NJ Businesses Ask For More Guidance For Reopening

Business owners are also clamoring for a pipeline to affordable supplies and protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer.

TRENTON — After months of dormancy due to the coronavirus pandemic, New Jersey businesses are anxiously awaiting the green light to open their doors to start selling goods and services again.

But as Gov. Phil Murphy begins to slowly loosen social-distancing restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the virus, business owners are signaling that more guidance is needed about what actions they should take to safely reopen and what rules and restrictions they’ll have to navigate.

Business owners are also clamoring for a pipeline to affordable supplies and protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer.

“Businesses want to know what they have to do to be able to reopen as safely as possible. That’s hard to do without guidance,” Christina Renna, director of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, told lawmakers Tuesday during an online meeting of the Senate Fiscal Recovery Strategists, a special legislative panel created to help develop plans and strategies for reopening New Jersey’s economy.

The bipartisan panel is co-chaired by Sens. Paul Sarlo, D-36th of Wood-Ridge, and Steve Oroho, R-24th of Franklin, and also includes Sens. Teresa Ruiz, D-29th of Newark, and Troy Singleton, D-7 of Delran.

Tuesday’s online hearing featured two-hours of testimony from a range of business owners and associations, including the South Jersey chamber, the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

Frank Rizzieri, who operates several hair salons and spas in Moorestown, Voorhees and Washington Township, also spoke to the panel, along with Sandra Sciacca, of the Sciacca Upholstery & Design Center in Delran, and Kelly Conklin, the architectural firm, Foley Waite LLC.

While each business and industry faces their own unique challenges, one common theme was the need for clear standards and guidance, including capacity standards, testing and screening requirements and other safeguards.

“We know the pain that’s out there. So now when business is going to go in and retool their facility or their business model, every penny that they spend is cherished and precious,” said Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. “They can’t spend it one time for someone to come back like the regulator and say, ‘You did a really good job but, by the way, now the prescriptive guidance is this.’”

The sooner stores can safely open the better. Most are reporting huge losses due to the shutdown, even those that have managed to adjust to boost online sales or provide curbside or delivery service.

“The numbers are just mind numbing.”

Jim Appleton of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers said vehicle sales were down between 70 to 80% last month compared to the previous year.

John Holub of the Retail Merchants Association reported similarly dismal numbers across much of retail, including a 48% losses for sporting goods, 64% losses for electronics and an 89% decline for clothing and accessory stores.

“The year-to-year numbers are scary,” he said, noting that grocery stores and hardware are the only businesses that appear to have made gains during the pandemic. “The numbers are just mind numbing.”

Acquiring adequate supplies of personal protective equipment is expected to be a key hurdle for businesses looking to safely reopen. Rizzieri reported it’s still a challenge.

“You can’t go to one supplier. You get some masks from one, some from another, some hand sanitizer,” he said, adding that prices have also increased considerably.

Holub said small mom-and-pop stores are likely to face difficulties obtaining the supplies needed to reopen.

“I am very concerned about the availability of PPE and hand sanitizer, especially the smaller stores,” he said. “People need to feel safe. They’re going to walk in and see employees with masks on and stations with hand sanitizer.”

Singleton and Sarlo suggested the state might be able to help by creating a database of reputable suppliers that small business owners could tap.

Renna continued to make the case for a regional reopening strategy, arguing that the governor’s actions to shutdown the state quickly likely saved lives and prevented an even greater impact from the virus. But she said businesses, particularly those in South Jersey, that have had far fewer cases of coronavirus, should now be allowed to move forward with reopening safely.

“Cannot just flip the switch”

Singleton has also called for a regional reopening plan, similar to those being used in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York.

“As we start the unofficial beginning of summer, it is imperative that New Jersey leadership immediately presents a plan prioritizing the reopening of Atlantic City casinos and other regions of our state less impacted by COVID-19,” Singleton said in a statement last week. “Published reports on New Jersey’s medical data clearly indicate that it is possible for certain portions of our state to safely open. Neighboring states have followed a regional reopening strategy based upon that medical data. New Jersey should do the same and follow those best practices.”

Murphy has steadfastly said he prefers a uniform, statewide approach to lifting social-distancing restrictions, and he has given no indication of wavering.

“I personally am of the opinion that steps we take will continue to be statewide steps in terms of reopening,” Murphy said last month.

While the governor has recently said it was likely a “matter of weeks” before some businesses like gyms, barbers and hair salons are permitted to reopen or for restaurants to be allowed to offer outdoor dining, Renna said clearer timelines are needed to help businesses prepare and plan.

The need for timelines is absolutely crucial. These small retailers, especially, cannot just flip the switch,” she said. “They need time to prepare for reopening.”

Murphy has insisted that health data will determine when restrictions are lifted in order to try to avoid a resurgence of the virus.

“I want to open up as much as anybody, trust me,” he said last week. “I want to get folks back to work as fast as possible, get small businesses back on their feet, but if we screw up the public health piece, none of that will happen.”

Singleton said he believed more guidance was warranted and expected.

“I believe Governor’s Murphy administration has attempted to manage our state’s COVID response in a responsible manner. One area however where the state can improve during this current reopening phase is to provide clearer guidance to the business community and the public generally on what the rules of engagement are,” he said after the hearing.

He also said he would continue advocating for a regional approach.

“While I remain a strong advocate of a regional approach to reopening our state, the governor has been consistent .... these are statewide decisions,” Singleton said. “I will continue however to present to him the converse argument and health care data that the South Jersey area can safely expedite that reopening strategy in our region.”

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