Coronavirus in Asbury Park: 'We're trying to keep everybody safe … but we're not afraid'

A lone man walks across the empty Ocean Avenue in Asbury Park Friday morning, April 10, 2020, with the Asbury Ocean Club visible in the distance.

ASBURY PARK - An icy gust blows across the barren boardwalk as the first rays of sunshine brighten a city that looks like it's sleeping in late today.

Storefronts are shuttered. The streets are still. The fleets of e-scooters and rental bikes so popular in recent years have disappeared, stowed away for safe keeping.

The wind has blown down part of the snow fence barricade near Convention Hall. "Boardwalk Closed," an electronic sign reads.

It's April 10. Another surreal day in the coronavirus lockdown.

To judge by outward appearances, COVID-19 has turned back the clock here, conjuring memories of the 1980s and '90s, when a has-been Asbury Park brooded in silence, surrounded by the worn keepsakes of its glory days.

It was only a month or so ago that the now-revitalized city seemed primed for another record-breaking spring and summer season.

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Now nothing is certain. The fates of countless bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels and other businesses — and the paychecks, tips, parking income and tax revenue they generate — hang precariously in the balance.

But beneath the surface, the city's heart is still pumping.

Churches and businesses are collaborating to make sure the kids didn't go hungry.

Neighbors are helping the sick.

Local musicians and other entertainers are finding new ways to connect with audiences.

The takeaway for journalists with the Asbury Park Press who will spend the better part of this blustery day riding around town and talking to residents is that the city seems to be coping remarkably well so far. You can see what the city looks like at night in the video below, which was shot before the boardwalk was closed to the public.

Pastor Semaj Vanzant Sr. prays to start the morning. These next few minutes may be the last moments of peace and quiet he'll have during this busy Good Friday.

In recent weeks he's been meditating on the Book of Exodus, a story of plagues and captivity and a 40-year trip to the Promised Land.

Pastor Semaj Vanzant Sr., pastor of Second Baptist Church, co-founder of the Asbury Park Dinner Table Program which helps feed those in need.

New Orleans-born and Princeton-educated, Vanzant, 35, of Neptune, pastors Second Baptist Church in Asbury Park, a historically black congregation on Atkins Avenue that will celebrate its 135th anniversary in October. 

Holy Week may be the busiest time of the year for a Baptist preacher, and although he'll have no congregation physically present in his church, he finds his schedule as jam-packed as ever. There are sermons to write, conference calls to make, congregants to minister to.

But first, he has more pressing matters to take care of: getting breakfast ready for his two hungry sons, Semaj Jr., 8, and Seth 5 — cinnamon raisin toast and strawberries with a side of sausage for one, cereal and strawberry yogurt for the other. 

Vanzant downs a protein shake for himself and helps them get started on their at-home lesson plans from their school, Monmouth Montessori Academy in Spring Lake. Then he helps his wife, Carla, stuff gift baskets in their living room for some of the young people in their church.

At the onset of the crisis, Vanzant and his church leaders pledged to continue the church's weekly schedule of services. Today he's finishing planning two church services that will be streamed via Zoom, the latter of which he'll preach to a congregation in Erie, Pennsylvania. You can view one of them here.

Normally the boys love to accompany their father whenever he's at the church, but he and his wife have been trying to keep them inside the house as much as possible.

"We're trying to keep everybody safe and healthy," Vanzant says. "But we're not afraid."

He's shared with his congregants the takeaway from his Exodus reading. "God will provide. If God can provide manna and quail for 40 years, surely the Lord can provide for us for months. I think spiritually, that’s really the message that comes to mind." 

Connie Breech wakes up to the smell of blueberry pancakes being prepped by her wife.

Asbury Park School Board member Connie Breech, who contracted the Coronavirus peers out the front door of her Third Ave home in Asbury on April 10, 2020.

She's happy she can smell anything. She's happy to be hungry.

Most of all, she's happy to be alive. 

Breech, an Asbury Park police officer who is also a member of the Board of Education, tested positive for the coronavirus on March 29. Doctors say losing a sense of taste and smell can be a symptom of COVID-19.

