Editor’s Note

If you drive through downtown Princeton lately, people are out and about. There may not be as many as there used to be, but it’s not the abandoned wasteland it was in the spring. Diners are enjoying food in make-shift areas outside their favorite restaurants and shoppers are picking up their needs inside open retailers. But are they eating and shopping enough to make up for the turbulent road these businesses have been on since March?

To help our community understand what it is like to own a local business these days, we reached out to several area business organizations and owners. We know sudden closures and physical restrictions on brick-and mortar businesses threw many for a loop, so we wanted to know how they’ve adapted to the times. Some had to lay off or furlough workers, which made the pandemic even tougher. In our September issue of Princeton Perspectives The Working World: Princeton’s Business Climate Today we delve deep into all of these workforce issues.

To be a surviving business, you need customers and clients. What are you doing to support local businesses? Take a look at this month’s Pulse of Princeton for the perspectives of some of our locals.

To really get an understanding of how local owners are faring today, we connected with a variety of establishments. Some are downtown, other’s around town. Some operate as a storefront, others on location. Read COVID Effects: Princeton’s Current Business Climate to get a sense of how this pandemic has affected our local merchants.

Employment – having a job and money to spend – is an essential part of the local financial structure. Princeton’s Employment Status During COVID – How to Find a Job Today shares some good news about employment levels in our area. If you are out of a job or looking for a change, read on to get job hunting tips and find out about the resources available to you – many for free!

It is interesting to learn that certain industries have fared the pandemic better than others. For some, it was due to government restrictions and allowances. For others, it was about the needs of consumers. In Local Businesses Find Stability Through Bouts of Success we share which industries have had the most success in New Jersey, Mercer County and Princeton.

Creativity, forward-thinking and adapting to the times also played a key role in some business’ stability. Personally, I hope online ordering and curbside pick-up stick around for a long, long time! It is fascinating to see what else our local merchants did to maintain customers and ensure their product could reach the local community. Close-up: Adaptations Help Café Turn Adversity into Blessing shares how one local owner worked to ensure a future for his business.

The warm weather months have been a haven for many, allowing people to follow their outdoor passions and businesses to utilize outdoor space. As we enter fall and then winter, there are a lot of unknowns. So, get out today and support our local community.

Then come back to us in October to be well-prepared for the upcoming election. More than 12,000 voters have already used NJ’s new online voter registration tool which launched earlier this month. If you’re not already set up, make sure you’ve registered to vote by October 13th. Mail-in ballots are being sent out October 5th. Princeton Perspectives will provide you with everything you need to know to vote in 2020! If you’re not already on our mailing list, sign up here to get every issue in your inbox!

The Pulse of Princeton: What are people doing to support local businesses?

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COVID Effects: Princeton’s Current Business Climate

Filled with a large variety of local businesses and a vibrant downtown district, Princeton, NJ’s business climate has been greatly affected by the past six months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since Executive Order 107 was signed by Governor Phil Murphy on March 21, 2020, business as we know it has been altered. Non-essential retail businesses were then closed to the public, essential businesses could stay open at only 50% capacity and work-from-home arrangements were suggested wherever practical. Restaurants opened for outdoor seating on June 15th and non-essential retailers could open at 50% capacity that same day. Most recently, on Friday, September 4th, restaurants and gyms were permitted to open indoors at 25% capacity, as well as arcades, movie theaters and performing arts venues.

According to the latest U.S. Census, there are over 1,500 Princeton-owned businesses. With the exception of a few key industries, most locally-owned brick and mortar merchants have found the pandemic to be a struggle. Kitchen Kapers, a staple in Princeton’s Palmer Square for years, closed its doors in late July. On Nassau Street, Panera is no longer and Princeton Pi closed, stating “current conditions make it impossible for us to operate.” At the Princeton Shopping Center, after 19 years, One-of-a-Kind Consignment Gallery shut its doors September 4th. Marlowe’s Jewelry could no longer maintain the storefront it’s had there since 1989 and left in June.

