- Somerville, New Jersey has enjoyed a rising tide in recent years, but the coronavirus pandemic has threatened to derail the town's development.
- To get business moving again, the borough is petitioning the state to close Main Street to traffic so retailers can welcome customers outside and stores are adjusting to curbside pick-up and e-commerce.
- Here's how business owners and local officials are preparing to reopen as the state's coronavirus restrictions ease.
Somerville, New Jersey has enjoyed a rising tide in recent years.
Main Street is usually bustling, drawing crowds of thousands through the spring and summer with events like the annual Central Jersey Jazz Festival and weekly cruise nights, when classic cars line the street.
Within the borders of the town's 2-square miles, about 12,000 people live, enjoying a boom in both commercial and residential development that has attracted younger residents and new businesses to the active commuter town. There's a communal atmosphere to the Somerset County town, Mayor Dennis Sullivan said, that stands in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when empty storefronts dotted the town's main thoroughfare.
"Five years ago, it was a ghost town," Sullivan said, attributing the turnaround to public and private investment. "A lot of those upper-story apartments are full now, where they were cobwebs just a few years ago."
Iris Frank, co-owner of Village Brewing, cited the "comeback" of the town as "the reason why we picked Somerville" a little over a year ago when she and her brother opened the brewery. Now, the coronavirus pandemic and New Jersey's stringent response to it threatens to disrupt the town's upswing and the businesses tethered to it.
New Jersey has endured one of the most restrictive responses to the virus in the country. Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday he would lift the stay-at-home order that was put in place on March 21. But many businesses will remain closed at least until the state enters its next phase of reopening on Monday.
Businesses deemed nonessential have already faced more than 12 weeks of closure and expect more weeks ahead of low revenue as stores just partially reopen to comply with social distancing requirements. As New Jersey finally paves a path forward, business owners and local officials are gleaning lessons from other states that have already reopened on how to do so safely while balancing the economic needs of the community.
"I'm here on a Friday night and I look out the window at six, seven o'clock, where the streets would be teeming with people who are enjoying the evening, from the folks on a date night to families just coming to get ice cream and strolling and looking at the classic cars," Frank said. "That's all gone."
On May 29, Frank stood outside her business as a sparser crowd than usual, most wearing masks, strolled down the street. The crowd, which Frank said has been steadily growing in recent weeks, pales in comparison to the numbers Somerville usually draws during its busy spring season, but it's a sign of hope for Frank that her customers might return for the summer.
Frank said she celebrated the one-year anniversary of her brewery's opening in April with her business closed, like thousands of others on Main Streets across the country.
Somerville has reported 137 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of Friday, and six people have died of the disease, according to data compiled by Somerset County. But New Jersey, particularly the northern part of the state near New York City, has endured the second worst coronavirus outbreak in the country, with more than 166,166 confirmed cases and at least 12,490 deaths caused by Covid-19 as of Friday.
While some other states began to allow outdoor dining and retailers to reopen with limited capacity a month ago, New Jersey's restrictions still only allow for curbside pick-up statewide. In early June, Murphy announced that the state will allow outdoor dining and for retailers to reopen with 50% capacity on Monday, about three months after Frank closed Village Brewing.
The long-term economic effects of the coronavirus restrictions remain unclear. So much is unknown about the virus, the disease it causes and how it spreads, all of which could impact how states ease restrictions. While researchers study the nature of the virus, bills are piling up for small businesses like Frank's and the extended suspension of business threatens to throttle the local economy.
Village Brewing has been surviving by selling takeout food and growlers of beer since it closed on March 16, Frank said, adding that sales are down more than 90% compared with last year. She said she's partnered with food delivery company DoorDash, which has helped.
She also received a loan from the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, which will help her weather the storm and pay her 40 employees. But she still has no idea when her business might be able to return to any semblance of normal operations.
She's been looking at restaurants and eateries in places like Texas and Georgia that have been allowed to reopen, she said, and looking for smart ways to reduce the risk of infection. Village Brewing has a massive 17,000-square-foot, two-floor space, which will help with social distancing, she said, but one thing she's seen from other states is that outdoor space is key to reopening.
Natalie Pinero, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, said she's not sure all businesses can take much more of a sustained shutdown.
"We would be naive to think that any of us, or any district, no matter where you are in the country, is going to come out of this situation completely unscathed," she said. "I think that there is a genuine concern for our businesses, for our small businesses."
