A closed highway and a ‘mad dash’ to e-commerce: Here’s how one New Jersey Main St. is preparing to reopen

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Somerville, New Jersey has enjoyed a rising tide in recent years.

Main Street is usually bustling, drawing crowds of thousands through the spring and summer with events like the annual Central Jersey Jazz Festival and weekly cruise nights, when classic cars line the street.

Within the borders of the town’s 2-square miles, about 12,000 people live, enjoying a boom in both commercial and residential development that has attracted younger residents and new businesses to the active commuter town. There’s a communal atmosphere to the Somerset County town, Mayor Dennis Sullivan said, that stands in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when empty storefronts dotted the town’s main thoroughfare.

“Five years ago, it was a ghost town,” Sullivan said, attributing the turnaround to public and private investment. “A lot of those upper-story apartments are full now, where they were cobwebs just a few years ago.”

Iris Frank, co-owner of Village Brewing, cited the “comeback” of the town as “the reason why we picked Somerville” a little over a year ago when she and her brother opened the brewery. Now, the coronavirus pandemic and New Jersey’s stringent response to it threatens to disrupt the town’s upswing and the businesses tethered to it.

New Jersey has endured one of the most restrictive responses to the virus in the country. Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday he would lift the stay-at-home order that was put in place on March 21. But many businesses will remain closed at least until the state enters its next phase of reopening on Monday.

Businesses deemed nonessential have already faced more than 12 weeks of closure and expect more weeks ahead of low revenue as stores just partially reopen to comply with social distancing requirements. As New Jersey finally paves a path forward, business owners and local officials are gleaning lessons from other states that have already reopened on how to do so safely while balancing the economic needs of the community.

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