“In this climate, I couldn’t hold out on a store of that size and continue,” explains owner Marlene Marlowe, who decided to close her store just when the Governor permitted retail spaces to re-open. “I said, I can’t go back knowing I lost 3 months and then and I’m going lose the next few months. I don’t have a spring or fall season. My business is based on repairs and special work, so people did it all year round.”

Courtesy: Marlowe’s Jewelry

Marlowe’s Jewelry is continuing to operate out of her home via her same store phone number and through her website by selling her inventory, making custom jewelry and dropping off batteries to long-time customers around Princeton. She hopes to open up a smaller shop somewhere in town when conditions improve.

“Our local businesses are the heart and character of the community,” insists Christina DiDonato, owner of Bella Boutique in the Princeton Shopping Center. “It’s imperative to our survival during this traumatic time that we keep our money in our town and support each other in every way we possibly can – even when it might be slightly less convenient.”

At the time store closures were mandated in New Jersey, Bella Boutique had just received its spring shipment – it’s second largest of the year. There were also imminent plans to expand into the neighboring storefront, which is still expected but has now been pushed back. Thanks to help of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and through creative efforts to sell merchandise using social media and by dropping off curated boxes of goods to existing customers and their friends, the store stayed relevant and got through the hardest hitting months at about 20% its normal income. It is now slowly building back up.

Courtesy: Bella Boutique

“We’re being very cautious. I’m constantly cleaning and sanitizing, maintaining capacity,” states DiDonato. “I now sell a ton of masks. People are coming out slowly, but people have nowhere to go so even though many clients still have money, they’re not having the same excitement to buy nice clothes. I had to cut out heels and silks and now carry more joggers, loungewear, masks, sanitizer candles and self-care items for home.”

To help move forward, Bella Boutique was one of 70 recent recipients of the Small Business Resiliency Fund grants awarded in August.

“The Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation was presented with an opportunity in late March or April,” explains John Goedeke, Foundation President, “to offer grants with a set of criteria, defined by Princeton University and the township, and targeted just to Princeton merchants.”

The $5,000 grants for COVID relief and restart were initiated by Princeton University, committing an initial $250,00 with a promise of up to $100,00 in matching funds if same was raised by the community. The community met that challenge. The university, led by Kristin Appelget and town, led by Mayor Liz Lempert and Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, then joined forces with the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Union County Economic Development Corporation to help them to create criteria for earning the grants, manage the process and disseminate the money.

“We’re aware most rents start at $9000, but [the $5,000 grant is] just a little bit of help for some adjustments that needed to be done such as getting hand sanitizer, cleaning products and things like plexiglass for protection between the person taking care of you and the consumer,” comments Esther Tanez, founder and CEO of ESTIR Insurance and a board member and Chair of Membership with the Princeton Merchants Association (PMA). “What we’re trying to do as a PMA is give everyone resources, keep everyone connected and informed.”

To help them through, PMA has been offering weekly Zoom meetings to bring the business owners together. People have been eager to figure out what relationships or expertise they might have to help each other.

Bon Appetit, the longtime eatery and market at Princeton Shopping Center, is having difficulties in the current climate and hopes its relationships might help ensure a future. The owner, William Lettier, is currently working with his landlord to try and adapt the existing business model to find success in a COVID world.

“It’s a tough time for everyone. The food business is no exception and we are struggling,” shares Lettier. “The lunch crowd has disappeared and the everyday shopper has a smaller footprint and they are mostly focused on going to online shopping or just going to traditional grocery stores.”

Courtesy: Landau

Lack of everyday shoppers is also affecting Landau, the 106-year old retailer on Nassau Street, which had temporarily closed March 8th and is trying to figure out how to approach a future for its business.

“It was getting to the point it didn’t make sense to stay open,” says Robert Landau, who partners in the business with his brother. “We started sensing something weird was going on at the end of February, but it was getting worse and worse and the signs in the news weren’t good. Most of our employees are not teenagers and we were sensitive to the fact eldery people were the most susceptible, so why be open? We didn’t want to endanger people’s safety.”