She's feeling better now. Her coughing has subsided. Her fever is gone. And her appetite is coming back.

Quarantined at her house on Third Avenue in Asbury Park, Breech, 57, is eager to get back to work.

"I don't like being on the sidelines. I need to be out on the front lines," she says.

The last time she remembers being on the bench was her freshman year of college, where she went on to become a two-sport All-American athlete in field hockey and softball. But for much of these last two weeks, she's struggled to walk from her house to the trash bin outside.

A friend comes over and mows the grass. Sitting on the couch doesn't appeal to Breech, but she tries to get her rest. She's watched "Ozark" on Netflix and the "Tiger King" documentary series everyone keeps talking about. Breech has asthma, and she says when she was feeling her worst with the illness, it was a struggle to breathe.

"Imagine your uncle comes up and gives you a big bear hug, but doesn't let go," she says.

"It's like someone is sitting on your chest." 

The gas-burner stove Mike Theodore is standing in front of is full of griddle pans searing chicken thighs. They've been marinating in a special blend he's perfected over the years at MOGO Korean Fusion Tacos, in Asbury Park, where he's the branch manager.

After he sears them, they'll braise for three hours. 

Later, he and his crew start assembling the meals into black takeout containers: white rice, chicken, scallions, a serving of pico de gallo and chips.

A day in Asbury Park during the coronavirus scourge. Mike Theodore, branch manager for MoGo, helps prepare meals for the Asbury Park Dinner Table Program which helps feed those in need. 
Asbury Park, NJ
Friday, April 10, 2020

A long day in the kitchen leaves his back and elbows a little sore, but he sees this work as a public service.

By the end of his shift he'll have prepared 468 meals. Of those, 438 are being donated to Fulfill, formerly known as the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties and the rest are going to Second Baptist, Semaj Vanzant's church.

When the coronavirus began to shut down businesses in the city, a few leaders from the business and faith communities collaborated to launch the Asbury Park Dinner Table program.

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The program raises donations to purchase meals from Asbury Park restaurants and eateries and helps to keep businesses going. The meals are distributed at three churches, including Second Baptist, as well as here at MOGO's commissary site on Sewall Avenue.

So far, Theodore, 35, says MOGO hasn't had to lay off any of its workers because of the downturn. But at the commissary Theodore helps distribute meals to some of the laid-off restaurant workers around town.

He gives them a hi and a smile but doesn't ask questions.

"It's pretty unprecedented and scary times," he says. "If you’re in the food industry, you have pride in providing meals for people and seeing them happy."

Asbury Park Schools Superintendent Sancha Gray is used to seeing students walking to class or being dropped off by parents when she drives to work from her home across town.

Asbury Park Schools Superintendent Sancha K. Gray supervises the distribution of Easter baskets and food relief boxes at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Friday, April 10, 2020.

Not today. And that's fine by her.

“It is pretty desolate and I am happy to say that," she says. She wants her schoolchildren and their families to stay safe.

There is still plenty of work to do. She continues to go in to the office every morning by 9 a.m., getting in a few hours of work at home online before she arrives. The skeletal crew in the board offices exits by 1:30 most afternoons. Gray typically heads home at 5 and finishes her day's work there.

“People have had to think differently and are using virtual platforms to stay engaged, planning meetings, and even having birthdays," she says.

The district canceled spring break, which was to begin April 13, moving the end of the school year up by a week. But spring celebrations have not been completely forgotten.

Today, Gray is at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School helping hand out Easter baskets, sponsored by the City Council, and duffel bags with blankets and stuffed animals provided by the Social Conscience Project. In addition, the Asbury Park Education Association has donated coupons for 25 free pizzas from Oakurst Pizza.

“It was very important for us," Gray says, "to be able to say there is hope, there is light."

Amy Quinn couldn't picture a day would come when she would beg people not to come to Asbury Park. 

Yet that was the position the city's deputy mayor found herself in as she pleaded on TV interviews and social media for people to stay away.

"Any chance that we have to protect our residents and do right by them we will do to the best of our ability," Quinn says.

