By MONTCLAIR LOCAL STAFF
Montclair has never seen daily coronavirus case counts like this before.
The township, like the county, like the state, like the country, is experiencing a massive surge in cases, driven at least in part by the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus. Holiday travel and gatherings could play a part as well. Increased testing amid concerns about both may be a factor.
Whatever the reason or reasons, on Dec. 31 the township’s Health Department registered 215 new cases, more than at any time during the pandemic. It was one of just seven days Montclair had ever seen triple-digit new cases — all of them in late December or early January.
Its seven-day rolling average of new cases on Tuesday, Jan. 4 was 143, also a new record. By contrast, on Nov. 1 the seven-day average was down to just three cases per day.
The township — where 79% of all people, of any age, are vaccinated, 9 percentage points ahead of the state overall — has been spared a wave of new deaths (its 77th coronavirus fatality was registered Dec. 14, and there hadn’t been another since early November). That somewhat follows broader trends; statewide, hospitalizations and deaths are up, but not nearly to the degree cases are.
Still, the impacts are being felt. Shops have shut their doors — some for a few days, some possibly for good. Schools are offering optional remote learning for the first time this academic year, facing their most significant test of local and state leaders’ stated resolve to keep kids in classrooms.
Essex County has suspended visits to its jail and psychiatric facility, though officials say that’s out of caution and not tied to an outbreak at either facility. And by township resolution, you can’t walk into a Montclair business or entertainment venue without a mask.
Guerriero Gelato posted to Facebook Monday, Jan. 3, that it was closing its Montclair location “indefinitely.”
“December was pure chaos, pulling the plug on Christmas with record orders for the holiday really hurt,” the business, owned by Michael Guerriero, wrote. “The second one person tests negative, two more are back in quarantine.”
The Montclair location had more staff out in December than in the last two years combined, the business wrote. The shop planned to combine staff and open its Caldwell location at full hours, and continue serving Montclair customers through delivery and pickup.
“We survived two years of COVID, power outages, flooding, Ida and we kept getting up,” the shop wrote. “We finally have been knocked down.”
The pandemic had shorter-term impacts on other businesses, with Cafe Moso and Mosoria Pizza shutting down from Dec. 20 to Jan. 4, and the General Store at Cornerstone spending the last 10 days of 2021 with its doors closed following staff exposures.
“Our disappointment is profound,” an Instagram post from Cornerstone read. “We love working with our customers to spread holiday cheer to their loved ones. However, the increased exposure to COVID amongst friends, family and staff have forced us to focus on safety first.”
Masks now required
Until at least Jan. 21, masks will be required at indoor businesses and entertainment venues in Montclair, under a resolution the Township Council passed at its Dec. 21 meeting.
It set the 30-day window so members could revisit the matter at a Jan. 18 meeting. In December, members signaled hope that increased booster availability (the FDA on Monday cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 booster dose for children ages 12 to 15), coupled with the FDA emergency approval of Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill for coronavirus treatment, might render an extension of the mask rule unnecessary.
But Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who sponsored the resolution, told Montclair Local this week that “assuming people had parties and gatherings for New Year’s Eve, I think we need to wait and see the data and trends on infections, hospitalization and deaths in the next two weeks to assess where we are.”
In that time, Montclair officials could also get a look at county and state data, and see how other municipalities were handling coronavirus rules.
Gov. Phil Murphy in May lifted a statewide indoor mask mandate, but his Executive Order No. 242 allows counties and municipalities to institute their own. Newark, Morristown, South Orange and Hoboken all now have similar mandates.
The night the council adopted the resolution, Mayor Sean Spiller said the mask requirement “doesn’t mean we’ve set up a situation where we can guarantee everybody doesn’t get this virus,” but said proactive steps could help mitigate it. Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams said she hopes it sends a message Montclair is a place where residents and visitors can feel safe.
“It’s not overly onerous,” she said. “I hope people will understand it.”
The Montclair resolution does not make exceptions for businesses or entertainment venues that require proof of vaccination or recent negative coronavirus tests for entry. It does exempt children under the age of 2 and people with disabilities who can’t wear masks. And it allows masks to be removed while eating and drinking at an establishment that serves food or beverages.
The requirement doesn’t apply to religious gatherings and political activities.
The resolution doesn’t lay out specific penalties, only saying violations are “subject to penalties as provided for by law.” The resolution, as written, puts the onus on businesses to enforce the mandate among their customers.
“There's a little bit of gray area,” Yacobellis said. “We’re trying to work within the restrictions of an executive order that gives us very little guidance.”
Multiple residents who called into the council meeting said they supported the measure — but one, identifying herself as Carol, said she opposed it, because “being afraid is not a real reason to make sure everybody can’t breathe.” And she noted several reports suggest the omicron variant of coronavirus may result in less serious symptoms than previous variants. Some health leaders say it’s unclear how much of that is due to resistance built up in prior infections or vaccinations.
