Business coalition, in virtual town hall, pushes for more openings of economy

Bridget O’Brien said the child care industry is about to get pummeled. Again.

“COVID is only the first punch,” O’Brien said. “Under the best conditions, we operate with very small margins, we are labor-intensive and we have substantial fixed costs. Some studies estimate as many as 70% of child care centers in the nation could close without intervention.”

Bridget O’Brien. (File photo)

Next up is the push for universal pre-K, which she said could cause a 40% loss of business for child care centers, as many preschoolers will leave their programs for those potentially run by local boards of education.

O’Brien, the director of SuperKids Child Care & Learning Center in Summit, was speaking on a virtual town hall Thursday that brought together the New Jersey Business Coalition to discuss the various COVID-19 challenges impacting small businesses and nonprofits.

It was sponsored and run by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

O’Brien had plenty to say.

She said the $250 million child care funding initiative Gov. Phil Murphy announced in August would be insufficient to address the additional costs child care centers have because of COVID-19.

“We estimate that these grants will only delay closings for about two weeks, because they equal less than (the cost) of the additional staffing mandate for less than a month,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said New Jersey’s 4,100 child care centers employ 87,000 people and contribute $4.1 billion to the state’s economy. She said if 40% go out of business due to COVID-19, the impact will be felt beyond working parents and their employers.

She wasn’t the only one to speak up.

Mark Bernard, general manager of the restaurant Charlie’s of Bay Head, said the order limiting indoor dining to 25% of restaurants’ capacity is crushing that industry.

“Restaurants can’t offer outdoor dining options as the weather gets colder, and many won’t be able to survive if their only source of income is indoor dining at 25% capacity,” he said.

“Winter is coming, and they know they are in for some tough times ahead, and they’re not going to be able to make it. We’ve heard 30% to 40% of restaurants in the state and in the country will probably go out of business within the next year.”

The complaints were numerous. The solutions harder to find.

Alan Sobel, the president of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants, said the state’s “one-size-fits-all” approach hasn’t worked.

Alan Sobel. (File photo)

“As I see it, the state needs to issue basic standards of safety to ensure our public health, but then they must allow business owners the flexibility to develop the ultimate open-for-business solution that works for their unique situation,” Sobel said. “The business owners I know and work with are very responsible and take the safety and well-being of their employees and customers very, very seriously.”

NJBIA CEO Michele Siekerka said the event drew leaders from more than 100 business organizations and nonprofits from all over New Jersey.

They were all looking for answers.

“As we get ready to enter the eighth month of COVID and do not see an end in sight, it becomes even more important to ensure that New Jersey businesses and nonprofits can sustain,” she said. “Many have only been opened with limited capacity since July, and we know that businesses simply cannot sustain on limited capacities.”