Last week, we spoke with a handful of mayors about the early effects of novel coronavirus on their communities. Here’s what they have to say.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 25, 2020
As New Jersey waits for its share of what could be a $100-billion regional recovery (including New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania), many Camden County communities are already considering the immediate impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on their towns.
This morning, U.S. Congress passed a historic, $2-trillion federal aid package designed to help the county rebound from the disease.
But state and local leaders know it will be some time before those dollars trickle down to the individual families, self-employed workers, and small businesses that need them the most.
Locally, community block development grants (CBDGs) have funded improvements like those to the Merchantville community center, Mayor Ted Brennan said. He’s hopeful that some of those federal funds will again be available to help small businesses in his community recover from COVID-19-related losses.
“My fear is that it will take too long, and that the lifeline, although it will eventually be extended, will be too little, too late,” Brennan said. “These small businesses, and you see it in every community, a lot of times, they’re hanging on by the skin of their teeth.”
Brennan said he supports the statewide shutdowns as “fully justified” in the attempts to “flatten the curve” of cases hitting the New Jersey health system all at once. But he also knows the closures will have an “ancillary impact” on small businesses.
“For me it’s Halil [Gungor, of the Blue Monkey Tavern] and Chris [Mattern] and Beth [Manning, of Eclipse Brewing], and before them it was Pete [Burgess] and Janet [Stevens, of the now-closed McFarlan’s Market],” Brennan said. “Ryan Middleton [of Ryan’s Retail].
“I know these people by their first names,” the mayor said.
“They are the fabric of our communities. I am very concerned about this.”
Brennan said he’s working with Jaclyn Ricci, president of the Merchantville Business Association to gather information on available resources for business owners who’ve been affected by the shutdown.
He also challenged the borough council and staff “to come up with ways we can support, and, if possible, boost up, the small businesses that are struggling right now.”
“As each day goes on, it’s getting more and more difficult,” Brennan said. “If this is a prolonged period of shutdown, it will take a significant effort to get this small-business downtown machine moving again, and we’re committed to doing it.
“These are individuals that I’ve known for a very long time who’ve committed their life and their dream to the borough,” he said. “I don’t want to see that go away because of something they can’t control.”
“I think there’s a tidal wave coming at us”
In Collingswood, which identified its first two cases of COVID-19 this week, Mayor Jim Maley said the community is “too deep in the forest right now” to consider its economic condition in light of the pandemic.
“Really, it’s all public health and safety to try to forestall and prepare for the avalanche that I think is about to come,” Maley said.
“I’m concerned for the next week to 10 days, because as we get testing done, I do believe we’re going to find out this [virus] is in a lot of places.”
Maley’s primary concerns are preventing the depletion of manpower among its public health and safety workers. He said the local government has “put a fair amount of time into changing how we do things now… while at the same time trying to coordinate how everybody else is living their lives.”
That means twice-a-day meetings among the local emergency management team, frequent calls with the Camden County Mayors Association, the state League of Municipalities, with the governor’s office, and members of the local Business Improvement District (BID). Camden County Freeholder-Director Lou Cappelli is a Collingswood resident, which facilitates local communication with the county government, Maley said.
“There’s a lot of good coordination, there’s bumps in the road, but there’s a real effort to try to coordinate everything,” the mayor said.
He also praised Collingswood residents for “really trying to stick to the social distancing protocols” while “going a long way to help those local businesses as much as they can.” On Wednesday, the borough announced its extension of Collingswood Bonus Cash redemption from last year’s Black Friday sale through the end of April 2020, and launched a portal for residents to support its local stores.
“The report I get back is that [restaurants have] all been busy,” Maley said. “There’s a good takeout business going on. And on social media, people are trying to come up with novel ways to keep the kids and the parents from climbing the walls at different times of the day.”
That’s a sharp improvement from behavior observed during the first week of the quarantine, when playgrounds were closed and officials had to clear out organized groups from the ball fields in Knight Park.
“It’s gotten better,” Maley said.