Landau is lucky to have a patient landlord who has worked with them through this time. The store remained closed until the first weekend in August, when it opened with limited hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Most of its clientele are 50 -70-year olds with disposable income – people largely not going out these days. They also feed a lot on traffic from Princeton University, which is now mostly non-existent.

“Now the university is pretty much shuttered and I don’t see anything positive to say about what’s going to happen in Princeton until the university opens and the pandemic eases,” laments Landau. They are working on reaching out to existing customers but his product really relies on people coming into the store.

“Our product isn’t a generic something. It’s, in most cases, something you’ve never heard of or seen before or if you have it’s limited exposure and that made us successful but required you come in and touch it, feel it, try it on.”

Further north on Nassau Street, eatery Qdoba is also feeling the sting of missing university students.

“Definitely not having students around impacted us more.  A lot of them were still here in the spring. But once summer hit, now that they’re gone, we’re realizing sales are going down,” shared Qdoba manager Dida Hous. “Compared to last year, sales were down about 30-40%. Since about late July they’re starting to pick up. Now we’re waiting to see how students not being here will affect our business.”

Palmer Square Management, which manages the retail, residential and office operations for the entire downtown Palmer Square complex, including Nassau Inn, is feeling the squeeze as well.

“Retail leasing is suffering at this time, particularly with so many national tenants filing bankruptcy plans and restaurants (having been) unable to open for indoor dining,” notes Lori Rabon, Vice President of Palmer Square Management and the Nassau Inn. “All tenants are feeling the pressure of the closures and uncertainty of the economy.”

Within their operations, in addition to the loss of two retail tenants, some staff at the Nassau Inn had to be furloughed. However, Madewell is preparing to open soon on Nassau Street, one sign there is positive movement out there, too.

A few blocks up Nassau St., Proof is planning to open in the site that once housed Princeton Pi. Though they believe business could be better, some other retailers in Princeton are feeling the positive vibes, too. Rita’s, a franchise, opened its doors on May 14th at a time many stores remained closed. It’s walk-up window set-up at the Princeton Shopping Center allowed for a safe opening. Owner Jeff Antell couldn’t hold a grand opening celebration, but his debut seems to have worked out.

“We basically turned the lights on and opened and said let’s just see what happens. We had no idea what to expect in terms of what was going to happen. It ended up being great. It was definitely not how I pictured opening.”

Rita’s Princeton didn’t get the spring business it had projected from the Princeton Little League families that were to gather at the nearby baseball fields, the usual shopping center summer concert series that was canceled or from large orders for picnics, family gatherings and other catering because people can’t gather. But the opportunity for people who were stuck home in late spring/early summer to have someplace to go created excitement and customers.

Beyond retailers, the other brick and mortar business hit extremely hard this year is the restaurant industry.

“There’s a number of companies that are dipping into their savings, companies that live on that regular cash flow,” adds Peter Crowley, Executive Director of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Even with the opening of restaurants for 25% (indoors), that’s probably not profitable for restaurants to bring in staff, cooks, food. They’ll have less service but the fixed costs are high.”

Courtesy: La Mezzaluna

La Mezzaluna, an Italian restaurant on downtown’s Witherspoon Street, knew hard times were coming after owner Michele Moriello returned in January from a trip to Italy. Having seen what Europe was starting to experience, he began saving money. The restaurant eeked through the hardest months by providing food to those in need and on the front lines. Local organizations Share My Meals and Feed the Frontlines paid a small stipend for each meal. Additional meals were donated through the buy-one-give-one program created by Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project. In all, Moriello says they cooked 15,000-16,000 meals for these organizations. Then, outdoor dining opened and he was able to open with seating available out front and along the side of the restaurant.

