By Daniel Farber Huang
June 25, 2020
This article is part of a 5-part series on Princeton, New Jersey's COVID-19 response and recovery from different perspectives, including the arts scene, businesses, charities, government and Princeton University. This article originally appeared on centraljersey.com.
A member of Princeton’s Hook and Ladder Company #60 assists in filling the public pool
at Community Park in preparation for the summer, June 12, 2020.
(Photo by Daniel Farber Huang)
PRINCETON, N.J. — “During this crisis we are not going to get everything right. We are trying our absolute best and we are making the best decisions with the information we have at the time,” Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said in a telephone interview in early June.
As “coronavirus,” “social distancing” and “quarantine” were rapidly becoming household words in March, COVID-19 forced the local Princeton government to reprioritize how it could serve the new, unprecedented needs of the community.
Lempert said the municipal government, Princeton Public Library and local agencies responded quickly to keep the public informed on COVID-19 issues as infections were spreading and lockdowns were rapidly being imposed across the state. They collaborated to launch princetoncovid.org in March, which is a website of verified information and daily updates to keep the community informed.
The site provides information on local COVID-19 cases, what businesses and services are open and different ways people can help with donations and volunteering. In addition to English and Spanish, princetoncovid.org provides translation into 102 additional languages ranging from Albanian to Zulu.
Lempert said the Human Services Department works with community members who need help with housing, food, and unemployment. Human Services has also collaborated with the town’s Health Department to address COVID-19 challenges.
Lempert said, “If someone needs to self-isolate or self-quarantine and isn’t able to do that in their apartment, we provide housing for people and wrap-around services so they are able to self-quarantine or isolate.”
Dealing with COVID-19 during the hot summer months is expected to present additional challenges for the municipality. For example, Lempert said the region is predicted to have a particularly bad hurricane season this summer, which often results in power outages.
She said, “Oftentimes we set up cooling stations for people to come who’ve lost power and lost air conditioning. We’re concerned especially this year because we’re not going to be able to have cooling the same way as we have in the past because we have to worry about overcrowding.”
Lempert said she expects this summer the town will have to open a larger number of cooling stations with fewer people at each location.
Similarly, Lempert said the town’s public pool at Community Park on Witherspoon Street is often used by residents who don’t have adequate air conditioning. When Princeton reopens its public pool this summer, the town will have to restrict the access so fewer people can be there at a time.
New Jersey has slowly been reopening since Gov. Phil Murphy issued a “stay at home” order on March 21, effectively shutting down the entire state except for “essential” activities.
On June 1, Murphy announced New Jersey will enter “Stage 2” of his administration’s Restart and Recovery plan. Effective June 15, nearly three months since the “stay at home” order was issued, Stage 2 recovery will permit outdoor dining and indoor, non-essential retail to resume, provided appropriate protections are in place.
On June 22, Stage 2 will further allow public pools, gyms and health clubs to reopen at reduced capacities.
Stage 3 would allow higher-contact activities to restart with significant safeguarding, including most work activities, limited entertainment, schools and greater public transit. A target date for Stage 3 openings has not yet been disclosed by the governor’s office.
“Our economic restart must instill confidence among our residents and visitors that their safety, and that of their families, is our number one priority,” Murphy said in his press announcement.
On an on-going basis the municipality works with members of the private sector to consider the needs of local businesses.
Andrew Siegel, a fourth-generation family member of Princeton’s Hamilton Jewelers, participates on a number of township committees to promote general economic development as well as a recently-formed group to help downtown businesses recover from COVID-19.
Siegel said in a telephone interview that the municipality’s central business planning group is working to help businesses get back up and running as flexibly as possible as soon as Stage 2 opens up on June 15.
“That includes how do we use the streetscapes? How do we get protective equipment into the hands of those businesses making sure that they have the resources that they need? How do we communicate local ordinances to customers who are visiting town, things like that,” Siegel said.
Downtown Nassau Street in Princeton is nearly empty on Tuesday
afternoon, June 9, 2020. (Photo by Daniel Farber Huang)
Siegel said uncertainly about Princeton University’s intended plans for the fall makes planning challenging for everyone.
Princeton University announced it will wait until July to disclose its plans for the fall 2020 term, including whether classes will be taught on campus, online or some combination of both, making it difficult for many companies that depend on the school’s activity to plan for the future.
Siegel said, “We all know that the vibrancy of the town and the way it feels depends a lot on whether the students are here or not. So we're preparing now for whether or not if the school ends up going virtual.”
Mayor Lempert said she knows there’s a long road ahead before daily life in Princeton finds a new normal.
“It’s not to say we don’t have problems here. There are definitely a lot of challenges and somedays it’s hard to see when the end of this is going to come and how are we going to keep up the pace we’ve been operating at, but we do have an incredible team so that gives me energy and hope for sure,” Lempert said.