NEWARK, NJ — As New Jersey’s COVID-19 epicenter and a municipality that suffered some of the most disproportionate death rates, Newark set stringent reopening measures for its small business community this past May.
As reopening progresses, businesses must fill out a six-page application regarding their plans for PPE, social distancing, testing of employees, hygiene and other safety measures. About a month into the process, city officials are reporting that everyone who has applied has passed.
Director of Economic and Housing Development Allison Ladd said business owners have been overwhelmingly cooperative and supportive of the city’s safety measures. About 900 have applied so far and more than 700 were pushed through to reopen.
“I think that’s a real testament to our city and our businesses, that everyone wants to reopen safely and in a healthy way,” Ladd said. “Every applicant has been receiving a score above 36 (which is the minimum passing score).”
Ladd’s department receives applications daily and has about a dozen people assigned to review them, she said. They have been processing the high volume against the scoring rubric at a rate of about 100 every two days, sometimes more.
The criteria were developed by the Newark Recovery and Reopening Strikeforce, a team of local businesses, government, education and public health officials spearheading the city’s reopening strategy. About 30 members of Newark Code Enforcement and assistants from the Department of Public Safety have been executing the inspection phase of the process before assigning businesses color-coded signs to display in the window that indicate the establishment's COVID-19 safety risk.
Last week, city council members raised concerns with Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart over the signage, saying they were frightening residents and could be bad for business at a crucial time for the city’s local economy.
While North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos proposed that there be more mind paid to the consequences of these signs for local owners, Stewart pointed to the city’s legal concerns going forward into the new normal, citing threats of litigation his office had been receiving from individuals who had contracted or had a loved one contract COVID-19 in Newark.
“At a time when we’re trying to reopen the city carefully and encourage people to patronize and support our local businesses, I think the last thing we need is to put signs out that scare people and make it seem like we have an incredible infection rate,” Ramos said.
While businesses may initially receive a high-alert designation, city officials are emphasizing that they can reapply to step into a lower-risk status. Many businesses who applied early on have now been able to achieve better results, according to Ladd. The more strict and stringent safety precautions people are putting into place, the more likely the signage they receive will display medium-risk or low-risk status.
Masani Barnewell George, co-owner of the city’s only black-owned bookstore, Source of Knowledge, said that while she’s supportive of the city’s application process considering the traumatic coronavirus peak Newark experienced, the prospect of receiving a high-risk designation is more motivation to adhere to guidelines.
“I thought to myself, I hope I pass, because it would be an embarrassment to have a red sign up there. It is bad for business, to me it’s an incentive to make sure you’re doing everything you need to do to make sure you have your business open with a green sign or a yellow sign,” she said. “There is no way I’m going to be opening up with a red sign.”
Like every business, Source of Knowledge is eager to reopen after a long period of closed doors and thwarted revenue. After facing near-closure, a fundraiser and awareness raised through a segment on National Public Radio has kept one of the last black-owned bookstores in the state afloat.
While stories of anxious barbershop, bar and restaurant owners defying the state’s reopening orders abound, it would come as no surprise that owners in Newark might shake their fists at an added layer of local reopening requirements. But the safety of the community does not appear to be one the city’s entrepreneurs are taking lightly.
“This gives you time to really fix up and put things together properly, I have no problem waiting. Like the mayor said, this is people’s lives, so let’s make sure it’s done right,” Barnewell George said.