“It was exciting in the beginning, though I was very nervous. I thought people would be nervous, but we got a great response,” exclaims Moriello. “We did amazing business, record-breaking numbers since we opened the outside on Father’s Day weekend. It was so busy, and it never stopped. We make 100s of meals a week.”

One of the reasons La Mezzaluna is benefitting in a way other restaurants aren’t is that it has 24 tables outside with an opportunity to seat 75 customers. Inside, which currently remains closed, there are 22 tables with a 70-guest occupancy. The restaurant is doing 3 times the business of a usual summer and has no plans yet to open for indoor seating.

“When we were cooking meals and the restaurant was closed, I was putting money on my credit cards and believed. I try to always look forward. That’s the type of person I am,” Moriello shares. He has started to look into heaters for his outside dining area. “Now I’m working on the winter, how to make it work, how to make sure I survive but most importantly all my co-workers survive. I could never do anything without them.”

Part of La Mezzaluna’s success was thanks to the help of Josh Zinder and his local firm, Joshua Zinder Architecture & Design who put together the master plan for the town to rework outside dining space in town.

“We put together 3-4 plans, then worked with the town, planned and refined it with them. Then we refined it with the town engineer and the outcome of that was what you see out there today. It’ll be interesting to see whether people want to maintain outdoor dining environments after COVID is gone,” says Zinder.

Business has been moving along is his industry. Light office spaces are attempting to open in some of the vacant retail spaces in town, companies are consolidating from rental spaces into singular buildings and residents are looking to create home office and learning spaces.

Zinder adds, “We have a lot of people asking us to do significant projects on properties they’ve just purchased, commercial is bigger but also residential.” Noting, there has been enough work to keep all of his employees more than busy.

Some of the work is coming out of the now burgeoning realty market which struggled from March thru August. Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty was concerned back in April, getting by with the help of the PPP loan. As of mid-August, Princeton home sales were still down 7% overall in contracts this year from last year.

“January and February were the busiest first quarter in a long time. It was interesting to have such a busy time then March came, we were cranking along, then the back half fell off. April was down 73% versus a year ago (pending contract sales for that month),” notes managing member Judson Henderson.

Late April, people started to come to our area from places including New York City, Philadelphia, Hoboken and Jersey City looking for housing. By June, pending contracts were up 3%, with an 84% increase in July and a 27% increase in August compared to one year ago.

“That first wave was very much people abandoning leases and not just high end – more people were leaving $3,200/month Brooklyn rentals and buying their first house for $600,000 in Lawrence or Hopewell,” Henderson adds. The Princeton market, with an average home sale price of $1.025m, saw the rise come in August. “There wasn’t as much exposure for us in the high end.”

To date there have now been 12 deals over $2m, versus 16 this time a year ago. 8 of those 12 have been since July 24th. As of September 10th, Princeton has 102 houses on the market. Bidding wars on houses, mostly those that are turnkey and allow one to move right in, have become common as of late, though buyers may become more selective if the inventory keeps increasing. Features including a swimming pool and a home office have also been sought out. The volatility of the market leaves one not knowing what to expect for the rest of the year, but there is hope in the next big season.

“It stands to reason we’ll have a busy spring. In Princeton the number of rentals was up by 8% through August, and I think a lot of those people will be buyers in the spring,” says Henderson.

A busy spring would be great for all businesses around Princeton. But first, they must get through the winter months. Peter Crowley reminds us that “every dollar you spend in the community is $.88 back to the community.”  So, merchants want to make sure you know – if we want to keep having local, keep supporting local.

Local Businesses Find Stability Through Bouts of Success

It has been a difficult time to own and run a business – for many! While some saw business stop or drop off with the arrival of COVID-19 and are struggling to stay open, others found a surge in business is helping to even out the bad times.

According to the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce (PMRCC), industries including commercial HVAC, cleaning services, construction and digital marketing companies have seen great strides through this time. Liquor stores, bike stores, local farms, furniture stores and technology companies have also seen spikes and our local owners are hopeful it will pull them through the winter months.

