As new cases, fatalities and hospitalizations of COVID-19 all see slow and steady drops across New Jersey, state officials have begun eyeing how to lift restrictions and kick-start an economy placed in suspended animation.
On the one hand, Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled six milestones that need to be reached before the virtual lockdown could be truly lifted. Four of them deal with health care: Two weeks of consistent declines in new cases and hospitalizations, an expansion of the state’s testing, quicker turnaround for results, and the ability to use contact tracing to track down and isolate potential COVID-19 positives.
A 21-member economic restart and recovery group, milestone five from the governor’s plan, held its first meeting on Monday, Murphy said.
Though, the governor said talks are underway to bring in new members and voices that are “closer to the ground,” the commission lacks representatives from the state’s major business associations or local business groups and chambers of commerce.
In a May 2 letter to Murphy, 80 of those groups floated four potential steps the state could undertake.
They include the timing and phasing of how businesses are reopened, what business can do once they reopen to avoid exposing their employees and patrons to the virus, and how federal dollars could be used to stimulate reopening.
Boots on the ground
The letter is signed by major trade groups representing some of the state’s largest industries; county and town-level business associations; and groups such as New Jersey Business & Industry Association, Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce New Jersey, African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, and the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey.
“This framework is meant to inform a state roadmap for reopening the economy that is detailed, transparent, driven by health data and focused on business recovery,” the 10-page letter reads.
“It is based on flattening the curve and ensuring that businesses, their employees, clients, patrons, vendors and supply chain can feel confident about returning to work.”
The letter comes just weeks ahead of Memorial Day weekend, often considered the start of the summer tourism season, which for the Jersey Shore brings in roughly $45 billion of annual economic activity.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, told NJ Advance Media this week that he would like to see a considerable amount of business restrictions rolled back before that weekend.
Businesses that could reopen sooner should be “essential” – such as health-, safety- and supply chain-related – or they should be able to follow social distancing and require face coverings.
The state should also “provide a good faith safe harbor for employers who reopen and are doing their best to protect their employees and patrons.”
And the state should develop a workforce development program, funded by federal dollars, to train the growing number of jobless residents in certain industries that have become relevant during the pandemic, such as information technology, manufacturing and public health.
The letter calls for federal funds to be used for child care facilities, and urges a return to “full schedule” mass transit options “accommodating as many riders as possible.”
Federal funds should be also used for small business grants, and payroll support for employers.
Murphy has previously suggested that some businesses, such as dine-in restaurants, reopen at just 50 percent capacity, which according to the letter is far below what many employers need “to ensure that their revenue can meet their expenses.”
“In some instances, it may take businesses a year or more to break even and turn a profit.”
The recovery plans should not be statewide, but rather, tailored to specific regions and industries, such as pharmaceuticals, commercial real estate, construction, retail, manufacturing, and restaurants and hospitality.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story inaccurately included the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce as participant in the letter of recommendations sent to Gov. Phil Murphy. That chamber is not involved, but the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey and the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey are among the 80 participants.