It’s time to reopen N.J. — carefully — for sake of its small businesses

The time has come to trust the citizens and start to open New Jersey for business. As a public, we are all aware of the danger of this virus and, if given reasonable guidelines, we will follow them. We have heard a lot about how the cure cannot be worse than the disease. While that makes a great deal of sense in a soundbite, turning that thought process into action is very complicated. We learned this firsthand.

First Priority Group serves the major New York City emergency fleets, large hospital systems in New Jersey as well as EMS, police and fire departments in the tri-state area. We quickly understood we would have to remain open as an essential business. And, as such, we had to figure out how to protect our employees. We purchased thousands of masks and made wearing them mandatory. We bought ultra-red thermometers and checked the temperature of every employee as they enter the buildings daily. We locked all the doors and prevented outsiders from coming in, with all deliveries being accepted outside. We added temporary hand-washing sinks and hired full-time cleaning people to continuously clean commonly used areas. We had our office employees split days coming in. Lastly, we acquired a batch of instant tests. Other companies can do the same.

If some version of these rules are enacted, we could allow many companies in New Jersey to reopen. We have allowed access to food and liquor stores with masks, social distancing and other restrictions. It’s time we do the same for the thousands of small businesses that are suffering throughout the state. And, with appropriate restrictions, it is time for all our golf courses and parks to open while providing a pathway to open the beautiful New Jersey beaches. I am not sure the public is ready to go back to their favorite restaurant or bar tomorrow, but it is imperative a plan exists to get there.

The timing of all this is critical. After an utter failure by one of the large banks, we were approved and funded through the Paycheck Protection Program by Peapack-Gladstone Bank. Because of this program, we were able to keep the vast majority of our people employed even though municipal and city budgets have come to a grinding halt. But what are the owners of shuttered business to do? If they get approved for the PPP, do they start paying employees again, only to lay them off eight weeks later? Do they keep the money as a two-year loan and sit on their hands? Neither is the intent of the CARES Act, and, yet, by not giving businesses any ability to plan, there is nothing they can do. And consider this: The CARES Act provided $1,200 per person to stimulate spending, and those funds are arriving daily. If we want that money to be spent at our local New Jersey businesses, they must be open.

The team that has been put together to map out our reopening contains some of the smartest people in business and academia. The challenge is that their experience is very different from the small businesses in New Jersey who are fighting for their very existence. The ability of small businesses to sustain without incoming capital is vastly different from that of large public companies, governments or academic institutions. As the second round of PPP rolls out this week, these business owners need answers and they need them now. The way the program is structured, the clock starts ticking the day you get the money. Simply put, these businesses do not have the opportunity to wait for the committee to come up with a plan.

It has been 37 days since the governor appropriately shut down the state. We have dealt with unspeakable tragedies in our communities, in the state, in the country and, indeed, around the world. Threading the needle between medical experts, business needs and human nature seems extraordinarily difficult. As they say in the Navy, the only easy day was yesterday. While New Jersey residents generally have been supportive of the government actions, the unseasonably cold weather has been a great help to that cause. Having said that, the combination of lockdown fatigue and the calendar turning to May is sure to change that.  As more and more states begin to reopen, the pressure to reopen businesses in New Jersey will only increase. It seems it would be substantially more productive to get ahead of the curve and get the state open under proper guidance rather than trying to contain it as more and more residents start acting on their own. It’s time to open New Jersey together.

Alex Cherepakhov is the chairman and CEO of First Priority Group.

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