At the bottom of the driveway leading to Sinai Hospital’s emergency room, there’s a sign of the times reading, “No Visitors.”
It’s a stark reminder that in our ongoing plague season, we all have to keep a distance whenever possible.
But placed outside a hospital, it feels like the most chilling sign since the “Dante’s Inferno” entrance to hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
The hospitals are doing their best, but the coronavirus keeps doing its worst. And in Maryland, we’re told the hardest hit zip code is 21215, which includes parts of Northwest Baltimore and happens to include Sinai Hospital.
What’s the reason for this? Partly, it’s the awful outbreak at the FutureCare-Lochearn nursing home facility, on Seton Drive, where they had a reported 170 confirmed cases at midweek.
But the zip code is also home to large numbers of blacks and Jews.
Both groups are considered vulnerable. Across the United States, blacks have been hit by COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. Here in Maryland, there are also reports of high numbers among the Orthodox.
Unfortunately, this has led to a different kind of virus: the blame game and accusatory fingers pointed at both groups.
On WOLB-AM radio earlier this week, host George Mitchell declared, “There are a lot of Jewish people down here from New York City. Now, where was the hotbed of the virus? In New York City. It’s only obvious to me that if a person moves here from New York City, there’s more of a possibility the person has the virus than if the person was black.”
Here are a few things to point out to Mitchell: Overall, zip code 21215 is 81 percent African-American.
Also, 21215 is also home to about 75 percent of the Baltimore area’s Jews — when you include four other contiguous zip codes.
Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-5th) responded to Mitchell on WBFF-TV. “When people are suffering and dying, the last thing we have time for is ignorance,” Scheifer said. “There’s never been a more important time for unity, and I hope this individual will think carefully about how his words are affecting us all.”
This discomforting back-and-forth has reached beyond local borders. At midweek, The Forward ran a story headlined, “Virus outbreak in black-Jewish Baltimore neighborhood leads to anti-Semitic blame game.”
The story’s accurate, but the headline’s not helpful. For the most part, we’re talking about entirely different neighborhoods – not one – where Orthodox Jews live and those that are mainly African-American.
But both populations, in 21215 as elsewhere, are vulnerable – though public numbers so far make it tough to tell whether Jews, in fact, have a higher rate of infection than other groups.
But as The Forward story points out, “Orthodox Jews are likelier to live more densely due to the religious requirement of being within walking distance of a synagogue.” Thus, increased vulnerability.
It’s a different story in many of the black neighborhoods of 21215. These are working-class and impoverished communities. The people who live there, such as the neighborhoods along lower Park Heights Avenue, have jobs requiring them to go to work and not stay at home working on a computer, even as virus conditions worsen.
As a U.S. government study declared a couple of years ago, “Zip code 21215 uses public transportation to go to work more than almost anywhere in the country. Most have to travel more than 45 minutes to work.”
You try sitting on a crowded public bus for 45 minutes twice a day, and work on a job for eight hours –- in a hospital or grocery store, or wherever lots of people move randomly about -– and see how vulnerable you find yourself.
We’re all in this together, but some more than others. And it doesn’t help anybody when a voice on the radio suggests blame and doesn’t consider the damage inflicted.
We need more than ever to be kind to one another, instead of casting stones.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.