The melodious song of a roll gate going up. It’s sweet music to the ear of small business in this age of coronavirus. Restaurants and small retail are still awaiting the green light for indoor sales, but anticipation is high on commercial strips like Jersey City’s Newark Avenue, downtown. The city depends on the strip not only for sales tax revenue, but as a symbol of its vitality and proof that there will be a social life after coronavirus.
“Things are going to be tougher. I see a lot of places closing down,” said Steve Kalcanides, president of the Downtown Special Improvement District.
Kalcanides is a realist, but knows that if anyone is going to survive the economic downturn, help better get here soon.
“My guess-timation is probably July 1. I don’t see anything in June,” he said. “They’re looking to see about expanding outdoor seating to allow for more space, more tables.”
The city is streamlining the process for outdoor seating and offering other assistance, like providing testing for all employees and personal protective equipment and other stuff to help businesses who may be short on supplies. Public Safety Director Jim Shea was making the rounds to medical offices this week.
“Coronavirus didn’t exist a couple of months ago so we’re all kind of learning as we go along. I mentioned before, one of the lessons we learned was that we need to get these supplies in the hands of the people that are interacting with each other, that are working. Not have them just in case. We need to get them out in the street,” Shea said.
And visible on shop owners and staff as well as patrons. But there are concerns as businesses start to slowly come back online. Anecdotal evidence suggests that social distancing in bars and restaurants, outdoors or in, is going to be hard to maintain. And that opens some businesses up to liability questions, suggests Seton Hall Law Professor Charles Sullivan.
“People are clearly going to be litigating this for years,” he said. “You could imagine litigation in which the question was wether the restaurant enforced the rules. I mean, did it really make sure that its servers were wearing masks? Did they really make sure that they were wearing gloves or using Purell? Was it really sanitizing the restrooms? But with the huge pressure to get back to some kind of normality, I think the courts are likely to give governments who appear to be acting reasonably a break.”
Liability issues are actually part of the discussion going on in Congress as lawmakers debate a next stimulus bill. The landscape is set for legal precedents, says Sullivan, and that, as much as the science and data, can have an impact on when and how your local coffee shop, or bar or dentist opens its doors.