Staying ahead of the curve: Newark Mayor Clifton on city governance during the pandemic
When coronavirus struck Delaware on March 12, Governor John Carney quickly declared a state of emergency. By March 17, the university ordered students to vacate campus entirely to stem the spread of the virus. These decisions to radically alter people’s lifestyles with social distancing ordinances and mask mandates needed to be made quickly and decisively; after all, nothing had brought American society to a halt in quite the same way in over a century.
To many Americans, the decisions rolled out of the halls of government each day are simply new regulations to be accommodated, new obstacles to their evermore complicated lives. To elected officials, like Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton, 69, those decisions are his to make. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, people aged 65 or older are more at-risk for severe illness due to coronavirus.
“Newark was the first real epicenter of the virus in Delaware,” Clifton said. “So far, we’ve been ahead of the curve.”
At the Newark City Council meeting of March 16, emergency ordinances were passed to close everything except for essential businesses and to prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people.
“City Council fortunately consulted with our attorney immediately to determine what [the city government’s] emergency powers were and how we could use them,” Clifton said. “It’s been a rough time, but I think those decisions kicked the proliferation of the virus here significantly.”
Early on in the decision-making process, Clifton claims that the city government’s proactive move to an online-only form of governance was a key move in the fight to halt the coronavirus’s spread in Newark.
“We were fortunate, our City Manager Tom Coleman and our City Secretary Renee Bensely, recognized that we needed to act quickly and succinctly to start setting up our government online because we realized that soon it would be impossible to meet,” Clifton said. “At that point, it wasn’t clear what kind of social distancing measures were going to come out.”
Although some of Newark’s Parks and Recreation programs closed, no major city government projects have thus far been completely shut down, neither have any essential government operations, including police, public works, firefighting, etc.
On March 10, just before the hammer stroke of the virus fell in the U.S., Clifton and his wife attended a funeral for a close friend in Newark. A week later, his wife felt very ill, and soon thereafter so did he. They suspect that they likely contracted coronavirus. One of the people attending that funeral, whom they had spent time with, has spent the past five weeks in a hospital recovering from coronavirus, Clifton said.
“That we could’ve been infected, even mildly, has given us some grave concerns,” Clifton said. “It really hit home when my wife’s son tested positive for coronavirus. Now, he got over it really fast, but still it was really a dramatic experience.”
In spite of his brush with the virus, Clifton has soldiered on in carrying on the Newark government’s essential tasks.
Clifton spends a portion of his time on the phone in an effort to continue directing Newark’s municipal functions from his home. Similarly, he is now in more frequent contact with Carney, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer and other officials. Clifton said he believes it is necessary to give them steady updates on the situation on the ground in Newark so that they can craft more finely-tuned county and state policies.
“I would dare say that, in comparison to when I first took office, I’m spending much more time on the phone,” Clifton said. “Back then, I might be on the phone with various stakeholders in Newark for maybe three or four hours. Now, I sometimes have days where I’m on with legislative teams and others for upwards of eight or nine hours. I talk to just landlords alone for easily ten hours.”
The possibility of reopening the economy to mitigate the unprecedented rate of unemployment has become a critical and divisive issue for lawmakers across the country. Just last week, protests to ease social distancing rules broke out in Dover outside the statehouse.
On April 27, James DeChene, a representative from the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, informed the City Council that Carney expected 14 consecutive days of declining infection rates before implementing any phased recovery plans. Clifton commended the Carney administration for being careful, in his estimation, to try and accommodate Delawarean business interests while also prioritizing public safety.
“I think [Carney] has done a wonderful job of holding the line for the safety of the people of Delaware, and I concur fully with what he’s done so far,” Clifton said. “But he’s not doing it in a vacuum. He’s talking to all the stakeholders, particularly mayors and executives, for input. So far, all the feedback has been well-received, I think.”
In Newark, where a significant percentage of the city’s business occurs on Main Street, particularly in restaurants, Clifton has concerns regarding how many “moving variables” would be involved in the decision to reopen. He believes there is still uncertainty about how reopening would affect individual restaurants, bars and other businesses differently.
The greatest danger to a reopening, according to Clifton, would be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus. He believes these people would potentially be able to infect dozens of others, thereby creating a second surge that could threaten to close society again just as quickly as it had been reopened.
Spring is typically one of Newark’s most profitable times of the year. The university campus has shut down, and every store has closed its doors to customers in accordance with social distancing rules. There is a real concern, Clifton believes, that Newark’s businesses will suffer financially in a way which may take an indeterminate amount of time to recover from. Should the university decide to remain online-only this fall, the financial strain on Newark’s businesses would only be exacerbated.
“I think that, at the minimum, some sort of maximum gathering restriction will still be in place this fall,” Clifton said. “Otherwise, you can’t pretend to know what to expect. No one really knows when they’ll break the back of the virus. When they do, it’ll be a new world for workers and for companies trying to expand.”
Clifton specifically applauded the people of Newark for abiding by the regulations to always wear masks in public.
“I think I can speak for the rest of council when I say that we take the health and safety of Newark very seriously,” Clifton said. “It’s a first priority. But please know, sincerely, that all the decisions we have to make, they may be difficult, but they’re made from the heart.”