Admin, lawmakers, business groups eye how to undo COVID19 commerce slump

Daniel J. Munoz//April 6, 2020//

Admin, lawmakers, business groups eye how to undo COVID19 commerce slump

Daniel J. Munoz//April 6, 2020//

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The Murphy administration, business groups and state lawmakers are beginning to eye how New Jersey’s economy can begin its recovery once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control and restrictions are loosened, as the outbreak continues to grind statewide commerce to a halt.

“We’re going to have… a skunkworks team beginning now to look at exactly what it looks like and what’s going to be required in advance to begin to turn the lights on again whenever may come,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a March 31 press conference.

To halt the spread of the virus, Murphy over the past month enacted a ban on any public gatherings, a prohibition on most travel, and the closure of any “non-essential retail”—such as dine-in restaurants, bars and theaters, malls and casinos, barbershops and salons, entertainment and recreation.

Gov. Phil Murphy holds his daily briefing on COVID-19 in Newark on March 24, 2020.
Gov. Phil Murphy holds his daily briefing on COVID-19 in Newark on March 24, 2020. – EDWIN J. TORRES/GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

Summer seasonal businesses, such as Jersey Shore tourism, are likely to take a massive hit to their revenue, while ridership at NJ Transit’s buses and trains have plummeted.

All of this has been in an effort to starve the virus of person-to-person contact that could provide potential new hosts, but the result has also been state and nationwide record unemployment numbers. 

“So, we’ve got a team that is focused 1000 percent as you can imagine. You know, the house is on fire right now; our job is to put the fire out,” Murphy added last week. “But when we begin, how we begin, when we begin [sic], what does it look like in a fair amount of detail to begin to get back on our feet. That’s a group over there that we’re sort of putting over there and asking them to begin work on that.”

RWJ Barnabas Health Executive Vice President Amy Mansue would likely lead the task force, Murphy said last week.

“I love Amy, by the way. Let’s make sure Amy’s on our list.”

Murphy said on March 31 that he was waiting on the release of a report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, on what the recovery could look like, and when in the timeline of the pandemic the state could loosen restrictions, before the task force could really begin its work.

The CAP study, released on April 3, called for nationwide and statewide stay-at-home policies which run April 5 to May 20, a prohibition on non-essential travel and restrictions on mass transit.

Any relaxation of the closures needs to include “[b]enchmarks for when restrictions can be eased, with some restrictions on large gatherings and mass transit remaining until herd immunity is achieved,” the study adds.

From left, Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblyman Tony Bucco, R-25th District, leave the Governor’s office on Thursday afternoon following failed budget talks.

State Sen. Tony Bucco, R-25th District, said he would want the governor to designate a business advocate and point person for the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

That position should be blessed with “quick decision-making authority,” and could be someone like Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, so that Murphy would be able to “concentrate solely on the health, safety, and welfare of our residents,” Bucco said.

“It’s an interesting idea and the state should do what it can to help businesses weather the health emergency,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, said in a statement.

A similar “Economic Recovery Coordinator” position in the governor’s office was floated in a report last week by the state’s chambers of commerce, and business and trade groups on how to coordinate that recovery.

“We’re going to need a coordinated and streamlined effort to get New Jersey back in recovery mode on the other side of this crisis,” Bob Considine, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, told NJBIZ.

Turning the tide

The first form of COVID-19 state relief was a $5 million grant program run out of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which was depleted just over an hour after the agency began accepting applications on April 3.

Funds were exhausted by 10:16 a.m. with 10,000 applications from businesses who say they have been slammed by the pandemic. That number ballooned to 26,000 by mid-Sunday.

Tim Sullivan, far right, attends Gov. Phil Murphy's signing of an executive order more than doubling New Jersey’s offshore wind goal on Nov, 19, 2019 at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)

The agency expects to approve up to 2,000 applications. Businesses will know by next week whether they were approved, and payments will be issued shortly afterward.

EDA Chief Executive Officer Tim Sullivan maintained that many of the applicants still might not even be eligible for the program, which could whittle down the number of people jockeying for aid.

Another EDA program, the Small Business Emergency Loan Program, is a $10 million pool of money that provides loans of up to $100,000 a year for companies with revenue up to $5 million a year. Applications will be available on April 13, but sample forms will be posted Monday, which Sullivan said will give businesses time to properly prepare submissions.

Likewise, the federal pool of aid operated by the U.S. Small Business Administration has been hit with its own myriad of problems ever since the loan applications went live last Friday.