BERNARDSVILLE, NJ — The owner of a gift shop in downtown Bernardsville had her live streamed Facebook sales demonstration from inside her store interrupted early on Tuesday evening by a borough police officer.
Katherine Hermes, owner of Country Home in Olcott Square, was displaying her merchandise in her store to a live Facebook audience when she received knock on her door from the officer.
"He comes in and tells me that I can't be open after 8:00 because of the executive order and to wear a mask on my face," Hermes said. "He told me they had received 'a multitude of complaints' about my store. I asked him who they were from, and he told me he couldn't reveal that because they were sealed."
When the officer told Hermes she had to close, she told him the store was not open for business at that time anyway. "I'm not open, I'm closed. I'm selling online, which is the only place I am allowed to sell now," she told the officer. "How am I supposed to sell what's in the store if I'm not able to go online and tell people about it? [...] I am a widow with three children who need to eat."
The policeman responded to Hermes that, although she had her "Closed" sign up, she was still "operating" from within the store after 8 p.m. There was one other woman in the store assisting Hermes with her webcast when the police officer showed up.
Hermes opened her store in Bernardsville last October, five months before all non-essential businesses in New Jersey were shut down by a mandate from Governor Phil Murphy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has since closed her other business in Chester and only recently reopened the doors of her Bernardsville store to customers.
"I closed my store in Chester when the lease was up, but I was going to continue in Bernardsville," Hermes said. "I didn't even enter this space for 60 days, and when I saw other stores doing live webcasts, I thought that was a good idea, so I started doing one of my own three weeks ago."
Hermes said that when she read last week that the Bernardsville Farmers' Market in the train station parking lot was going to reopen, it spurred her to reopen the doors of Country Home.
"The next day, I opened my doors, and I was mobbed, but the customers were wearing masks and were keeping 6 feet apart like they're supposed to," she said. "But the police chief came in and shut me down at 3:00.
"I asked why the farmers' market was allowed to do business, with merchants coming in from out of town, but I wasn't allowed to. I was told it's because that's an 'essential business.' I pay rent and I'm not allowed to sell in front of my own store. I am essential--essential to my family. I do this because I have obligations in life. I am the only person my children have in their lives. You can't just let me languish on the vine. I'm backed into a corner here."
Hermes, the sole proprietor of her store, said she has been putting in 12 to 15 hours a day trying to keep her business afloat.
"I do absolutely everything myself," she said. "I'm wearing every hat in this business. I have worked myself into a coma practically."
While the Governor has slowly begun to allow more types of businesses to open with strict "social distancing" restrictions in effect, many establishments have already gone out of business and others, like Country Home, are struggling to pay rent and stay solvent while waiting for the Governor to allow them to become fully operational again.
"I told my landlord that I cannot exist like this," Hermes said. "After the webcast last night, I was embarrassed and humiliated. I was in tears. I'm toast, I'm exhausted. I can't do this anymore."
Hermes said that the officer who came to her door Tuesday night followed up with a phone call to her on Wednesday.
"He called me today to apologize," she said. "He said I was 100 percent in the right."
Earlier Tuesday afternoon, Det. Sgt. Daniel Buttel observed retail operations taking place inside the store in violation of Executive Order No. 142. Two customers were observed exiting the rear of the Country Home store after buying merchandise inside the shop.
When Hermes first opened last fall, she did so at a time when Bernardsville, which has been planning a downtown revitalization, was beset by empty storefronts. She says the borough may soon have another.
"I'm going to become a virtual business. I have a whole art studio in my basement," she said.