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North Jersey Small Businesses Adapt To COVID-19 Reality

North Jersey shops are hoping the ability to offer curbside pick-up service will give them a boost following extended closures due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Most walk-in stores and non-essential retailers have been shut since mid-March, as part of New Jersey’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus. But mom-and-pop shops received some welcome news recently, when Gov. Phil Murphy gave the greenlight to reopen May 18 for curbside pickup only.

New Jersey, the second hardest hit state in the country, is inching toward a gradual return that Murphy said is being guided by downward trends of hospitalization rates and deaths related to the virus.

Phased Reopening

Reopening New Jersey will occur in phases, according to the governor, though he hasn’t provided a timeline for how long it will take to advance between stages.

Currently, the state is in the first phase, which permits low-risk activities, like visiting parks, lakes and beaches, but a stay-at-home order remains in effect. Under Murphy’s plan, some degree of expanded, in-person retail shopping could resume during stage two.

For now, many small business owners are trying to adapt to the COVID-19 reality, which means interacting with customers differently and tweaking business models.

Morristown Model

In Morristown, Hetal Patel, vice president of the local Chamber of Commerce said, “We have seen a lot of businesses become online-based and social media-based almost overnight once the lockdown started.”

“For example, one of the chamber members, a pilates studio, had to close her studio doors and take all of her classes online and stream them live on social media.”

Ryan Gleason of the Downtown Denville Business Improvement District said the businesses who adopted a more online approach “and stay technologically relevant have been able to somewhat stay afloat.”

Denville Curbside

Allowing businesses to offer curbside pickup service has drawn a mixed reaction, he said.

“Some are embracing newfound opportunities to slowly reopen and are using the down time to develop new policies and procedures for a full reopening. Most recognize that there will be a ‘new normal’ of retail shopping moving forward and for the significant future,” Gleason said.

Other business owners, he said, feel offering a curbside pickup option “is not enough to justify reopening and worry that the government allowing this phased reopening will put other kinds of public assistance and support at risk.”

Still, curbside pickup service “will help insofar as any business is better than no business,” Gleason said.  

“Retail Therapy”

“As the weather gets warmer and we see some nicer days, curbside offers businesses an opportunity to capitalize on people’s desire to be outside and in a familiar and comfortable environment—and to maybe get some retail therapy,” he said.

Patel agreed, saying, “I think at this point, anything that can get the local businesses to open up and still keep safe and abide by the CDC regulations is a great idea.”

“Many, many people are still afraid to come out of their homes and if they do, they are afraid to touch a door handle,” Patel said. “Curbside offers the business an opportunity to still have a customer flow all while ensuring that the customer is as safe as possible in the convenience of their own vehicle.”

Economic Confidence

Even once restrictions are eased, New Jersey residents are hesitant about going out to restaurants, bars, sports games and entertainment events, a new Quinnipiac University poll found. They are torn as well about whether they feel comfortable returning to work outside of the home, the poll found.

Since the onset of the pandemic, small businesses have faced numerous challenges, from mandated closures to obtaining federal relief loans to competing for unemployment benefits.

Local shops have lost business to online retailers and big box chains, like Target and Walmart, which were permitted to remain open since stores sell essential goods, like food and work supplies.

Recovery Worries

Restaurants have been allowed to offer pick-up and delivery service and essential businesses—such as supermarkets, pharmacies and home improvement stores—can also stay open, with social distancing measures.

“Besides forced closures, businesses have also been crushed by a lack of consumer confidence,” Gleason said. “With so many losing their jobs or unsure of how the crisis will unfold, spending has plummeted for everything considered ‘non-essential.’ Many businesses are worried that even after being allowed to reopen, this trend will continue for months if not years, slowing any chance at recovery.”

But, many small business owners “are out of time,” according to State Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-25).

Breaking Point

The senator said he’s heard from business owners who are either “at their breaking point” or “just days or a few short weeks away from closing for good.”

“With the highest risk businesses like grocery and big box stores operating successfully with proper mitigation, its well past the time to reopen all businesses so they have a chance to survive this crisis. Otherwise, we face severe ripple effects deep into state and local budgets that have downstream impacts on school funding, social services, tax relief, and more. Health and economic stability can co-exist,” the senator said.

Loosen Restrictions Quicker

Bucco joins a growing number of legislators, such as Rep. Mikie Sherrill and State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), who are urging Murphy to begin loosening restrictions on non-essential businesses.

In a May 8 letter to the governor, Bucco and Sherrill wrote, “Moving toward these types of measured changes in a thoughtful way, we can drive customers to small businesses who desperately need the economic support of their communities. Businesses like the local gift shop on Main Street who could have the perfect birthday or anniversary gift waiting for curbside pickup for a resident or the small pool supply store that could easily put the chemicals needed to sanitize and disinfect a backyard pool directly into the trunk of a car.”

Economic Toll

Many businesses, such as gyms, movie theaters and hair salons, remain shuttered, with no timeline for when they can expect to open their doors, though Murphy said on May 21 he hopes it’ll happen in coming weeks.

About two-thirds of residents believe New Jersey is reopening at the right pace, however many remain worried about contracting the virus, losing their job and struggling financially, according to a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

But, frustrations are mounting as closures are extended and the unemployment rate skyrockets.  In New Jersey, the unemployment rate soared to 15.3% in April and 1.1 million residents have filed jobless claims.

Murphy Sued Over Closures

New Jersey Republicans and a group of business owners sued Murphy to reopen small businesses on behalf of closed shops and unemployed residents.

The governor, their suit contends, was out of bounds when he “arbitrarily” decided some businesses were not essential and has caused “irreparable harm to innumerable small businesses.”

Republican State Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt said in a statement, “While mom and pop barbers, bars, brew pubs and retail shops are shuttered and struggling, big box stores, with big cash cushions, survive. Governor Murphy has callously covered his ears, closed his eyes and ignored New Jersey’s cries for honest answers to real problems.”

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