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Baltimore’s community organizers battle misinformation and apathy on front lines of coronavirus fight

As Maryland leaders rush to stymie the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic, some of Baltimore’s community organizers have found themselves on the front lines of efforts to combat misinformation and apathy toward the virus.

Baltimore community associations typically shoulder hyper-local responsibilities such as filing 311 requests, leading street clean-ups and checking on elderly residents. Lately, some community leaders have added public health education and enforcement to their duties — while also dealing with a shortage of volunteers to assist on crucial projects.

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One community leader decided to call police last week when he noticed a neighborhood church hosting a large gathering, just a day after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan banned gatherings of more than 50 people. Hogan has since amended the ban to apply to gatherings of more than 10 people.

Another community leader said she was disappointed to discover her neighbor was only vaguely aware of the virus that has swept across the world.

"Man, I wish we just had someone who we believe in, who can tell us what to do and how long to prepare. This isn’t a snow day.”


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East Baltimore’s Oliver Community Association president Earl Johnson walked the neighborhood last week, firmly reminding each resident he encountered to practice the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations meant to prevent the spread of infection.

“Y’all sitting too close together,” Johnson shouted across the street to a group of five men sitting around a rowhome stoop. “Spread apart.”

The men did not move.

Johnson said one of the biggest struggles amid the pandemic for the community association has been to dispel false conspiracy theories, specifically one he’s heard repeated multiple times: that black people cannot contract the virus. A majority of Baltimore residents are black.

And some Oliver pedestrians were not appearing to follow recommendations of social distancing, a practice of maintaining about 6 feet from others to avoid spreading the virus.

“Six feet,” Johnson said to a man who walked down the sidewalk toward him. The man tried to give Johnson a fist bump. Johnson held out an elbow instead.

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“People don’t know what’s right or true,” Johnson said. “The CDC keeps changing their information. Man, I wish we just had someone who we believe in, who can tell us what to do and how long to prepare. This isn’t a snow day.”

Oliver is among several Baltimore neighborhoods taking on the responsibility of educating people, with some associations converting their social media pages into information hubs about COVID-19. And In some cases, Some residents have been reluctant to listen.

Earl Johnson, president of the Oliver Community Association., is one of many community leaders hoping to raise awareness of coronavirus among Baltimore residents and provide them with the tools to protect themselves and their families
Earl Johnson, president of the Oliver Community Association., is one of many community leaders hoping to raise awareness of coronavirus among Baltimore residents and provide them with the tools to protect themselves and their families (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

West Arlington neighborhood organizer Sean Stinnett said he received pushback from residents in Northwest Baltimore when, out of concern for public health, he canceled a clean-up of illegal dumping in the neighborhood.

And Mark Washington, the director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corp., said a lot of elderly neighbors appear to be sheltering in place — but he’s aggressively warning seniors of several predatory practices associated with the pandemic. Washington directs residents to the community association’s Facebook page for reliable information.

Johnson, the Oliver association president, said he reluctantly called police Tuesday to break up a large gathering at a church in the neighborhood.

“I feel horrible calling police on them,” he said. “But as they’re going into corner stores to buy food, they’re touching stuff. And then the lady who lives on the corner goes in to buy bread and she touches the same thing. People don’t think.”

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Police confirmed the incident but said no police report was filed.

Cyndi Tensley, president of the Carrollton Ridge Neighborhood Association, said the social distancing recommendation has been her biggest challenge in trying to support amid the pandemic.

Tensley has been meaning for years to conduct an unofficial community census to help identify the elderly and other vulnerable residents in the neighborhood. The pandemic arrived before a census could be undertaken, she said.

“I’ve been caught, so to speak, with my pants down,” she said. “I don’t want to go door-to-door knocking. I can go to neighbors I know, but I don’t want to be the source of contagion either.”

In lieu of making direct contact with residents, Tensley has pored over news coverage of COVID-19 in hopes of keeping up with the latest developments.

When she discovered a close neighbor was unaware that President Donald Trump had declared the outbreak a national emergency, she set out to educate the woman on the CDC health directives and referred her to the Carrollton Ridge association’s Facebook page.

The page is populated with Baltimore city health directives, information about food assistance, free ways to access the internet and creative ways to explain to children the importance of washing hands.

Still, Tensley feels overwhelmed by the pandemic’s sudden arrival in Maryland.

“I know I can’t handle it,” Tensley said. “I’m not even trying to fool myself. It’s in the Lord’s hands. You do what you can do.”

Meanwhile, Johnson has struggled to keep other neighborhood initiatives afloat. A community meeting last week was converted from an in-person gathering to a conference phone call.

And Oliver has two community gardens, which are usually tilled each spring by volunteers from local universities. With many college students sent home for the spring semester, Johnson plans to till the soil himself and scale back the gardens this year.

One neighbor, Ross Barnett, offered to continue helping Johnson in the garden this year, despite public health recommendations to avoid contact with people.

The 74-year-old wandered around the garden plot last week with his dog Yaya and pointed to the large plumes of kale that have already pushed through the soil. Barnett boasted he is in great health, adding that he starts every morning by doing pushups.

“I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” he said. “God’s not coming for me. He’s coming for others.”

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