“Companies thriving in that secondary sense are really just surviving and moving forward as opposed to blowing it out the doors,” states PMRCC Executive Director Peter Crowley.

A June survey by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) showed only 2.45% of NJ businesses (NJBIA members and members from other partnering business associations who are participating in the New Jersey Business Coalition) are operating and performing better than normal with 1.8% experiencing a surge in revenue. Though our local WalMart has closed, other locations and “Big Box” companies seem to have fared the best overall, thanks to the classification as essential services.

“They’ve really crowded out our mom and pops,” explains NJBIA CEO Michele Siekerka. “WalMart was able to stay open and provide all of their services, not just essential food, but the downtown clothing store was forced to close. Now there’s the convenience of ‘I can go to WalMart and buy food and at the same time buy clothes for my children,’ whereas otherwise you might have gone to the downtown store to get clothing for your child.”

Siekerka states that Best Buy and other stores where you would buy computers or office furniture have seen strong sales. Locally, technology companies found success on the tails of these stores, because when the pandemic hit, big chains weren’t initially sending techs into people’s homes.

“We found workarounds for that with Zoom meetings and having clients show us their homes on their phones and we could walk them through how to set up their router that way,” explained Alison Rush, who owns Technician X, with her husband Chris. The company specializes in computer repair and upgrades, basic IT support and networking servers with a small storefront in Skillman.

Technician X saw a 50% increase in sales and service in the first weeks of the pandemic. Once the initial set-up panic leveled out, a 25% increase has helped them through the past several months. The normal back-to-school increase isn’t happening this year, but business is still on the busier side.

“It was in such huge demand making the switchover so businesses, parents and students could all make the switch from work and school to being home in a safe fashion,” shares Rush. The furniture industry has also seen a change during the pandemic.

“If you look at stores like Raymour and Flannigan – these bigger furniture stores – they are doing better because people are at home, trying to fix up houses. If people have to work and spend this much time at home, they need to have a nice office,” shared Christine Curnin, PMRCC’s Head of Membership Development. One industry insider told Princeton Perspectives that business at Raymour and Flannigan may be up as much as 35%. Local furniture stores, like Homestead Princeton, have seen some spike in specific furniture sales but it’s not all rosy.

“We did get the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program loan) and have been able to hire the large majority of our employees back, but it’s affected all small businesses,” states Kristin Menapace, owner of Homestead Princeton with her husband, Ron. That being said, there has been some uptick in local furniture purchases. “Because of the pandemic and everything going on with people at home, working from home, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the need for desks but also redoing spaces because they’re spending more time at home.”

Overall, Homestead Princeton feels a significant impact from the forced closure of their brick and mortar store from mid-March until June 15th, though it did maintain an online and call-in/curbside presence. A staple in Palmer Square since 2012, it recently relocated to the old Princeton packet building on Witherspoon Street.

With people seeking outdoor activities more than ever, local bike shop Kopp’s Cycle didn’t have a big box competitor to contend with and the start of the pandemic was very rewarding.

“Business did get busy when things started in March and April and the guys at the shop were working day and night to make people happy,” explains owner Charles Kuhn.

America’s oldest bike shop, which first opened in 1891, tells Princeton Perspectives it saw a 10% increase last spring, but also had to cover increased payroll and overhead. And while cycling became and has remained extremely popular, the supplies have not. Tires and tubes are on backorder and there’s little product to market.

“We’re doing the best we can, but because of shortages, we’re not able to take advantage of the business that’s out there and available,” Kuhn adds. “I’m realizing the business we have done already this summer is what’s going to carry us through the winter.”

Kopp’s Cycle is missing the arrival of 10,000+ Princeton University students and a back-to-school cycling craze that usually makes September its best month of the year.

The liquor store industry also saw a big early spike in sales. Joe Canal’s in Lawrenceville experienced a huge surge when the isolation measures went into effect.

