HUDSON COUNTY, NJ - Hudson County businesses hope curbside pick-up service will give them a boost following extended closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Most walk-in stores and non-essential retailers have been shut since mid-March, as part of New Jersey’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus. But, mom-and-pop shops received some welcome news earlier this month, when Gov. Phil Murphy gave the greenlight to reopen May 18 for curbside pickup only. 

New Jersey, the second hardest hit state in the country, is inching toward a gradual return that Murphy said is being guided by downward trends of hospitalization rates and deaths related to the virus.

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Reopening New Jersey will occur in phases, according to the governor, though he hasn’t provided a timeline for how long it will take to advance between stages. 

Currently, the state is in the first phase, which permits low-risk activities, like visiting parks, lakes and beaches, but a stay-at-home order remains in effect. Under Murphy’s plan, some degree of expanded, in-person retail shopping could resume during stage two.

‘We all pull together’

Curbside pickup will be essential for many local businesses – especially those that don’t have enough space to ensure social distancing within the store, according to Maria Nieves, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce.

“I used curbside pickup two weeks ago at Central Avenue Liquors in Jersey City, one of our members at the Chamber,” she said. “And it worked seamlessly. The business had instructions posted on Yelp to call in your order, which I did and then they called me back to let me know the order was ready. I drove up, called them to let them know I was right outside. Someone popped out with my order. It was easy and no one was put at risk.”

Nieves said, “It’s important that both customers and employees feel safe and confident that they can conduct business without putting anyone at risk. Feeling safe is critical for reopening our economy, period.”

Even once statewide restrictions are loosened, roughly 7 out of 10 residents said they wouldn’t feel comfortable going to restaurants or doing non-essential shopping and 8 out of 10 would forego attending a sports or entertainment event. New Jersey residents are also torn about whether they feel comfortable returning to work outside of the home, a Quinnipiac University poll found

Many small business owners are trying to adapt to the COVID-19 reality, which means interacting with customers differently, using various work-at-home strategies, tweaking business models and ramping up online presence. 

In Bayonne, the Broadway Diner has been hosting weekly barbecues in its parking lot, according to Claudia Kufta, of the Bayonne Chamber of Commerce.

Throughout the pandemic, many restaurants offered delivery and curbside pickup services and some have been providing food to local first responders and healthcare workers at hospitals, she said.

A growing number of businesses on Broadway are now open for curbside pickup service and residents are happily stopping by to pick up orders and support local shops, she said. “We all pull together when the going gets tough. Everyone has adapted the best they can as far as social distancing,” Kufta said.

“Bayonne is a close community with strong ties,” she said.

Some small businesses ‘are out of time.'

Since the onset of the pandemic, small businesses have faced numerous challenges, from mandated closures to obtaining federal relief loans to competing for unemployment benefits.  Local shops have lost business to online retailers and big box chains, like Target and Walmart, which were permitted to remain open since stores sell essential goods, like food and work supplies.

Restaurants have been allowed to offer pick-up and delivery service and essential businesses – such as supermarkets, pharmacies and home improvement stores – can also stay open, with social distancing measures.

Nieves said, “As we’ve seen in the media, it’s been devastating to many businesses, especially those that are heavily reliant on their brick and mortar shops and pedestrian traffic into their shops.”

“Whether the business is small, large, retail or in another sector, almost every sector of our economy has been impacted because of the interconnectedness of business,” she said. “Businesses are trying to hold on to as much of their cash as possible and this often means laying off or furloughing employees or not paying bills,” she said. “If a business was fortunate to secure federal or state relief aid, that aid is only going to last so long. Many businesses that did not have reserve funds for at least six months, I fear, are not going to survive.”

While Nieves said she is only aware of one of the nearly 700 businesses that are members of the Hudson County and Hoboken chambers that permanently closed, she believes the “full extent” of the pandemic’s impact won’t be realized for a few months.

“It will also be highly dependent on how the reopening unfolds,” she said. “It needs to be methodical, thoughtful and ensure the safety of workers and the public. If we end up taking two steps forward, only to take a step back, I fear that’s not going to help businesses that are currently struggling.”

But, many small business owners already “are out of time,” according to Sen. Anthony Bucco.

The senator recently applauded the governor’s efforts to restart New Jersey’s economy, but said he’s heard from business owners who are either “at their breaking point” or “just days or a few short weeks away from closing for good.” 

Earlier this month, Bucco and Rep. Mikie Sherril urged Murphy to begin loosening restrictions on retail businesses, writing: “It seems to be a natural place to begin a phased reopening: to expand the ability to provide non-contact curbside pickup while respecting all social distancing requirements.”

“Moving toward these types of measured changes in a thoughtful way, we can drive customers to small businesses who desperately need the economic support of their communities. Businesses like the local gift shop on Main Street who could have the perfect birthday or anniversary gift waiting for curbside pickup for a resident or the small pool supply store that could easily put the chemicals needed to sanitize and disinfect a backyard pool directly into the trunk of a car,” they wrote.

Murphy Sued Over Closures

Many businesses, such as gyms, movie theaters and hair salons, remain shuttered, with no timeline for when they can expect to open their doors, though Murphy said on Thursday he hopes it’ll happen in coming weeks.

But frustrations across the country are mounting as closures are extended and unemployment rates skyrocket.  In New Jersey, the unemployment rate soared to 15.3% in April and 1.1 million residents have filed jobless claims.

Last week, New Jersey Republicans and a group of business owners sued Murphy to reopen small businesses. The governor, their suit contends, was out of bounds when he “arbitrarily” decided some businesses were not essential and has caused “irreparable harm to innumerable small businesses.”

The GOP said it filed the suit on behalf of the shuttered businesses and unemployed New Jersey residents.

Republican State Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt said in a statement, “While mom and pop barbers, bars, brew pubs and retail shops are shuttered and struggling, big box stores, with big cash cushions, survive. Governor Murphy has callously covered his ears, closed his eyes and ignored New Jersey’s cries for honest answers to real problems.”

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