 350 people show on testing days. Hundreds lined up for free Sunday dinners in August, and one day nearly 1,000 boxes of food were snapped up in one hour.
“We’re a long way from this thing being over,’’ said the Rev. Melvin Wilson, pastor of Saint Matthew.
Nearly 21,000 people in Essex tested positive as of mid-September, according to state data.
Wilson, who had stopped in-person services in March, has officiated 10 to 15 funeral services for people who died of COVID-19. Some were at Houston’s funeral home, a few blocks away.
“It was horrible,’’ he said. “I’m praying that the numbers don’t return to what they were.’’
Joenika Ponder, a member of Wilson’s church, brought her family to Saint Matthew in June to get a COVID-19 test. Her teenage daughter tested negative. Ponder and her boyfriend tested positive for the antibody.
Ponder, 43, woke up one morning in March and couldn’t breathe, couldn’t stop coughing.
Her doctor told her to go to the hospital, where she was given a mask and waited six hours in a tent outside. Cold. Frustrated. Anxious. Scared.
Outside the tent, she could hear a parade for first responders – firefighters, police officers, nurses. She could hear people clapping.
Finally, inside the hospital, staffers gave her a COVID-19 test, hooked her up to a machine to test her breathing, then sent her home to quarantine.
For 18 days, Ponder holed up in her bedroom isolated from her boyfriend and her then 12-year-old daughter, Trinity.
Inside her bedroom, Ponder, texted, then, as she felt better, Facetimed her daughter to check on her schoolwork. She also texted family who lived hundreds of miles away in Georgia. She couldn’t catch her breath long enough to talk.
“They didn’t know everything that I was feeling inside,’’ she said.
She didn’t tell anyone she was finishing her will.
As the virus spread, protesters took to the streets after the death of George Floyd.
Instead of a Black Lives Matter sign, Courtney Cooperman showed up at a June protest in her hometown of Millburn, a wealthy white suburb, with a poster featuring an old map of redlining practices in Essex County.
“It did feel a bit hypocritical to have our whole town rally around racial justice when in many ways we live in a suburb that’s built on racial exclusion,’’ Cooperman said.
People walked over, searched the map, and asked questions.
Cooperman, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Stanford University in California, didn’t learn about the history of her county’s segregation until college. She organized a virtual public forum on the topic in August. Nearly 90 people tuned in.
She said it’s important to connect housing segregation and the spread of the pandemic, noting how much easier it is to social distance in the suburbs.
“We’ve constructed American cities and suburbs in a way that basically gives white people greater access to space,’’ Cooperman said. “And right now, that’s not just a luxury, it’s a health resource.”
Earlier this year, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice released “Erasing New Jersey’s Red Lines,” a report calling for more investigations into lending practices and expanding homeownership programs.
According to the report, white families in New Jersey have a median net worth of $352,000, while Black and Latino households have $6,100 and $7,300, respectively. It also noted that 80% of residents in Millburn own their homes, which have a median value of more than $1 million. In Newark, where most people rent, the median home value is $231,500.
Baraka successfully pushed for a law in Newark that requires developers to make at least 20% of their units affordable for a certain size project. He said the law is one tool to combat gentrification.
“So we’re not pushing everybody out of the community,’’ he said.
Last month, Baraka unveiled a plan to raise $100 million for the “40 Acres and a Mule Fund” that would, among other things, provide loans to Black and Latino businesses, many of which are struggling amid the pandemic.
Even in more diverse communities in Essex County, it has been hard to undo the damage of racist housing policies, experts and activists said. But efforts are underway.
Montclair Township, for example, is 66% white, 24% Black and 10% Hispanic, Census data show. But segregation persists, said lifelong, 70-year resident William Scott, co-chair of the town’s housing commission and chair of the Montclair NAACP housing committee.
Scott has been advocating to change local zoning laws so that affordable housing, senior housing and supportive housing is built outside of a predominantly African American ward of Montclair. He’s also helped an initiative to institute a rent control ordinance.
“We’ve had to fight for everything in this country. Voting rights. Human rights. Civil rights. And housing rights,” Scott said. “Montclair is no different.”
Donna Williams plopped down in the reclining chair in her mother’s downstairs den and yelled to her nephew to call 911. She had been holed up in her upstairs bedroom for days – struggling to breathe, struggling to take a shower, struggling to eat, struggling to just get up.
“I believe if I had waited one more day … you would’ve got obituary information,’’ she said.
Back at the two-family house Williams shared with her 79-year-old mother, Frances, her brother was laid out on the couch facing his own battle against COVID. He had come up from Alabama to help care for their mother, a beloved social worker who was in hospice for dementia and other ailments.
The siblings suspect they may have contracted the virus from their mother who had recently returned from a nursing home after hip surgery.
Four days into Williams’ hospital stay, her brother called. “Mom has gone on to glory.’’
Williams is now fighting COVID-19 on another front. She’s channeling her grief into trying to help protect those who could become victims of the pandemic’s latest fallout: evictions.
Williams, a legislative aide on policy, works for New Jersey State Rep. Britnee Timberlake, a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide mortgage forbearance and payment plans for renters impacted by the pandemic. Timberlake and housing advocates worry many people who lost their jobs or were furloughed during the pandemic will be unable to pay all at once.
Those families, they said, may be forced to double and triple up, making them more vulnerable to the spread of the virus.
Legal aid and housing groups are bracing for thousands to seek help whenever state and federal eviction moratoriums are lifted. State officials said that won’t happen until two months after Gov. Phil Murphy declares the crisis over.
In Essex County, there was a backlog of more than 5,000 eviction cases by the end of August.
“It’s going to be a disaster,’’ said Yvette Gibbons, executive director of the Essex County Legal Aid Association. “This is a vicious circle.”
Contributing: Rick Jervis, Mark Nichols