Asbury Park Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn stands on a nearly empty Ocean Ave in Asbury Park .

People got the message, as evidenced by the fact that this morning Quinn is getting her photo taken in the middle of a nearly empty Ocean Avenue, one of the main oceanfront thoroughfares.  

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Last year, to mitigate traffic congestion and free up street parking, the city started offering valet service on roads like Cookman and Bangs Avenue. Now, the city has suspended paid parking to ease the burden on the few workers still coming in each day to work curbside pickup and delivery at the local eateries. .  

Quinn says she's ordered takeout from local restaurants nearly every day in an effort to show support for the decimated restaurant industry.

So far, so good.

That’s Garrett Giberson’s sense of how Asbury Park is coping with COVID-19.

Garrett Giberson Jr., Asbury Park Office of Emergency Management Chief, outside the Asbury Park Fire House on April 10, 2020.

Giberson, 46, is the city’s fire marshal and emergency management director. He’s taken a break from work to have his photo taken outside the firehouse at Main Street and Asbury Avenue.

For the time being, the firehouse is quiet. It’s been busy, Giberson says, but no busier than usual.

There’s no predicting what course the virus will ultimately take here. But a month into the pandemic, Asbury is counting its blessings — and holding its collective breath.

The city has pockets of severe poverty and substandard, overcrowded housing. It has rooming houses and senior citizen apartment buildings. It has a homeless population and undocumented immigrants who have little choice but to show up for work, despite the risks.

Yet as of today, the city is well short of 100 positive cases, according to official statistics — 75, to be exact.

Why so few? Giberson doesn’t want to hazard a guess. “If they become more aggressive with testing,” he says, “I’m sure we’ll see those numbers grow.”

He doesn’t want city residents to get complacent, though.”There are a lot of people who are pooh-poohing this,” he said. “The virus is scary. The virus is real.”

Chris Brown is going for a skateboard ride to clear his head.

Asbury Park's Chris Brown, a singer, songwriter, and bartender enjoys an afternoon of skateboarding in Asbury Park on April 10, 2020.

Brown, 39, who works as an assistant manager and bartender at Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten on Lake Avenue, was laid off on March 15.

He's best known around Asbury Park for his singing, doing a mixture of folk-punk and acoustic sets.

With no concert venues to play and the restaurant industry largely shut down, he's filed for unemployment. Brown says he learned years back to save for the unforeseen and unplanned, so he considers himself better off than most.

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"I know it’s a lot of stress. A lot of people I know have never experienced unemployment." he says. When he gets back inside he starts a Facebook Live to promote an appearance on a benefit concert organized by local artists for the Asbury Park Dinner Table program.

He strums out one of his favorite songs, "Serve 'Em All."

Dymiere Grant-Pirozzi is second-in-line outside of Second Baptist Church. He has on his mask and gloves. The 18-year-old city resident is a diabetic, so he doesn't come out a lot because he has a heightened risk of complications from COVID-19. 

A day in Asbury Park during the coronavirus scourge. Pastor Semaj Vanzant Sr., pastor of Second Baptist Church, is a co-founder of the Asbury Park Dinner Table Program which helps feed those in need. 
Asbury Park, NJ
Friday, April 10, 2020

MOGO's Mike Theodore arrives at the church. Pastor Vanzant and a group of volunteers help unload the prepared meals from the truck. Vanzant has spent the hours after his afternoon service preparing for his Good Friday service later tonight. 

Grant-Pirozzi attended services and summer programs at the church growing up. He picks three of the MOGO meals, which he'll share with his mother and three sisters. 

"When it comes to people helping us, I’m thankful for it. Money is starting to run low," Grant-Pirozzi says. He's looking for jobs so he can help out with the household expenses. 

Vanzant says he wants to offer the people in line encouragement. The meals are available first come first serve. One day, the line opened at 5:30. The meals were gone at 5:38.

So far more than 2,347 have been distributed at his church alone. The Asbury Park Dinner Table Program has distributed 10,000 meals around the city. 

"We care about you, you’re not just a number for us," he tells the people who show up.

"We're here. Were all here together."