Washington Township Year in Review Part 1

Despite COVID, residents maintain support for community

The year 2020 was a whirlwind for communities across the country. Despite all of the negatives it brought, from school closures, social isolation from loved ones and canceled events, there were many positives to look back on. Washington Township continued to be supportive of the community through one of the toughest years. Small businesses and front line workers were supported through acts of kindness and voices were heard that  allowed changes to be made. As the year (finally) comes to an end, here are some of the stories that made headlines throughout 2020.

COVID hits South Jersey

Workers at Jefferson Hospital in Washington Township wave pom poms as first responders arrive during last week’s parade. Drive-by parades for frontline workers became a new way to give back to those fighting through the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID hit the township in March and led to many things its residents never had to deal with before, including business shutdowns, school shutdowns and overwhelmed hospitals, not to mention mask wearing and social distancing protocols. 

Washington Township EMS got right to work when COVID hit. Staffers held meetings and reviewed different disinfecting  techniques. As local businesses were closed, township Mayor Joann Gattinelli advised residents that there were plenty of ways to continue their small-business patronage. 

“Keeping social distancing in mind, depending on the business, we can continue utilizing their services, whether by phone, using their delivery service, curbside pickup or online ordering,” she said. “That goes for restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies and a lot of our local businesses.” 

The Rotary Club of Washington Township delivered free meals to health care facilities in the township once a week, partnering with Wedgewood Country Club, host of its club meetings. The club also continued to support Mother’s Cupboard, a food pantry based out of the township municipal building.

COVID-19 regulations began to ease in June. Area salons and barbers were back in business with strict safety measures in place. Weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement allowing salons to reopen on June 22,  regulations were released by the N.J. Board of Cosmetology and Attorney General’s Office.

“There’s one part of me that’s so relieved and excited to get back to work,” said Paula Putorti, of Bella Bella Salon in Mantua.”But there’s another part of me as an owner, the responsibility of not infecting people, that weighs heavy on my conscience.” 

Salons are also required to adhere to state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on mitigating the spread of COVID-19, with a maximum capacity of 25 percent of a building’s limit.

As many salons opened their doors, there were others whose financial losses during the three-month closure prevented them from ever opening again. 

Social unrest a local issue

Zaki Muhammad leads the front of the protesters in emotional chants through Washington Lake Park (Krystal Nurse/The Sun). Hundreds march in the Black Lives Matter protest from Hurffville-Cross Keys to Greentree roads on June 6 denouncing racism and police brutality. The death of George Floyd energized organizer Laila Muhammad to create the protest as the Washington Township Police Department provided detail. Protesters kneel in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds at Washington Lake Park as park goers (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

When Gloucester County NAACP President Loretta Winters first saw coverage of George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody, she didn’t think it was real.

In realizing it was, in fact, true — a Black man begging to breathe, begging to live as he was held down at the neck by the knee of a white police officer for nearly nine minutes — Winters asked the question that reverberated throughout the nation after the May 25 incident: Why?

“As a department, we are collectively outraged by the senseless death of George Floyd. It has set law enforcement back 50 years, at least,” Washington Township Police Chief Patrick Gurcsik said. “We’re looking for ways to do better and be better.”

The department follows recommendations on police body cameras, social media engagement and policy and oversight in internal affairs. It regularly holds deescalation and implicit bias training, both from a manual and in hands-on exercises with fellow officers. It also puts community caretaking at the forefront.

Later that month the township came together to display their feelings about Floyd and the need for police reform during a local march and protest. After a former Glassboro student, Laila Muhammad, alleged racism in the municipality, township residents joined together to display their feelings about Floyd’s tragic death and the need for police reform.

The group walked three miles starting at Washington Township High School and ending at Washington Lake Park’s James A. Yates amphitheater. Protesters numbering about 500 and escorted by police chanted now-familiar phrases that included “Black lives matter”  and “Say their names”  as they marched along Hurffville-Cross Keys and Greentree roads and residents cheered them on.

Bridge the Gap, a forum that allows high school students and the Washington Township Police Department to have open discussions about different topics, was created in September. 

“This is important, because the tragic death of George Floyd opened our country’s eyes,” said Gurcsik. “Trust was shattered, and safety is compromised when people experience inequitable law enforcement.”

Art in the township

A Kindness Rock Garden was started by Painting the Town in Washington Township to bring smiles to residents faces. Rocks could be picked up and placed for new people to find or picked up, painted and returned. The Garden was created in Washington Lake Park.

Between the global pandemic and the social unrest, the nonprofit  Sustainable Washington Township decided to create an “eARTh Without ART is Just Eh” exhibit on Aug. 16 to bring color and happiness to Washington Township.

“Our concept is to bring art to the community and enhance awareness, appreciation and participation in the arts across the township,” Vicky Binetti, the township environmental commission chair, said at the time. “We are trying to integrate the arts into everyday lives.”

According to Binetti, the town has no arts or cultural center, so the team decided to use the existing infrastructure of schools, businesses and parks to create space where everyone can enjoy the arts.

Each piece in the new exhibit honored the theme of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. There were more than 70 submissions from 50 artists, and the pieces were created using photography, watercolor and oil paints. The exhibit showcased 46 works by 18 artists.