Gottheimer ‘hopeful’ the spirit of COVID-19 bipartisanship will last beyond pandemic

New Jersey’s 5th congressional district has been one of the hardest-hit areas in the country

Lt. Col. Angela Wallace

Rep. Josh Gottheimer

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) discussed the state of his hard-hit district and the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak during an interview with Jewish Insider earlier this week.

The numbers: With nearly 30,000 confirmed cases and 1,894 deaths, New Jersey’s 5th congressional district, located in the shadow of New York City, has been one of the hardest-hit areas in the country. The fatalities in the district make up 26% of all deaths across the state. In early March, the town of Teaneck, which has a significant Jewish population, was the epicenter of the outbreak in New Jersey. 

Difficult times: “Between New York and New Jersey, we’ve got about half [of the country’s] caseload” of patients, Gottheimer told JI. “It’s been a very difficult time for the district and for the families and businesses that I represent. It has just been a horrific thing that has touched so many families that we all know.” 

Target group: The district received national attention last week amid reports of dozens of deaths at the Paramus Veterans Memorial Home, where approximately 90% of its 230 residents are believed to be infected or have been hospitalized, and the discovery of 17 decomposing bodies at a rehabilitation center in Andover. “We’ve been really trying to get on top of it and do everything we can,” the lawmaker said. “It’s hard when it gets into these homes, it spreads so fast, like wildfire. So we’re really trying to address the issue.” On Thursday, Gottheimer announced new steps to bring in top infectious disease experts and doctors from New Jersey hospitals to help deal with the outbreak at the Paramus state-run old age home. 

Some light: “I really believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here,” Gottheimer said, echoing models suggesting that New Jersey has hit its peak of new hospitalizations and deaths from the virus. “It’s just not an overnight phenomenon — and that’s the challenging part. We have to be very careful how we do it because we don’t want to be back where it was a couple weeks ago.”

Window of opportunity: Gottheimer, who serves as co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, told JI he sees the current bipartisan approach to battling the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to get Congress on a long-term path toward working together. “I’m very hopeful that some of that spirit will carry over on other fronts, beyond just the virus. Our work will be to keep that spirit up. I think people realize it’s good to actually get things done, and if you talk to each other and work together, you can.” 

Fighting hate: Addressing concerns about the potential for hate crimes against Jews and other minority groups during the pandemic, Gottheimer said leaders will have to step up if an increase in violence does occur. “You’re always going to have hate and ignorance, and in times of anxiety and uncertainty, it just breeds more hate and ignorance,” he explained. “And we have to deal with it the way we always deal with that — to take it head-on, to make sure that it’s not allowed to go on without speaking out against it and go after it.”

Working from home: Gottheimer — who spoke by phone to JI while preparing lunch for his kids and before hopping onto a Zoom meeting with members of the Problem Solvers Caucus and former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew — said that not much, aside from the introduction of social distancing, has changed for him in recent weeks because he has always made himself available to his constituents. “I’m still working 19-20 hours a day,” he said. “That’s kind of how my job is. It just means I’m doing it on the phone and on Zoom. I get to see my family a lot more than I normally would. We just are all making it work.”

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