SOMERVILLE, NJ - The venerable summer Cruise Nights, a Friday night tradition on Main Street for 30 years, has been canceled for 2020, a victim of social distancing and concerns over crowd control during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday's announcement by the Downtown Somerville Alliance comes just as Gov. Phil Murphy has begun to ease COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.
Automobile, motorcycle and bike shops were allowed to re-open today after being shut down for two months, and New Jersey's beaches will also be open for Memorial Day weekend. Bars and restaurants will also be able to sell mixed cocktails for pick-up or delivery only effective this weekend.
But the likelihood of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the sidewalks, some not wearing face masks, gave pause to borough officials concerned with the likelihood that on any given Friday night, any number of people might be infected and expose hundreds of others, according to Mayor Dennis Sullivan.
Hundreds of proud owners rumble into downtown Somerville Friday nights and park their eye-popping cars up and down Main Street, reminiscent of a scene from "Happy Days," "Hollywood Knights," "Grease" and other period movies that celebrate America's love affair with vintage automobiles.
The following is a statement from Natalie Pineiro, executive director of the DSA, explaining the rationale behind the decision:
"As New Jersey prepares to reopen in the aftermath of COVID-19, Downtown Somerville is faced with preparing for a new normal that reinforces the importance of health, cleanliness and safety. As we make these preparations we have had to look at everything from our infrastructure and walkability to how we structure our events.
"We have been following the emerging guidelines from the Governor’s Office and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and amidst all of the clutter one thing is clear - long after the stay at home order is lifted, we will have to continue social distancing and the limitations on gatherings will persist.
"As such, we are faced with the hard reality that we will have to cancel or postpone a majority of the treasured events that take place throughout our district. Because of the scale of Cruise Nights, and the difficulty surrounding crowd control and the enforcement of social distancing, we regret to have to place this event on hiatus until next Spring.
"The health and safety of all of our patrons and event participants is of the utmost importance, and we hope you will understand that this decision, to postpone a 30-year tradition, does not come lightly. We are monitoring the situation closely and if the tides shift and we can again reopen at some point this season to the masses, this event is the first that we plan on bringing back.
"However in the meantime, we are eagerly planning to greet you during the 2021 season and look forward to making the event bigger and better for everyone."
This is the second signature event associated with Somerville that has been canceled because of prohibitions of large crowds at public events. The 80th annual Tour of Somerville bike race held Memorial Day weekend, was canceled by organizers in March.
The decision to cancel the Cruise Nights, which attracts thousands of visitors to the downtown district to ogle the antique, vintage and muscle cars will not have as great an impact on downtown merchants as it would have under normal circumstances, Sullivan said.
There is no seating in restaurants, only takeout service, and the doors of retail stores are closed to customers; only curbside pick-up is available. Without the opportunities to shop or to sit down and have a drink or a meal, the options are few for those who might not be as interested in the cars, according to the mayor.
To curtail the number of classic cars normally expected, the Borough Council at its meeting Monday night considered a resolution that would have limited parking on Main Street to 20 minutes, but the measure was defeated by a 3-2 vote, with Councilman RanD Pitts, who owns a clothing store on Main Street, abstaining.
"I'm concerned with all these edicts coming out of Trenton," Sullivan said. "It falls on local government to enforce them. When stores are ordered to shut down, our police department is tasked with making sure the rules are followed. We'd have to dedicate at least one officer for Cruise Night looking for violations, which is impractical."
The mayor also suggested some car owners eager to show off their rides may still come to Somerville this Friday and other Fridays.
"I just don't know. I'll be driving down Main Street Friday night to see," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he is also concerned about out-of-towners visiting from areas around New Jersey and bordering states where there might be higher rates of infection and more COVID-19 cases than there are in Somerville.
"There is no way to tell at this point," Sullivan said. "I'm a little apprehensive not knowing who may come, where they are from or how many will show up. The question will be if people do come and congregate, are they violating the governor's executive order?"