ESSEX COUNTY AREA, NJ — In addition to the public schools that continue to release information regarding plans to teach remotely in the event that the state orders them to close, local businesses and places of worship are also being impacted by the threat of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
For some, working remotely is an inconvenient but viable option; and people like Kristi Castano, owner and managing director of Castano Consulting in Caldwell, are "helping businesses pivot to more remote methods with their marketing plans and sales and lead generation."
Some businesses, like The Modern Music Academy (TMMA) in Caldwell, have the option to offer something in between for employees and clients. TMMA owner Jarrett Zellea explained that while his business will remain open, he also is offering remote music lessons.
"We will be running video lessons to give everyone a chance to take music lessons without missing a beat from home," Zellea said. "It's live, so they keep their scheduled time. There is a virtual waiting room, and they take their lessons from home. We have a very good, positive feeling about it because we are overly prepared. We have tablets and upped our Internet for better streaming.
“We do not plan on closing right away, so if people are comfortable coming in here, we will be open. This is still a great time to sign up for music lessons if kids are looking for something to do from home without leaving home. Continuing to have some normalcy and something entertaining—this is something we can give them."
Livingston Car Wash (LCW) in Livingston also plans to remain open. Although owner Paul Ritter expressed concern, he stated that LCW is offering "a hospital-grade disinfectant that is known to kill H1H1, flu, mersa and other common viruses." The disinfectant has not been tested on COVID-19 yet "due to its newness," but Ritter is optimistic and is also currently allowing drivers and other occupants to stay in their cars as they receive their "viral clean."
"As a business that has to be open to operate, we are taking a day-by-day, week-by-week approach," said Ritter. "If any of our employees is known to contract it, we will react appropriately. It’s a very scary time and I hope our community stays safe."
Others are not so lucky, however. As closing up shop is either not an option or is still being considered a last resort for many places of work, some establishments have simply adjusted the way they conduct their day-to-day affairs—even if it is merely by urging extra levels of extreme vigilance.
For accounting firms like Bederson Accountants and Advisers of West Orange and Fairfield, for instance, there is no scaling back on work hours during the height of tax season in mid-March—even with the threat of health risks. However, keeping employees and clients safe remains a top priority at Bederson, according to chief marketing officer Susan Wernick.
"We are monitoring the situation closely and taking precautionary measures to protect our employee and client family,” she said. “As we have the technological capability to work remotely, our policy advises all employees to do so at any sign of a cold or flu. We have also reduced the visitor traffic through our office, working with clients virtually and encouraging them to send their tax preparation documents overnight or have them delivered to our reception area."
Managing partner Mark Mazza stressed the importance of remaining available to clients during challenging circumstances.
“Regardless of the times, personal service is non-negotiable to us,” said Mazza. "Thinking out of the box allows us to maintain the same level of personal service, while working around potential hazards of these uncertain times.
“We have also added a COVID-19 Resource Page on our website to provide the latest information from government and other organizations that address a variety of possible concerns business owners may experience during this time."
As a result of the virus threats, other service providers like Advantage Termite & Pest Control, Inc. in West Orange, will not be operating much differently than usual, but company spokesperson Kristy Gray said more vigilance and some larger customers who have shut down have already impacted the company.
"Our guys wear gloves anyway, and they are also being super cautious with what they touch and are being careful about contact," said Gray. "We are more of a one-on-one business, and luckily our service people are not in large crowds; what they do is pretty singular in nature. We have had places that we normally service that we have heard will be closing down for a while, so that's forced us to rearrange our appointments, but to this point, most things have been status quo for us."
The real estate industry is reacting not only to the health threat, but also to the financial impact that the nose-diving markets have had.
"We're all set up for remote work, but in the re-fi business, people expect us to go to their homes," said Linda Percoco, owner of Max Title Agency in Livingston. "I will offer to take money off the closing fee if they come up here to do the closing at our office—it would be $300 if they come here instead of $375 if I go to them. We are taking every precaution to keep everybody safe.
"People are afraid of losing their interest rates they locked in at. They have to lock in their rates because rates are going up again. The banks started raising interest rates. If you're not locked in now, chances are slim that soon you will get the rate you thought you would."
Ken Baris, president Jordan Baris, Inc. Realtors of Livingston, West Orange and South Orange, said it’s business as usual, although his realtors are “just doing it without shaking hands."
"It's safety first in terms of not getting close to client, having wipes, not shaking hands, wiping things down, doing more with Facetime and zoom meetings,” said Baris. “We're just adapting to it extremely quickly. We had a very energized sales meeting this morning but it was all remote."
Baris added that he has seen the effects that the stock market downturn has had on homeowners, buyers and sellers.
"There are a lot of people literally calling in and saying, 'I am so frustrated in the market, why don't I put my money into my house and sort of live in the investment?’” said Baris. “I also see people talk about upgrading. We anticipate a lot of listings after what's happened to people's portfolios. We have people on our team ready to conduct business and are doing so.
“As the environment adapts, we will adapt. We have been in business since 1952; we have seen hurricanes, stock market crashes, wars, riots—we've seen everything, and we have always adapted to it and been able to provide very valuable service to our clients. That's exactly what we have done here. I get a ticker of everything that is happening, and right now, today, while we're being designated as a national emergency, we have closings, new listings and offers being made."
At Goddard School, a preschool and daycare center serving families throughout West Orange, Livingston, Montclair, Verona, Bloomfield and South Orange, on-site owner Nicole Harrison said the facility would only shut down if directed by the state health department to do so or “if there was a direct correlation with family members being sick."
In response to the threat, however, Harrison said the school has been taking certain measures, such as "screening people who come in for tours to confirm that they haven't recently been to any of the countries most affected by this, extending [its] wellness policy [and] sending kids home who have any excessive coughing.” She added that there is hand sanitizer located at the door, and the facility is no longer using the iPads typically seen at the entrance.
In order to ensure that all students are washing their hands thoroughly, the school has created a game out of marking a child’s hand with a fluorescent highlighter before he or she uses the restroom and expecting the mark to be gone by the time the child returns.
"I have probably 10 parents per day to stop and chat about it," said Harrison. “[We are] just doing all that we can to be vigilant. It's a day-by-day type of thing."
Another West Orange business owner who wished to remain anonymous said his fitness-and instruction-oriented business does not plan on closing either, but is being "extra cautious with cleanliness all the time" and applying common-sense practices "like telling customers not to show up if they're sick."
Similar businesses, like the West Essex YMCA in Livingston, have followed the school district's lead in shutting down for the next two weeks in order to "protect at-risk populations and YMCA members."
"The operational decisions we are making are in alignment with the idea of 'flattening the curve' of the virus spread so that our hospital systems can be responsive to those who are sick in a timely and reasonable manner," the Y wrote in a statement about the decision. "We have a role to play in slowing the virus spread while serving the community in a healthy way...
"The Y is not an entity that is required to close; however, we respect the intent of the governor’s notice with respect to minimizing the spread of illness and social distancing. We are preparing to close and cancel programs and classes, including all youth programs, for two weeks based on the local school district decisions."
This publication will continue to provide timely updates regarding all local information related to the ongoing spread of COVID-19.