The Baltimore branch of the NAACP has dispatched a rolling soundstage into the city’s streets to spread a loud “stay-at-home” message amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
With concerns that some city residents may not be in the habit of watching the news or engaging with social media, the local chapter of nation’s largest civil rights group has rented a 40-foot flatbed truck equipped with state-of-the-art sound equipment and enlisted a roster of local celebrities to broadcast a simple set of suggestions: stay at home when possible, and if you must go outside, observe social distancing, avoid congregating in groups, and wear a mask.
Amateur boxing star Lorenzo “Truck” Simpson, deejay and motivational speaker Quick Silva, author D. Watkins and Democratic Del. Nick Mosby of Baltimore are among those who have recorded sound bites, along with St. Frances Academy basketball star — and University of Maryland recruit — Angel Reese, Democratic state Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III of Baltimore, and radio personality Konan from Baltimore hip-hop station 92Q.
They’re being played as the truck makes its way through neighborhoods the organization has identified as spots where some people continue to congregate, despite Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s statewide stay-at-home order and social distancing measures imposed by Hogan and other government officials.
The truck made its first rounds Wednesday, but organization officials unveiled the vehicle Thursday during a ceremony at the NAACP’s branch headquarters in West Baltimore. It was then driven to Lexington Market on Eutaw Street and to Northeast Market on Monument Street for lengthy stops.
“Stop the Spread of COVID-19,″ a banner across the rear of the truck read. Images of a man wearing a white mask, a pair of hands being washed and a peaceful-looking rowhouse adorned the lower half.
Some bystanders broke into dance as hip-hop music thundered from the truck in front of Lexington Market, which, like Northeast Market, was closed for business.
The Rev. Kobi Little, president of the NAACP’s historic Baltimore branch, saw the scene as promising, even if a few people listening seemed to be close enough to each other to push the envelope of social distancing guidelines, which recommend people keep at least 6 feet from people they don’t live with.
“It’s clear that the mobile education unit grabs the attention of people who are not at home," Little said. "We appreciate the enthusiastic response from the public, and in our effort to increase adoption of public health guidelines, we will continue to emphasize the importance of distancing, facial covering and staying at home whenever possible.”
NAACP spokesman Joshua Harris said the organization worked with local police and city residents to locate generally low-income places that are traditionally “hard to reach,” and where people appear to be continuing to gather. They also include Mondawmin Mall and the city’s Penn North neighborhood.
The initiative comes as data emerged showing that the coronavirus crisis is hitting African Americans harder than any other demographic group, in Baltimore and across the state and nation.
The latest report from the Maryland Department of Health showed Thursday that 10,784 Marylanders have been infected by the virus and as many as 459 had died.
African Americans account for about half of the state’s cases and deaths among those whose races was known, while they make up only about 30% of all Marylanders.
In Baltimore, where more than 60% of the population is African American, 1,160 total cases of COVID-19 have been reported, and 36 residents have died of the disease. Twenty-five of the deaths, all of those whose race was known, were black, according to city health department figures.
Little said the NAACP initiative stems largely from such alarming facts.
“While the coronavirus is impacting all of us, it is hitting resource-limited African American communities nearly twice as much," Little said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to ensure that those who may not watch the news or be on email lists receive the information and resources that they need to remain safe and healthy through this pandemic. We are meeting people where they are.”
The truck will navigate the streets of Baltimore for six to eight hours a day for at least several weeks, Harris said.
It’s just one of several measures taken so far aimed at sharing information on the pandemic.
On Tuesday, for instance, Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said Baltimore officials are concerned about “persistent” rumors that the coronavirus is not impacting the city’s black population when the reverse is true. She announced that mortality from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, is higher among African Americans than other groups.
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City officials planned a targeted ad campaign to reach the city’s black residents to counteract the rumor.
The Baltimore Police Department has a recording of its own, which officers are advised to play to encourage people to disperse.
“By following this order, you are helping to save lives and stopping the spread of this dangerous and deadly disease,” the message says. “Even if you aren’t showing symptoms, you could still have coronavirus and accidentally spread it to a relative or neighbor. Being home is being safe. We are all in this together.”
The NAACP sound truck represents half of #StayHomeBaltimore, a two-part campaign. The other half is a social media effort in which the roster of local influencers will spread similar messages, and communicate the latest information on the pandemic, via the internet.
Little, now in his second year at the helm of the NAACP’s first and oldest branch, said the effort is meant to unite city residents behind the best practices shared by public health and government officials.
The organization is pressing elected officials across the country to take an especially hard look at how the pandemic is affecting minority Americans.
"We also urge governments and institutions to approach this crisis with an equity and inclusion lens that protects, supports and includes those who are vulnerable and too often marginalized,” he said.