“We were doing probably 400-500 online orders a day compared to pre-COVID which was about 20 a day. There was quite a change,” says Isaiah Pettis, a store manager. “Things started to level out by mid-May. We’re still doing well but it is definitely not the rush we were seeing in spring.”

One smaller local Princeton liquor store shared they saw an increase in sales of items like cocktails, bitters and other supplies needed to be a home bartender when people realized they couldn’t get out during the pandemic.

Solid through the past six months has been the hardware store industry, which was deemed an essential operation and was able to stay open and continue serving their communities. Recent research conducted by the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA) shows 87% of the independently owned hardware stores, home centers and lumberyards are reporting that same-store sales have increased over 2019 and the NJBIA has seen it surge in New Jersey as well. Ace Hardware in Princeton Shopping Center is among those stores that has seen success this year. NRHA has found that amongst those reporting a 2020 increase, the average increase in sales is about 24.5%.

According to Food Marketing Institute’s 2020 Power of Produce report, 69% of consumers look for locally grown or produced foods. Two-thirds buy produce at farmer’s markets, and six in 10 shop at a farmer’s market at least occasionally. That explains why anecdotal evidence from area farmers indicates business has been good and solid, above normal. When locals were anxious about going into supermarkets in March and April, turning to outdoor or smaller local farm stores felt safer. Peter Furey, Executive Director of NJ Farm Bureau, says this was a great advantage to many.

“Since local farm markets opened, they’ve been selling like crazy. It’s the outdoor experience, safety and that’s what’s helped them. It’s true for the garden centers as well. Potted plants, landscaping – people were home because of the pandemic and started gardening like crazy.”

Alec Gioseffi left his Princeton-area farm in October to become farm manager at Ironbound Farm in Hunterdon County. Ironbound has experienced this unexpected craze.

“We have not stopped since the pandemic happened. The demand has grown to be larger than what we can actually produce. However, we’ve had to shift how we get product to a consumer,” said Gioseffi.

Ironbound was planning to phase out its dwindling Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share business, then COVID hit and instead it grew 5x. They also shifted from wholesale business with restaurants and now partner with two home distribution businesses. One distributor in Brooklyn went from servicing 300 boxes pre-COVID to 3,000 boxes a week with a multi-thousand-person waitlist. To support the buy-local trend, Ironbound has turned its tasting room into a farm store and utilized outdoor space for dining facilities. Mercer County farms also adjusted their structure to take advantage of the local desires as Meredith Melende, Agricultural Agent III at Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County explains.

“Some farms shifted their planting schedules to accommodate consumer demand for spring greens, others maxed out on their CSA shares, and many implemented online sales and varying pick-up methods and locations.”

What must be noted is that even though sales have been strong, additional labor expenses and out-of-pocket costs such as protective gear, plexiglass dividers and the need to pre-package produce instead of having it in open bins has increased farmer’s costs. So, while the sales may have seen an increase, the profit isn’t extraordinary. The hope, for many of the farmers that Furey has spoken to, is that the discovery of locally grown and sold food is one that will carry over with consumers and not just be a phase of the pandemic.

Personal life coaching thrived as a business in the weeks after the isolation measures went into effect.

“People needed immediate support, their life was falling apart,” notes Anais Bailly, who owns the NJ-based consulting and coaching practice ABM Structured Solutions.

The life coaching takes places mostly over the phone, so it was easy to address the need without leaving home. After June, when the social justice movement began to build, more diversity, equity and inclusion training requests began to come in. Many companies are seeking out ways to ensure they are complying in this way.

“If you’re really trying to be a multi-cultural and inclusive institution, we have to address what the people of that organization feel,“ adds Bailly.

It’s a business that is building, and Bailly and her husband were able to transition their practice into a virtual one to keep up with the trainings.

These business owners know they are lucky to be in industries that have seen bursts in a time many are struggling, and all know they have to stay innovative and vigilant. There is hope amongst all of them that the surges will continue, and if not, the ones they’ve experienced will be enough to sustain them forward and through the unknowns of what lies ahead.

