Business along the Route 1 corridor suddenly ground to a halt this week, under lockdown to inhibit the spread of COVID-19. Virtually every meeting was canceled or moved online, and businesses instructed their employees to work from home wherever possible.
All at once, the largest employers in the region sent the majority if not all of their workforces home, beginning with the school districts. The state government also closed its offices to the public and allowed many of its 64,000 employees to work from home wherever possible.
ETS, the nonprofit organization headquartered in Lawrence, postponed the TOEFL and GRE tests that it administrates worldwide and rolled out a platform to allow students in mainland China to take tests from home. The company also adjusted its shifts and had a “significant number” of staff members working remotely, said spokeswoman Allyson Norton.
Pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, with its Lawrenceville office that was designed to allow the 2,100 employees there to mingle freely (U.S. 1, June 21, 2017) instructed employees, including sales representatives and medical field representatives, to work remotely. Company spokesman Christopher Mittendorf said all U.S. employees and contractors were encouraged to work from home, and customer-facing personnel were limiting in-person interactions in healthcare settings.
On Monday, March 16, Governor Phil Murphy issued an executive order shutting down bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters, and entertainment venues, and ordered restaurants to only serve food for take-out or delivery.
Hospitals and elder care facilities implemented strict visitor restrictions and braced for an influx of patients. Penn Medicine, which operates Penn Medicine Princeton Health, banned visitors except one-at-a-time visitors for children in ICU nurseries, hospice patients, women giving birth, or patients who are dying. The healthcare system also began rescheduling patient appointments and procedures to free up resources.
Capital Health, which operates Capital Health Hopewell, imposed a ban on visitors, barring all visitors beginning Tuesday, March 17, until further notice. “Exceptions may be considered in situations involving end-of-life care,” the new policy said. One visitor was allowed for pediatric NICU patients and mothers giving birth.
Despite having sent students home, Princeton University made contributions through research to the fight against the pandemic. A study conducted by Princeton University researchers together with UCLA and the National Institutes of Health indicated that COVID-19 could live in the air for up to three hours and on plastic and other surfaces for up to three days.
Groups that represent businesses said their members are bracing for the worst. The New Jersey Business and Industry Association and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce each surveyed their members. The NJBIA found that 93 percent of its members who responded were either already negatively impacted by the crisis or anticipate negative impacts in the near future.
Businesses told the NJBIA they anticipated the need to cut costs, reduce staff, hours, and benefits for employees. Forty percent of businesses said they will need to reduce staff, only a quarter said they would do nothing.
The New Jersey Chamber found similar results, with nearly all respondents saying they anticipated a negative impact from the outbreak, and a third anticipating workforce downturn.
Business that typically rely on foot traffic, including restaurants and retail stores, sought creative ways to keep their customers. In an email, Palmer Square Management explained that while some shops had closed their doors, they were still open for business.
“Some retailers on Palmer Square have decided to close their storefronts, but they are still here to help you and provide you with anything you may need! Contact them on social media and by phone. Shop their websites and social media feeds. Order gift cards to use on brighter days and overall, please continue to support your local businesses,” the management company wrote.
“A few retailers and restaurants have modified their business hours to help you and your family get through this in any way they can. Please visit individual stores’ web pages or call them directly for their hours and services. Call ahead, order online, ask about curbside pick-up or at-home delivery. Let’s help each other and support one another.”
Other businesses scrambled to find ways to do business while under lockdown. Jerry Fennelly, a commercial real estate agent and owner of NAI Fennelly Commercial Real Estate Services, quickly found a new way to show off properties to prospective clients.
“We’re experiencing a brave new workday. I’m adjusting rapidly to that,” Fennelly said. “That is why I went and started doing drone videos of every building I have.” Fennelly, who lists about 35 properties, was quick to nix in-person meetings with clients once news broke that the virus had reached New Jersey.
“There are no meetings anymore,” Fennelly said on Friday, March 13. “I had one yesterday. The guy coughed in my face. No good! It’s all over the place. People are in denial. So, when people say, let’s meet, we’re not going to meetings. Let’s do a videoconference.”
Fennelly hired Peter Dawson, a licensed drone operator and owner of West Windsor-based Leigh Visual Imaging, to take videos of his properties, starting with a warehouse at 45 Everett Drive. The video shows high-resolution overhead views of the facility as the drone swoops and circles around to capture it from every angle. Fennelly hopes high-quality videos can replace in-person visits, for the moment.
For his part, Dawson said virtual tours were one of the creative ways that small businesses will have to find to stay afloat for however long the virus crisis lasts. “We’re going to have to think out of the box about different ways to do the same things we do now,” he said. He said he foresaw hard times for his business, which is usually busy making signs and graphics for clients. “In theory we should be one of the ones to come back faster if this doesn’t go on forever and we don’t run out of money supporting our staff,” he said.
As challenging as commercial real estate quickly became, residential real estate found itself facing potentially even greater obstacles. Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty, on social media and in emails to clients, explained its decision not to close but to implement protocols for selling homes during the outbreak.
“Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty must remain open. Simply put, we have homeowners who need to sell and purchasers who need to buy. Now more than ever, the right real estate expertise and service are essential, but so too is the right logistical game plan for conducting business,” the message says.
Callaway’s plan involves shifting all in-person training, office meetings, and company meetings to online platforms and having agents work from home. The company is substituting property visits with clients with photography, high-definition video, and detailed floor plans. In-person showings at open houses would only be conducted with one person at a time in the house, and following questions about travel, health symptoms, and potential exposure.
In the week preceding March 17, the company said, agents had brought on 13 new listings and put 16 properties under contract despite the mounting concern over the virus.