N.J. small businesses are fed up with Murphy’s coronavirus reopening — and still can’t get answers

June 11, 2020

Eleven weeks into the state-ordered shutdown of his training facility, CK’s.Baseball4u in Marlboro, Craig Koppelman has moved way beyond frustrated. He’s powerless.

Like many business owners across the state, he has no real idea when he’ll be able to reopen or what he can do to prepare. Gov. Phil Murphy has said there are goal posts and metrics for reopening, but hasn’t given any specifics into what those are. Murphy said guidance is coming for gym owners, but until then, they can only guess what the state will require of them.

For Koppelman, this confusion is emblematic of how the state has handled everything about the business-side of the coronavirus crisis, back to the first designation of 'essential' and 'nonessential' businesses.

“I can control the traffic flow. I know who is coming in at what time and I can stagger it," Koppelman said. "We set up all the same parameters and guidelines that all the big business box stores that are indoors have done. We’ve taken all the necessary precautions, but we’re still deemed nonessential.

"That’s not right. Every business is essential. Every business owner will tell you the same.”

Throughout the pandemic, Murphy and his coronavirus team have provided daily updates about case numbers, nursing homes and hospitalizations, saying they are trying to be transparent. But when it comes to business — and especially the small businesses that are the lifeblood of the state’s economy — it’s a different story.

Business owners, industry representatives and even legislators in his own party have said that when it comes to addressing the specifics about businesses — exactly when they can reopen and what will determine that — the governor has fallen behind and offered little useful guidance.

“I give them a lot of credit for communication and for moving swiftly to lock things down and keep us safe,” said Jim Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers. “I’m afraid I — and I think most of the business community — don’t feel the same way about what happened next. The administration did not move as quickly and decisively to open up or permit with proper restrictions the reopening of businesses that could operate safely.”

Murphy announced June 1 that New Jersey is ready to enter Phase 2 of the reopening process, allowing outdoor restaurant dining, nonessential retail stores and salons to reopen later this month. On Tuesday he lifted the stay-at-home order and announced larger gatherings would be allowed both indoors and outdoors.

Within a few hours that same morning, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s new $45 million grant program received 19,500 applications from small businesses hurt by the pandemic and in need of grants.

Murphy uses the catchphrase “data determines dates” to describe his reopening strategy — saying he is relying on health experts and looking for downward trends in the state’s coronavirus data.

But state officials have now come forward to allege Murphy’s administration is ignoring health officials and “making things up as they proceed.”

Last week, the same day Murphy announced the next batch of start of phase 2, NJ Advance Media published an anonymous letter from several state health officials saying they had no idea what data Murphy was basing his decisions on because he was not consulting their health experts on what the numbers were showing.

“Despite the Governor’s slogans, there are, in fact, no established thresholds to this effect that came from the public health experts in his state government,” the letter said. It was addressed to Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean and the Bipartisan Review and Recovery Committee that will hold hearings on the state’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

They also argued that while Murphy has named testing and contact tracing mile markers — 20,000 tests per day and hiring at least 1,600 new contact tracers — he has reopened segments of the economy “without the data to back it up, and without the resources to contact-trace future illness and exposures as they occur.”

Murphy said Wednesday that he hopes to start deploying the first new contact tracing hires to local health departments starting next week.

The governor has declined to respond to the claims in the letter, and his office did not respond to specific questions on his decision making. In a statement to NJ Advance Media, Murphy spokesman Darryl Isherwood maintained that the governor is taking a scientific approach and has sought guidance from public health professionals.

“We are relying on the data to determine the pace of our economic restart and we have been and will continue to watch the trends carefully,” he said. “As we have stated, the recovery will move in stages and we will make the decisions about when to move to each new stage based solely on the trends we are seeing.”

Industry representatives say business owners have begged for specific metrics and prescriptive guidance so they can have even a general idea of when they might reopen and what safeguards would need to be in place. Even when announcements about reopenings do finally arrive, businesses are sometimes left waiting days or weeks for comprehensive instructions on how to safely reopen, beyond the available CDC guidance.

Critics point to other states, such as New York and California, that they say have handled the situation much more effectively.

“I respect the process tremendously, but it needs to be expedited,” said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “We’re late to the game. California has had their guidance for business posted on their website for weeks and businesses have known what they need to do to prepare to open. New York, Pennsylvania and surrounding communities have these prescriptive documents available for businesses and we’re still crafting them.”

For some, the situation became untenable. Businesses sued the governor to let them reopen. A small number have opened their doors in defiance of the executive orders, as Atilis Gym in Bellmawr did until a judge ordered them closed.

