NEWARK, NJ — When the pandemic touched down in March, Tonnie Rozier, owner of Tonnie’s Minis boutique bakery on Halsey Street, just about emptied his personal accounts making sure every customer who needed a refund, received one.
“I wasn’t going to tell someone that I can’t give them back their money, especially once hearing, ‘I can’t afford to lose the $200 I gave you for my wedding cake because the venue isn’t giving me back my money,’ Rozier said.
Rozier is one of about 9,000 small business owners in Newark who were forced to curtail business operations as a result of the pandemic, and he is one of an unknown number who will now reopen his doors under the state’s and city’s new recovery guidelines.
Though he has continued filling orders throughout quarantine, he began allowing in customers by appointment this past week.
Newark, which has consistently led the state in coronavirus deaths and infections throughout much of the pandemic, is being particularly watchful over its private sector as Gov. Phil Murphy begins permitting businesses to increase their operations again.
Mayor Ras Baraka said the need for tailored opening protocols in Newark was made apparent when the state’s curbside retail pickup permission resulted in some owners taking liberties.
Businesses will have to fill out a six-page application where they will answer a series of questions regarding their plans for PPE, social distancing, testing of employees, hygiene and other safety measures. The criteria were developed by the Newark Recovery and Reopening Strikeforce, a team of local business, government, education and public health officials spearheading the city’s reopening strategy.
Taxation, health and economic development officials will then review the application for compliance approval within 72 hours before a city representative arranges an inspection within 24 more hours. Businesses who pass are given a color-coded permit to display in their windows indicating the risk level of their establishments.
For owners like Rozier, whose sales have fallen 90%, the added barrier to reopening is one he welcomes. Despite having received only $3,000 in Small Business Association loans in late April, the damage wreaked on Newark is a reality he and his family live with every day.
“There is a need for it. Any precaution that’s taken is probably a precaution that’s needed in accordance with what’s happening,” he said. “If it’s going to help reduce, slow down or eliminate COVID-19, then it probably should be done.”
In the Ironbound, known far and wide for its restaurant scene, business owners and the Ironbound Business Improvement District (IBID) are also showing support for the city’s additional measures.
Seth Grossman, CEO of IBID, said the application process, which is free to businesses, is helpful to his organization in ensuring that information is uniform for local owners. In a district that speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese, interpretation can pose potential issues in universal understanding.
“Most of this is about wearing masks and about washing your hands and maintaining social distancing. But you can’t assume that everybody understands that, or understands that the same way,” Grossman said. “We can then follow up and then meet those protocols correctly.”
Baraka said the city is considering closing certain streets to traffic so that restaurants in areas like the Ironbound can open up more outdoor seating in the warmer months.
Retail shops in Newark, often limited on space, have their own set of challenges, according to Isabelle Livingston, owner of Closet Savvy Consignment on Maiden Lane. She has been selling entirely online from her virtual at-home boutique since March.
While sales have been coming in, Livingston said she has received nothing from the Paycheck Protection Program and only $1,000 from the SBA. She hates to think about closing her storefront, but come June 10, the flood of back rent and other bills she has been unable to pay during quarantine may make that decision for her.
“It was really disheartening, with the PPP especially, just to see that much like everything else in life, size matters. I really would hate to close, because my story really resonates with so many people here in this city,” Livingston said. “I grew up here, my mother was on social services, living in housing projects with very little education, and I was able to get this establishment in downtown Newark that served as a beacon of hope for people who look like me.”
Though she has every reason to resent an added hurdle to reopening, Livingston said she understands the city’s insistence that businesses prove they’re ready to reopen. The virus has targeted black and brown folks with particular fury, and she has lost a number of loved ones in recent months.
“We really, really do have to be smart. My mom died of asthma, I have asthma. Most of the people in our community have an underlying health condition — asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure,” Livingston said. “We are extremely vulnerable, and when you combine that with institutional and environmental factors, we’re kind of doomed.”
In her own store, she already knows that she’ll be parking a hand sanitizer station at the door and asking every person who comes in how they’re feeling. For at least a few months, customers will be by appointment only, and masks will be in style regardless of the season until a vaccine is developed.