Councilman Bob Russo, responding to Carol, said he blamed the continued spread of the pandemic on people who denied its severity.
“It's a shame,” he said. “The country should pull together like we did in the Second World War, like we did in 9/11.”
Schools go remote, for some
Several schools throughout the state started 2022 with remote-only learning, some making the call to do so even before their winter breaks began. But Montclair Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds — who saw heavy pressure from activist parents to reopen schools during the 2020-21 year — reiterated several times: Students would be back in class Monday, Jan. 3.
But on the last day of 2021, he announced an adjustment. Students would be given the option of attending remotely for 10 days starting Wednesday, Jan. 5; those who preferred to come to classrooms could still do so. Anyone who missed class on Monday, Jan. 3, or the next day wouldn’t see the absence counted.
He wrote to parents that district officials “understand your anxiety.”
The district was already asking families that planned holiday travel to notify school officials so they could individually be set up with remote learning for a quarantine period.
Montclair Local has sent Ponds a message seeking information on student and staff attendance, and on families’ plans for remote learning, and was awaiting a reply as of press time. Montclair Board of Education President Latifah Jannah declined to comment until Wednesday, after Montclair Local’s print deadline.
Board Vice President Priscilla Church told Montclair Local Wednesday she has received "a lot of emails from very grateful parents who are expressing gratitude for keeping the schools open."
Montclair public schools have seen a surge alongside the larger community. In the 14 days leading up to Tuesday, the district’s tracking registered 148 new student cases and 47 new staff cases — out of 235 student cases and 70 staff cases all school year. That’s despite the fact that few cases were counted from Dec. 21 through 31, while the district was on break. The accounting only includes cases registered through the district’s own testing.
Montclair Parent Teacher Association Council President Tessie Thomas said Monday families she’d spoken to had been grateful for the flexibility of the optional remote plan, “as it is unclear if there is one right answer.”
Parents would rather have their children in school, but “the drastic change in numbers in the last few days and the return from winter break make this a concern,” Thomas said.
District staff stepping up to offer both in-person and remote instruction “cannot be easy,” she said.
“Hybrid teaching is not a walk in the park, and we are fortunate to be in a community where collaboration, patience and grace remain intact,” Thomas said.
"The heroes in all of this are the staff," Church said.
Students have mixed feelings about the plan, but it helps students and families who rely on in-person instruction, Board of Education student representative Justin Comini said Monday.
“I think giving the option to families and to students is smart,” Comini said. “Some students need to go in person for their mental health, or just they learn better that way.”
But he said the creation of the district’s optional remote plan has felt “all thrown together.” With the Dec. 31 email from Ponds sent to parent email addresses and not to students, many students were left confused about what to expect after winter break, Comini said.
He said he is opting for remote instruction.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going back knowing that we’re in the middle of a surge,” he said.
The Montclair Education Association is in contact with its members to hear any concerns they may have about the virtual instruction option, Communications and Social Media Chair Candice Pastor said Monday. The union was not consulted in the decision to provide a remote option, Pastor said. MEA President Cathy Kondreck is out of the office until Friday.
Several nearby districts have adjusted their plans because of the coronavirus surge. East Orange will hold remote learning until Jan. 18, that district has announced. The South Orange and Maplewood district will be remote until Jan. 10.
Multiple Montclair sports teams have canceled planned games because of cases and exposures among players, or among those from other schools.
Wayne schools, though, in an FAQ posted to their website, pointed specifically to Montclair’s policy as something that district couldn’t do, as a state executive order allowing for remote instruction had expired.
Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple told Montclair Local Tuesday he was looking into the matter. But Murphy said last week he trusts districts “to make the right decision on the ground, depending on what they are facing.”
Murphy also said this week he’s asking state lawmakers to extend some of his pandemic emergency powers, so that he can take measures including prolonging a mandate that students, staff and visitors wear masks in schools.
On Dec. 30, the New Jersey Department of Health released updated isolation and quarantine guidelines for schools, with recommendations for regions with a COVID-19 Activity Level Index of “Very High” — which, in the most recent NJDOH COVID-19 Activity Level Report for Dec. 19 through 25, includes Essex County.
The updated recommendations include limiting participation in extracurricular activities to students and staff with up-to-date COVID-19 vaccinations and conducting COVID-19 testing of students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, twice weekly for participation in all extracurricular activities.
In a COVID-19 press briefing Monday, Murphy said he had no intention or plan to end in-person learning, as remote learning is “suboptimal” in terms of learning and instruction.
Montclair has also expanded its plans for free testing events. Two testing events were held during winter break, on Dec. 30 at Montclair High School and on Dec. 31 at the Wally Choice Center in Glenfield Park. There will be three additional testing events later in January, all at Montclair High School’s George Inness Annex Atrium — from 4 to 6 p.m. on Jan. 7, Jan. 14 and Jan. 21.
— Includes reporting by Louis C. Hochman, Talia Wiener and Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena