N.J. small businesses left to fend for themselves by Murphy administration during pandemic, owners say

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Republican lawmakers held a hearing Friday on the impact of the state's pandemic response on New Jersey's small businesses.

At the onset of the pandemic, Vinnie Brand, the owner of Stress Factory comedy clubs in New Jersey and Connecticut, had just opened a restaurant adjacent to his Bridgeport club and employed more than 50 full-time employees to whom he proudly provided health insurance. He was also “essentially” debt free, save for a $25,000 line of credit.

A year later, he told Republican lawmakers probing the effect of the state’s pandemic response on New Jersey’s small businesses Friday, he’s slashed his full-time employee ranks by two-thirds and eliminated health benefits for those who remained. He’s also half a million dollars in debt, he said.

“The damage done to our business is significant,” and that’s to say nothing of the up-and-coming entertainers who have been crushed, he said.

Of the business owners who testified during Republicans’ virtual hearing, Brand had perhaps the nicest things to say about Gov. Phil Murphy’s handling of the pandemic. It has been a most difficult time to govern, he said, and to be sure, Murphy “got some things right.”

But it’s time, he said, to get more right, to let small business owners have a voice in their future and to allow for more individualized reopening plans.

“To be told that you’re nonessential and that you cannot work, and that you’re simultaneously going to become your child’s teacher. You’re going to simultaneously lay off people you’ve worked with for 17 years. You’re simultaneously going to liquidate assets that were meant to take care of you, to provide your life in a retirement environment. To have all of that happen without a significant voice at the table is very, very damaging,” he said.

Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, said he hoped the lawmakers’ hearing would fill a void for New Jersey business owners who feel they aren’t being heard and called for a full investigation into the Murphy administration’s handling of the pandemic.

“I apologize for all the pain this government has caused our business community. I am sorry that (the administration was) not clear and did not supply science and data that was due you for the pain that was inflicted upon you. And I am sorry for the lack of legislative oversight. You were let down,” he said Friday.

Business owners criticized Murphy for failing to supply business owners with clear metrics used to determine operating restrictions and guide reopening. Industry lobbyists argued their members are willing to jump through hoops to reopen and know they can do so safely but their pleas are ignored. Lawmakers criticized what they described as a “one-size-fits-all” approach that ignores regional differences in infection rates and data they say proves many small businesses can reopen safely.

A spokesman for Murphy, spokesman Michael Zhadanovskly, did not respond to the lawmakers’ and business owners’ specific criticisms, but said “The Murphy administration will remain focused on fighting the pandemic, vaccinating as many people as possible and responsibly reopening our state.”

Business lobbyists say as of this month, a third of small businesses in the Garden State have closed their doors. Among hospitality businesses, the closures are closer to 50%, said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

The pandemic upended Darlene Pallay’s life, she told the lawmakers.

After Murphy ordered gyms closed, recurring business expenses ate through her Franklin Borough kickboxing gym’s reserves, she said. Online classes didn’t take off and outdoor classes simply didn’t bring in enough revenue. And 10 days after gyms were allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, she received an eviction notice. Her business shuttered permanently in October and she’s resorted to selling off equipment to pay down some $50,000 in new debt.

A lack of direction and planning from New Jersey government “left me to fend for myself,” she said.

The closing of her business has taken a toll on her mental health, she said, full of despair. She used to describe herself as vibrant, empathetic and a fighter but now uses words like pessimistic, angry and distrustful.

“My life has become living day-by day with not much hope for the future that I used to have,” she said. “I seek justice for what has been done to my family.”

In September, Pallay filed the lawsuit accusing Murphy of violating a provision of the state’s Disaster Control Act for failing to establishing an emergency compensation board for each county to “award reasonable compensation” to anyone whose services have been “taken or used.”

The businesses that remain need clear guidance for opening and operating and want “more consistent logic” behind limitation of capacity, Siekerka said, arguing 25-person and 50-person limits on indoor and outdoor private gatherings, respectively, don’t come close to meeting the needs of the events industry.

“Indoor and outdoor gathering capacity must take usable square footage and event logistics into consideration versus just an arbitrary number,” she said. The Atlantic City Convention Center, with more than 480,000 square feet and a capacity of more than 25,000, should not be limited to just 25 people, she said.

Restauranteurs argued their business maintain rigorous health and safety protocols and have not been the superspreaders once feared, yet they remain more tightly restricted than other industries.

“From a restaurant’s standpoint, we look at the airline industry. And if you take a flight on United, you know that you are going to sit literally 2.34 inches away from another human being, and you’re going to sit in an aluminum tube for six hours as you travel across the country. And it seems odd to think that they somehow made that safe and yet serving chicken fingers in New Brunswick is a death-defying feat,” Brand said.