Both the business community and the state’s mayors are worried about the survival of small businesses after a prolonged shutdown to combat coronavirus. At a virtual roundtable discussion yesterday, leaders from both sides expressed interest in banding together to influence public policy more effectively, and perhaps save more businesses.

The discussion, led by NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka, featured officials from the New Jersey State League of Municipalities (NJLOM), local chambers of commerce, the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association and the New Jersey chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB).

Participants were clearly concerned about the survival of small businesses and the downtowns as New Jersey’s slow reopening creeps along. What’s needed is a way to amplify the voices of Main Street.

“I think what we need to do is organize all of us—all the different groups, the chambers, NJBIA, the Restaurant Association,” said League President Jim Perry, a committeeman in Hardwick Township. “The governor’s office isn’t going to listen to just the League.”

Siekerka agreed. “That’s why we feel that we can have a stronger synergy now going forward, because this reopening process is going to go on for a long time,” Siekerka said. “It’s not just about getting the first store open.”

NFIB New Jersey State Director Eileen Kean said her organization is already starting to see store closures “because folks just can’t get back.”

According to Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, the last president of the League, empty storefronts have local officials worried about what will happen to their towns, not just in terms of building occupancy but also coming up with enough revenue to run the local government.

“I think we are very concerned, actually to the point of keeping us up at night, over what our Main Streets are looking like right now,” Mahr said. “You can go to some towns, and it’s closed up.”

NJBIA helped form a similar group of business organizations known as the New Jersey Business Coalition to try to have more influence on policies to protect the economy as the coronavirus fight continues. In June, for instance, NJBIA and the coalition called on the state to open for all businesses that can meet the required safety protocols.

Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach, who is first vice president for the League, said a partnership by businesses and local governments would help if there is a resurgence of coronavirus infections in the fall, as many experts are predicting.

Her community established a reopening committee with representatives from local government, business, residents, and healthcare workers, but a consensus was still hard to come by.

“You are going to get people who are completely against reopening and people who are for reopening,” Kovach said. “So how do you balance the two of them and bring that comfort level?”

The key, according to several speakers, is communication. Kovach said practicing social distancing and wearing masks, as New Jerseyans have been doing, give people comfort that it’s safe to be in town. It’s not enough to communicate to businesses what measures they have to undertake to keep people safe; local leaders need to communicate to residents about the precautions as well.

Still, as Perry noted, no one has confronted a situation quite like this before.

“This is a new experience for all of us, this is a learning experience for all of us,” Perry said. “None of us have been through this before and hopefully we won’t have to go through it again, and hopefully somehow we will get the economy rolling again and get things back on track.

“But we’re writing the book on how to take care of this in the future.”

Participants in the discussion were:

  • Michele Siekerka of NJBIA
  • Michael Cerra, executive director of NJLOM
  • Jim Perry, committeeman, Hardwick Township, NJLOM president
  • Janice Kovach, Clinton Mayor and first vice president of NJLOM
  • Colleen Mahr, Fanwood Mayor and immediate past president of NJLOM
  • Marilou Halveson of NJRHA
  • Eileen Kean, NFIB New Jersey state director
  • Tammie Horsfield of the Sussex County Chamber of Commerce
  • Gene Jannotti of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce
  • Chris Phelan of the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce