Institutions up and down the Route 1 corridor are bracing for the impact of the COVID-19 virus. As of press time, there were 11 identified cases of the respiratory disease in New Jersey, and the state government had declared an emergency. A Bergen County man in his mid-60s was the first New Jersey resident to die of the virus on Tuesday.
Institutions of all kinds took measures to combat the spread of the virus. Princeton University was among the first to enact sweeping measures to limit gatherings. The university moved all in-person classes to online beginning March 23, and encouraged students to stay home after next week’s spring break rather than return to campus.
The College of New Jersey and Rutgers will also hold all classes online beginning March 23. Rutgers is starting its break early and encouraging all students to leave campus by March 12. The university is cancelling all events and meetings with more than 15 people through April 15. Rider University extended its spring break by one week, through March 27.
Princeton University also issued guidelines that in-person meetings and campus events were strongly discouraged, and should be replaced with remote technology or postponed. It outright forbade events that involve more than 100 people or use more than one third of the venue’s capacity. The Ivy League basketball tournament was canceled.
The previous week, the university had instituted travel restrictions for students, faculty, and staff.
Other groups took more conservative measures. The Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce, which hosts numerous events for the business community, issued a “no handshake” policy and told its members to keep personal space. It also provided hand sanitizer stations at its events.
“We don’t want people to not support the business community,” said chamber president Peter Crowley. “We don’t want people to not continue to go to stores and purchase items, or to go out to eat at restaurants. We just want them to take precautions.”
Local event planner Mary Harris said her clients are talking about cutting back attendance at weddings and other events, as people over 60, who are more vulnerable to the virus, avoid gatherings. Elsewhere in the country, major events, such as the SXSW festival in Texas, have been canceled outright.
Harris recommends anyone planning an event make sure to buy cancellation insurance.
She said it is also harder to get certain supplies from China, such as floral displays, due to manufacturing disruptions due to the virus overseas.
New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the state was looking into mitigation steps such as recommending people telecommute if possible.
While telecommuting is impossible for many jobs, which require operating equipment or serving people in person, companies that do a lot of office work are preparing to have large numbers of employees work remotely. Amazon has told its New Jersey employees to work from home if possible.
Gil Gordon, a former telecommuting consultant, pioneered the use of remote working for many Route 1-area companies in the 1980s. He helped companies deploy telecommuting capabilities during previous disruptions such as the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the North Ridge Earthquake in California in 1989.
He said it is now easier than ever to allow employees to telecommute. Whereas telecommuting in the 1980s involved buying expensive computers and installing a second phone line for a modem, widespread broadband installation and a proliferation of personal computers and mobile devices allow most office workers to work from home with a minimum of setup.
Videoconferencing is now possible on most smartphones and laptops, whereas just a few years ago, it required going to a dedicated meeting room with the proper equipment installed. “I was on a web call this afternoon with about 25 people, most at a desktop or laptop, and three from iPhones. This would have been sci-fi 10 or 15 years ago,” Gordon said. “Lots of things have changed for the better.”
But with the technological hurdle cleared, there are still challenges to working at home.
“We know from a lot of history, that people have to be fairly self-starting and disciplined and so on to be able to do this well,” Gordon said. “Some people need the cues of the office to do their work. That doesn’t mean they’re lazy or unstructured, it’s just the way that different people work.”
Another factor is that not everyone has a suitable space for doing a lot of working from home. It’s one thing to spread work out on a dining room table for a few hours after the kids go to bed. It’s another to try doing that for eight hours a day for days on end.
“A lot of the same issues that have always been there are still there,” Gordon said.
Other companies are gearing up to fight the virus directly. Johnson & Johnson, headquartered in New Brunswick, says it has initiated a project to develop a preventative vaccine against the coronavirus through its Janssen Pharaceutical subsidiary’s technology that was used to develop an Ebola vaccine currently in use in Africa.
Cytosorbents, a medical device company on Deer Park Drive, has sent some of its blood-purification machines to China for doctors to use on COVID-19 patients to see if it can be effective in treating the symptoms.