Editor’s Note

Are you enjoying your summer? When asked this question, most people these days respond with, “We’re getting by.” It’s an unfortunate reality during COVID-19. There is so much weighing on each and every one of us – but through it all, we need to try and find some rays of light.

I suggest you pull up Princeton Perspective’s June issue: Get Outdoors – Experiencing and Appreciating Princeton’s Natural Wonders for some ideas of how to keep busy outside and read on in this issue for more suggestions and new experiences. In between your outings, you’ll have to figure out what to do this fall.

You’ve likely seen the articles and memes about making the “right” decision for the start of school. The expert this week contradicts the expert from last week and you simply don’t know what “right” really is anymore.

In the past, if we made a “wrong” decision it meant we got lost on the way to dinner or our child didn’t get to attend a party. Don’t we all wish we could go back to the days where those were our worst problems? Now, the right decision holds much greater significance.

In this month’s issue Summer to Fall in a COVID Crisis: Weighing School Decisions While Making the Most of it All the goal is to provide you with insight to help make the impossible decisions, mentally and emotionally endure the decision-making process, and guide you to enjoy what remains of Summer 2020.

Schools in our area are doing their best to create safe school learning environments. Will the plans put out today be the plans they follow through with in September? Time will tell. As COVID-19 case rates fluctuate, it is possible so will the plans. Science and medical opinions, which have evolved over the past five months, can help us to determine what path is best for our child and our family. We’ve long been told to weigh the options, so today we’re helping you to do so. In Professional Perspectives: The Pros and Cons of Schooling During COVID we share the perspectives of local pediatricians, a psychologist, and an educator – breaking down remote schooling vs. in-school education, mask wearing, socialization and more. Before you fill in your school survey, read here for some local expert guidance.

Once do you make a decision, do you stand firm it is the right one? Or do you continue to worry whether you are putting your child in harm’s way – emotionally by keeping them home or physically by sending them to school? At some point, you need to learn how to live with your decision and help your child feel confident it is the right one, too. Clinical Social Worker Elizabeth W. Semrod helps children and adolescents in her local practice cope with anxiety and depressive disorders. She shares tools on how to get you and your children past your worries in Getting our Children Back to School (Safe and Worry-free).

For you, perhaps the plan for your local school district or private school isn’t feeling right. You may opt to send your child to a different school, or if having more control feels like a better option, perhaps you are considering homeschooling? Children aged 6-16 in New Jersey must receive some form of daily educational instruction. Homeschooling in NJ 101 details the basics of how it all works. You may find that creating your own educational plan is today’s right plan.

When you need a break from all of the decisions, before fall hits and life starts to get a little busier, get away! Whether it’s for one day, an overnight or longer, it can be hard to wade through the options of where you can safely travel, and what to do that you haven’t already done. We’ve got you covered with Last Hurrahs of Summer – Fun Things to Do You Haven’t Thought of Yet! Just pick a date to go and use our guidance to get you there!

It may all feel a bit overwhelming, but we will get through! We hope this month’s issue helps you and encourages you to take that needed break. In September, Princeton Perspectives will take a look at the current workforce around Princeton. Whether you own a struggling business, have a thriving one, are unemployed, or are trying to adapt to today’s needs – the working world has changed for many. We’ll bring you all of the perspectives. Sign up here to make sure you get the latest issue!

As always, stay safe and healthy!

Professional Perspectives: The Pros and Cons of Schooling During COVID

This fall it’s certainly not back-to-school as usual. Instead of simply deciding what notebooks and new clothes to buy, families are tasked with choosing how their children will be educated. And the answers aren’t cut and dry, there are nuances, family needs and health risks to consider. While encouraging in-school learning, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has required that all students (without a health concern) must wear masks in school. Yet the NJ Teachers Union and the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association are still urging the year begin remote-only. To date, every school district and private school in our area has created its own pandemic plan for learning. They include varying forms of hybrid (combining remote and in-school), some are all-remote, and others have full in-school education planned.