The lack of clarity and communication goes back to the earliest days of the crisis, when businesses suddenly became essential or nonessential. To some, it felt like the state was picking winners and losers. Pet groomers, liquor stores and ice cream stands could open, but not appliance stores. Bike shops were allowed to repair bikes but not sell them, while big box stores sold bicycles and anything else in the store at curbside.

Siekerka said the business group took thousands of calls for weeks after the executive order because there was so much gray area and confusion — and the governor’s office did try to provide clarity. But throughout the shutdown, each municipality was interpreting and enforcing the rules differently.

Winners and losers

On his way to his shuttered youth baseball and softball training academy in Flanders, In The Zone Academy, owner Marcus Ippolito drove by an ice cream parlor with four workers and around two dozen people waiting in line, some without masks.

“In about 1,000 square feet, there’s about 28 people,” he said of the parlor. “I’m looking to have eight people in 12,000 square feet. It doesn’t make sense.”

"Is ice cream really an essential service?” he asked.

When the governor issued Executive Order 107 March 21, ordering all non-essential businesses shuttered, he laid out his first list of essential businesses. They included places that sold necessities like food and medications, as well as those related to the supply chain like manufacturing, warehouses and trucking.

At his press briefing the day of the stay-at-home order, Murphy said some states were “open-ended” and allowed for interpretation of what is essential and nonessential, while other states like Pennsylvania were very specific about the designation.

“We have chosen to be particularly prescribed about what is essential,” Murphy said. “And I gave you the list of entities and types of venues and types of activities that are essential. Beyond that, folks should assume certainly in retail that everything is nonessential and we mean it.”

The list, which is largely similar to other states and federal guidelines, did evolve somewhat over the following weeks. The state’s director of emergency management, New Jersey State Police Col. Patrick Callahan, added pet groomers and religious stores to the list, for instance, and allowed car dealerships to do online sales after the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers lobbied for the change.

Murphy allowed gun stores to reopen as essential, saying he did so to conform with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s essential business guide.

What chafes many people about the designation is that it means big box stores like Walmart and Target — because they sell essential things like food — can be open and selling all manner of nonessential items that smaller, more specialized stores can’t because they’re deemed nonessential.

A Murphy administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the thinking was that telling essential stores they could be open but could only sell essential items would be an enforcement nightmare. Other states have tried it, including Vermont, where toy and clothing aisles were roped off.

For many, though, the end result felt as if the administration was paying heed to multi-billion-dollar, national businesses, while leaving behind the local businesses that are supposed to be the lifeblood of any community.

“Why could a place like Best Buy do curbside all this time while a mom and pop store was just allowed to do so now? What’s the difference?” Koppelman asked.

Technically, nonessential big box stores like Best Buy and Dick’s Sporting Goods were not allowed to offer curbside pickup until May 18, but at least some of their locations have been doing so all along.

John Harmon, CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said chain stores and restaurants just aren’t hurting as much as mom and pop businesses.

“Particularly black and brown businesses,” Harmon said. “A multitude of them are not going to be able to reopen because they don’t have the reserves to sustain them over this pandemic. Many of them were not getting an equitable share of business during good times.

Complicating all of this is the fact that the state’s restrictions were unprecedented — and local officials, like businesses, interpreted them differently, Siekerka said. One town tried to shut down drive-through lanes, she said. Another prohibited people from walking inside restaurants just to pick up takeout.

Enforcement, too, has been patchwork. Before curbside pickup was allowed at nonessential stores, police in Bernardsville warned and ticketed the owner of Country Home, who had been using Facebook live videos to market home goods that people could buy and pickup at the store. Meanwhile, a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Cherry Hill sold items via curbside pickup.

What’s the right plan for reopening?

From the start of the coronavirus crisis, debates have raged nationally over whether a one-size-fits-all approach to closures and reopening is the most effective strategy. Should businesses in areas with fewer cases be bound by the same timeline or restrictions as the hardest hit areas?

New Jersey’s statewide approach, as opposed to states choosing to reopen based on individual county data, has been a nightmare for some in smaller counties that were not hit as hard by the pandemic.

"We feel as though no one is giving us any attention at the state level," said Matthew Hall, the Washington Borough Manager and Deputy OEM Coordinator in Warren County, who has been working with business owners in his municipality to prepare to reopen.

"They’re not giving us any recommendations and they don’t seem willing to listen to any of our suggestions. So we’re just held in limbo right now."

Warren County, along with Hunterdon, Sussex and Salem counties, did not receive financial aid from the CARES Act, which focused aid to more populated areas. Those four counties, along with Cape May County, also have the fewest confirmed cases in the state, but Murphy has maintained that he won’t reopen regionally.

Siekerka said a coalition of 87 business groups in the state signed on to a proposal sent to Murphy May 2, suggesting among other things that the state consider a regional reopening that would treat businesses in areas with fewer cases differently than those in “hotspots,” but the state did not respond.

