BERNARDS TWP., NJ _ Venturing into what they described as "uncharted territory," the Bernards Township Committee conducted a virtual public meeting via Zoom on Tuesday afternoon, during which they affirmed NJ Gov.'s Murphy's executive order calling for residents to stay at home. Officials also outlined efforts to support the community as well as local businesses during COVID-19 crisis.

The meeting, displaying Zoom views of Township Committee members and officials, was televised on Optimum/Cablevision channel 15, Verizon FiOS channel 35, and set up to be livestreamed on the Bernards Township website. The complete meeting, the end of which was cut off on television, is now posted on YouTube. [Updated]

With five confirmed cases of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) as of Tuesday in Basking Ridge as reported by Somerset County, officials again stressed the need for residents to follow "social distancing" and stay-at-home precautions. That number rose to seven on Wednesday. [Updated]

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Deputy Mayor Joseph Esposito thanked residents who are complying with self-distancing measures. "Thank you for complying," Esposito said. "For those not complying, I ask that you start."

The governing body also managed to introduce a proposed $41.9-million municipal budget for 2020, and to pass an emergency declaration before the television transmission ended following the budget presentation. The meeting began with a virtual Pledge of Allegiance shortly after 3 p.m. All meetings are recorded and linked to the agendas afterwards, said Township Clerk Rhonda Pisano.

"Nothing has changed" in the township's operations as a result of the emergency declaration, Mayor James Baldassare Jr. said during the meeting, and also in a message to the public posted online later that afternoon on the Bernards Township website.

"This is strictly a precautionary measure for going forward, nothing more," the mayor's online message said. "We are putting ourselves in a position to facilitate possible future needs which may dictate a change in course in terms of necessary action. Our ability to respond to any changes effectively and efficiently in real time is paramount to the safety of our community."  

For example, the emergency declaration would allow the township's emergency management coordinator to issue orders, rules, and regulations as are necessary to meet the various situations that might arise during the current emergency.

"If things start to get worse, we want to be able to make necessary adjustments," Baldassare said during the meeting.

Parks remain open, playgrounds closed

However, some specifics in the declaration _ already in effect _ is the provision that all municipal parks will remain open. However, all playgrounds, water fountains, and public bathroom facilities will remain closed. Athletic fields also are closed.

Along with other "nonessential" meetings that have been canceled, municipal court sessions scheduled for March 26 and April 2 are also canceled. 

Any time deadlines for the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment _ for which meetings have ben canceled _ were extended by an additional 60 days as part of the declaration. The measure allows the mayor to grant any variations from land use laws for the benefit of public health or safety as required.

The Township Clerk also was permitted to deny for 60 days any applications for solicitation permits that involve door to door canvassing of residents, because, "such canvassing violates social distancing guidelines."

Thanks offered to first responders, municipal employers, and others

All five members of the Township Committee joined in the virtual meeting, and each offered brief comments, particularly offering thanks for tireless hours spent by the health department, first responders and police, and many others in the community.

Although municipal offices are closed, officials still can be reached via emails or phone calls that in some cases are being forwarded to municipal employees' homes.

Township Committeeman John Carpenter noted that during his 15 years serving on the Township Committee, the municipality's ability to continue communicating with the public during emergencies had continually improved. 

For example, residents can sign up for RAVE mobile safety alerts than can be conveyed through text, emails or other forms of communication.

Website set up with information on local businesses during COVID-19 shutdown

Carpenter also pointed out that former Bernards Township Committeeman and Mayor John Malay had suggested setting up a website to help support local businesses by providing information on products and services available.

Carpenter said that Ryan McCloskey, president of the Basking Ridge Business Alliance, had followed through in setting up a website, BaskingRidgeTogether.org. The website offers links to local businesses, and offers to purchase gift cards.

McCloskey, who announced the launching of the site in a release on TAP Into Basking Ridge, said, “This is a difficult time for everyone. It’s also a time when local businesses can help provide valuable products and services to the community." He said he expects businesses will be added in the weeks to come.

Tuesday's virtual meeting began with a plea from a local resident, filed by email, asking the township to take actions to save small businesses in town impacted by the COVID-19 shutdown. "Without the town's small businesses, the town would lose a critical part of our economy."

Officials also mentioned another site set up to provide assistance during the crisis to the local community, including senior citizens, which is the Facebook group, Basking Ridge helping Basking Ridge.