He urged residents to “be kind to each other [and] try to follow the rules as best you can.
“Stay home,” Maley said. “There’s still a bunch of stuff going on. I think there’s a tidal wave coming at us. I think it’s going to get real pretty soon.”
Fighting an invisible enemy
Haddon Heights Mayor Zach Houck, who only took office in January, is “on both ends of the quarantine” as an elected official and a professional firefighter on a Cherry Hill HAZMAT team.
“I’ve got my N-95 mask here on the end of my rig in case we get called in,” Houck said.
Drawing on those experiences, Houck described handling the pandemic as an issue both “complex and microscopic.”
Unlike weather-related disasters, the invisible threat of a viral illness is difficult for lots of people to grasp, which makes it difficult for them to adapt their behavior. He likened COVID-19 to carbon monoxide poisoning: odorless and invisible, but no less deadly for it.
“You talk about a snowstorm, you talk about a hurricane, people get it,” he said. “You usually don’t see complacency in those types of things until the forecasters get it wrong a few times in a row. With this, there’s complacency from Jump Street.”
In the early days of the quarantine, Houck said Haddon Heights residents were bucking the shelter-in-place doctrine, so much so that he had to ask St. Rose of Lima to close its playground and take down basketball nets and hoops. Houck doubled down on his message to parents to “help stress how important this crisis is” to their children.
The mayor is equally concerned about the long-term impact to small businesses in Haddon Heights after the pandemic is over. A signature plank of his election campaign was making strides to fill empty storefronts in the borough downtown, a pledge that has been “shot in the back” by the outbreak, before which a handful of new businesses were putting down roots, including The Sewing Studio, Rooted Yoga and Wellness, and Jane’s Tea House in the former Station House restaurant.
“My biggest fear right now is anybody that’s overextended,” he said.
“These are people that have basically committed to a new business,” Houck said.
“They’re going to be in the red for a while, and this really is going to set them back.
“But I think we’re going to get through this,” he said. “I rely on our resources here in town, but more importantly, I rely on people being good neighbors. That’s how we weather the storm.”
Houck said the local government is working to find any avenue to relax the impact of lost business on brick-and-mortar operations, including brokering rent abatements with landlords, driving grant and loan information to tenants, and waiting for broader, federal relief.
“Frankly, I think it’s going to be crucial, not only for resiliency, weathering this storm, but for their recovery,” the mayor said. “Just because they pass a bill doesn’t mean the money comes our way. It is crucial that we eventually get that money so we can do good with it, where it actually matters.”
In the interim, he urged residents to continue supporting local businesses as much and as frequently as possible during the shutdown.
“Those block grants, all of that’s great, but in the interim, there’s a lot of little things we could be doing,” Houck said, including purchasing gift cards and ordering takeout.
“It’s like every bad situation wrapped up in one”
In Haddon Township, the municipal government is chugging ahead with necessary service provision while keeping employees sequestered from the public as much as possible.
“We still have certain deadlines and requirements that have to be met; many of those statutes or timelines have not been waived,” Mayor Randy Teague said.
Those include responses to public records requests, permit applications, payroll, tax assessments, and bill paying. The local government has posted a lockbox in front of the municipal building for physical mail and paperwork, and is moving all necessary meetings with staff and residents to by-appointment-only.
“In a two-day snowstorm, it’s easy to send everybody home and keep police and public works [operating],” Teague said. “But we have other administrative tasks that now need to be completed. We’re paying our employees. Nobody’s been laid off; nobody’s hours have been reduced.”
Teague, like Houck and Brennan, is more concerned with the impact of COVID-19 on local, small businesses, including those recently opened, like Que Ricas and Koupa, who completed extensive and costly physical renovations to their brick-and-mortar spaces prior to the outbreak.
“They’ve put a lot of money into the buildings that they went into, and expected to get that back over time by providing a good service and a good product,” Teague said. “As this continues to evolve, I think we’re going to need more and more relief efforts.
“It’s like every bad situation wrapped up in one,” the mayor said.
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