Tim Sullivan, director of the Economic Development Authority and co-chair of the governor’s Restart and Recovery Advisory Council, said he thinks the governor is “100% right" that a regional or county-level approach wouldn’t work here.

“We are the densest state in the union, and in the grand scheme of things, pretty small,” Sullivan said. “Between the Turnpike, the Parkway and 295, we’re all pretty connected day to day.”

The co-chairs of the governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission, which advises Murphy on a big-picture strategy for the state’s recovery, said the governor is also being smart to base his reopening decisions on trends instead of a number goal, because there are so many metrics to consider and the numbers can swing one way on a single day based on numerous factors.

“I think people would love to have one metric. But in fact there are multiple metrics and each one plays a substantive role about the final decision to move from one stage to the next stage,” said commission co-chair Shirley M. Tilghman, a former Princeton University president and current professor of molecular biology and public policy.

Critics have accused Murphy of ignoring input from businesses, pointing to comments at a press conference April 29, when he said his decision to reopen parks was made without considering any input from the public, “literally not one speck.”

But Sullivan said that while Murphy is relying on data and public health to decide reopening dates, he is using input from business owners, collected through his advisory council, to decide how they can safely open.

Some of those advisory council members are supportive of Murphy’s deliberative method of reopening.

Corinne Powers of Camden eatery Corinne’s Place, is among the small business owners on the advisory council. She said she agrees with Murphy “wholeheartedly” and feels like he’s listening.

“I’m quite pleased with what the governor’s doing with requiring masks and slowly opening these places up, not like lots of these other states are,” she said at her restaurant, which is offering takeout.

Dean Smith, co-owner of jaZams toy store in Princeton and another advisory council member who supports the governor’s methods, said he worries some business owners who say they’re ready to open might be compromising due to the economic pressure. If they reopen without ideal social distancing and sanitation steps in place, he said, it could scare customers back into their homes.

“I understand wanting to reopen. I really do. We are feeling pain that is profound. Every day we run the numbers and question whether or not we’re going to come through this in a manner that we’ll be able to reopen,” Smith said.

But in an interview in the end of May, he said he wasn’t ready to reopen yet because he can’t find hand sanitizer or masks at reasonable prices, disinfecting wipes are backordered until July, and he was told he can’t get a plexiglass barrier installed until the end of June because contractors are backed up with all the jobs.

Businesses want to be ready – but how?

Lina Ryan has taken down all the hairstyling stations at Lina’s Chop Shop + Color Studio and reinstalled them six feet apart. She’s planned out how half of her eight employees will have to work reduced hours to maintain social distancing in the shop in Washington Borough.

She’s just guessing what the state will require of her to open June 22.

In the last two weeks, Murphy has announced future opening dates for daycare centers, day camps, outdoor dining, nonessential retail, and salons and barbershops, and said gyms will be next. But the state still hasn’t offered guidance on what will be required of salons or gyms.

Siekerka said that 70% of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association members reported they’d be ready to reopen in compliance with the CDC’s social distancing guidelines — and that was back in the end of April.

But they still don’t know whether the state’s guidelines will go further, which is something they should have known “yesterday,” Siekerka said.

Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis, who co-chairs the Restart and Recovery Advisory Council, said the council is “moving as quickly as we can” to get weekly input on the guidance to Murphy, who will make the decisions.

Enzo Iannelli said he is willing to do whatever the state says will keep his employees and customers safe when he reopens Enzo’s Pizzeria & Pasta in Washington Borough for indoor dining. But like business owners around the state, he just doesn’t know what that is.

"I’ll do what’s necessary. Just give me the opportunity. Let me know what I need to do,” Iannelli said. “We’re not hearing what needs to be done to even have a shot at this.”

For some businesses with slim profit margins, reopening may not be the big break they were hoping for if they can only open at a limited capacity.

The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association said many restaurants could make a go of it at 50% capacity, but a New Jersey Business & Industry Association survey taken in late April found members weren’t feeling as optimistic.

More than half said they couldn’t break even with less than 75 percent of their clientele coming in. Twenty percent said that they could never generate a profit at 50% capacity.

With the likelihood that businesses’ suffering is far from over, it’s possible that when the 2021 election rolls around, Murphy could still be dealing with a seriously damaged relationship with the business community.

Iannelli likened it to a “marriage that’s going sour.”

Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck and co-chair of Murphy’s commission, said the governor and his advisers are trying to look out for New Jerseyans’ lives and businesses.

“The last thing we want to do, on behalf of anyone including small businesses, is to restart in a way that causes us to revisit the kind of issues we’ve been through and having to retrace our steps,” he said. “We think that would be very harmful.”

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