Towns, businesses huddle on ways to save downtowns from COVID
Business groups and municipal leaders worried about mass vacancies in their downtowns are talking about ways to more closely cooperate as they implement, and hopefully influence, decisions made by Gov. Phil Murphy about opening and closing parts of the economy due to the coronavirus.
In an hourlong online roundtable meeting Wednesday, local government officials and representatives from business organizations said they have stepped up communication over the last four months and that more will be needed to limit the long-term economic toll.
Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said it’s an anxious time for mayors fearful of empty storefronts and an expected decline in property tax payments due Aug. 1.
“I think that are very concerned, actually to the point of keeping us up at night over what our Main Streets are looking like right now,” Mahr said. “You can go to some towns, and it’s closed up.”
Business groups said more vacancies are likely, as businesses deal with consumer worries about potential health concerns, reopening costs, occupancy limits and changing or confusing rules.
Take, for instance, the supposed 8 p.m. curfew.
When Gov. Phil Murphy closed dine-in services at restaurants and bars on March 16, it took effect at 8 p.m. and was widely interpreted as requiring restaurants to close at that time, especially because nonessential and nonemergency travel was strongly discouraged after 8 p.m. at the same time.
“If you’re a nonessential business and you’re staying open beyond 8:00 we’ll probably give you a warning shot but we probably won’t give you two,” Murphy said on March 16.
Murphy said directly that there wasn’t an 8 p.m. curfew that day – and again on March 20, when he said, “I had used the word ‘curfew’ last week and it turns out it was a strong recommendation, just for largely legal reasons. … If I had to put a phrase on it, it’s our way or the highway time.”
But it wasn’t until two months later, when Murphy said on May 19 and 20 that there was never a curfew, that it was widely understood and enforced.
“Everyone thought there was a curfew,” said Marilou Halverson, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. “And so restaurant workers who were doing takeout and delivery were getting pulled over, or we actually had some local police stopping drive-through.”
“I do think it was ironic that so many of the restaurants, police officers thought that we were under curfew,” said Eileen Kean, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “For the month of April and three weeks into May, everybody was shutting down at 8 o’clock. So that was a real tragedy of misinformation.”
If there is a second wave of COVID-19 later this year, business groups hope they and municipal leaders can convince Murphy to shut businesses at the county or regional level, rather than the entire state.
“I hope perhaps the state of New Jersey is as well in understanding that we are different, that there are different areas of New Jersey that were not affected as strongly and that we do look at that as we move forward,” said Tammie Horsfield, president of the Sussex County Chamber of Commerce.
James Perry, president of the League of Municipalities and a Hardwick Township committeeman, said judging by the number of out-of-state license plates at the Delaware Water Gap and the popularity of the Jersey Shore from New York to Philadelphia, such an approach would be a challenge.
“Trying to open things up regionally, it’s a tough call,” Perry said.
Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said such distinctions are needed even if tricky.
“If we’re going to have two hotspots, if all of a sudden two counties in the state are going to spike, we would like to try to avoid a statewide shutdown,” Siekerka said. “I realize we’re small and we’re dense, so that’s way easier said than done. People can travel 10 miles to go through three towns. So that could be a challenge, for sure.”
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.