The DSA has been trying to help local shops survive the hiatus and prepare for reopening, however it could look, Pineiro said. For starters, the organization has been working with shops to revamp their online presence.
The organization launched an initiative called Somerville at Home, a website that provides guidance to the public about which businesses are open for take-out services. It doesn't just include restaurants. For example, Nailed It, a do-it-yourself workshop on Main Street, has started to offer "make-and-take craft projects," Pineiro said, where customers pick up supplies from the store and can tune into live-streamed instructions on how to construct the project.
Somerville has a variety of new and old businesses, some that have been online from the start and others that are just now leaning into e-commerce, Pineiro said.
"A lot of these small businesses are not set up for e-commerce or were not set up for e-commerce, so it was a mad dash once this happened to get people up to speed," she said. "Still there are some people that aren't completely set up for e-commerce.
But online sales only go so far, especially considering so many Somerville businesses, like Carol's Creative Chocolatez, which normally hosts regular artisanal chocolate tastings, are designed for an in-person and often communal experience, Pineiro said. To stir some excitement about shopping safely again, Somerville officials and the Downtown Alliance are petitioning the state to close Main Street, a state-owned highway, to traffic on at least some days every week.
The town is hoping to hear back from the state this week, Pineiro said.
Closing Main Street and giving shops some space would be the safest way to bring customers back, and could help protect businesses in the future if the county sees a surge in cases again, as some states that were among the first to reopen have.
"Our retail businesses can bring out tables of products so that people can feel safe and shop outdoors instead of crowding indoors," she said. "And the same thing with our dining."
Some research, which has been endorsed by the White House, has shown that the virus doesn't spread as easily outdoors and in direct sunlight. Cities beyond Somerville and across the country are now trying to find more space for restaurants and businesses that can move outdoors during the summer.
It's far from the ideal summer season for businesses, Pineiro said.
"It's certainly damaging to the momentum to have something like Covid happen and really set us back," Pineiro said. "You're talking about people that put their blood, sweat and tears and made sacrifices to be a part of Main Street."
Somerville's not shy of shutting streets to traffic to benefit its pedestrians. In 2012, the town invested more than $400,000 in converting Division Street, perpendicular to Main Street, into a pedestrian street. Sullivan said the project, which began as a one-year pilot, has been a rousing success, drawing customers from throughout the region to the town's businesses.
A threat to Somerville's businesses is a threat to the municipal budget, local schools and basic public services, Sullivan said. He added that there's no corporate presence along any of the surrounding highways, so an unusually large portion of Somerville's tax revenue comes straight from Main Street.
It's too early to determine whether spending cuts will be necessary, he said, adding that the current and most affected tax period ends in August. He said the borough has a surplus, but he's hesitant to tap it unless absolutely necessary and the same goes for borrowing funds.
"If I had a crystal ball, well, I could do this job forever," he said. "But it doesn't come with a script and it doesn't come with a Ouija board. It comes with a lot of planning and a lot of self confidence that you're making the right decision, but we won't know until we've gone through at least another tax cycle."
Rick St. Pierre, who has owned the Verve restaurant and bar for 24 years, said closing off Main Street for just pedestrians would go a long way in helping to revive business and restore consumer confidence in town. At the very least, he said, it would test the waters of how to do business while the virus is still circulating.
In the meantime, however, he's preparing to reopen with limited capacity and safety modifications.
He's ordering Verve-branded face masks and stocking up on plastic face shields for further protection. A plastic divider will separate the bartender from customers and he's figuring out how to install dividers between tables, which will be set six feet apart, he said. But the necessary modifications could be so burdensome that it's not even worth it to reopen, he added.
"White table dining is all about floor space," he said. "With 25% or even 50% limited capacity, restaurants will not be able to make money. What we'd be doing is paying our labor, paying our food, paying our utilities, and trying to pay back that debt service that was created in January, February, March and April, just because we've deferred payments."
He said he's confident that Somerville will bounce back. His restaurant has survived the 2008 financial crisis and Hurricane Sandy, which shut down utilities in town for weeks. He added that he's learned to lean on the community and his network to survive crises like those, but Covid-19 is like nothing he's seen before and he's not sure younger less experienced business owners will make it.
"This is worse than Sandy, definitely, at least in my mind," he said. "This is a different level. We have no control over this threat."