The difficulty for parents is these plans leave us with a complicated choice – to go ahead and follow your school’s model, choose the all-remote option many are offering or opt for another school choice. None of the decisions are easy, and none of us know what may happen between now and the first day to alter them.

We’ve long been taught to make a pro/con list, weigh them, then decide. To help formulate your list, Princeton Perspectives sought advice from experts on the front lines of this issue – pediatricians, a psychologist and an educator that have all worked locally and raised or are currently raising children here. All information contained in this article is current as of publication (August 13th) and has the possibility of changing due to local health factors.

Meet our professionals:

Dr. Shilpa Pai is Co-Director of NJ Pediatric Residency Advocacy Collaborative and Director of Resident Education in Advocacy & Community Health as well as Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She has 2 children and lives with her family in Princeton.

Dr. Lisa Kestler is a clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ, where she works with children, teens, adults and families. She offers therapy and clinical assessment services through her private practice and psychoeducational evaluations at The Dyslexia Center of Princeton. She and her husband have two children and live in Lawrenceville.

Bonnie Walker has over 25 years of teaching in elementary public schools in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut, and New Jersey – most recently in Princeton where she retired in June 2019. She raised her children in Princeton schools.

Dr. Julie Halvorsen DO, FAAP, is a pediatrician at Delaware Valley Pediatric Associates in Lawrenceville, and is on staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center and Capital Health Medical Center-Hopewell. She lives in Princeton with her husband and two daughters.

“Everyone is rightfully focused on the risks of each and every possibility proposed for school in the fall. Focusing only on the risks can drive us parents crazy,” says Dr. Lisa Kestler. “It may be to everyone’s advantage to try to find the positives – for our kids to feel secure that they will have a good school year, and for us parents and teachers to have the confidence to make it a good school year, despite the hand we’ve been dealt.”

So, let’s start by focusing on those positives. Remote schooling requires access to a computer and the internet. Most local private schools are already set up with a 1:1 ratio of students vs. computers, and this fall, Princeton Public Schools is providing each student their own device and ensuring internet access. Here are our panel’s perspectives on the benefits of remote schooling:

KESTLER Behavioral change is effortful and it takes time to create new habits. Remote learning means that they will not have to add a slew of new rules to their daily routine around wearing masks, washing hands, interacting with classmates, and moving through the building. With remote learning we can create a sense of safety, allow students and educators to focus on learning and to engage more fully. There can be a greater sense of predictability, consistency and control.

HALVORSEN The idea of having kids in school full time does not seem realistic at this stage of the pandemic. The ability to open schools will depend on the level of community transmission.

WALKER The most important positive reason for remote learning would be for the health and safety of the students, their families, and the teaching and administrative staff.

The Wilberforce School plans to resume on-campus instruction, citing it is the “preferred mode of instruction and our best results come from interactive, face-to-face learning.” The school will be offering live streaming from classes for those that can’t be on campus. Despite the best efforts of many local schools that have purchased better cameras, focused on stronger lesson plans and prepared for live instruction, there are still concerns about remote learning, as our experts explain:

HALVORSEN There is already evidence of negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But beyond academics, children learn social and emotional skills, get meals and the opportunity to exercise and receive mental health support as well as other services that cannot be easily replicated online.

WALKER I believe it will be more difficult to identify the children who need support when you do not have real-time, in-person interactions with them, and only see them on a screen. In teaching young students, not only do teachers instruct the children in the curriculum, but they also help them develop the social skills needed to interact with their peers. This is done when students work on group projects. In addition, many parents are still working remotely, and it could be a challenge for them to help their children while trying to conduct their own business. Furthermore, there will be parents who have to work outside of the home. These students may have no one at home to help them.

KESTLER There is a loss of human connection when it is through a digital device. If they have not met their teachers or other classmates prior to the start of school, it is even harder to make that initial connection. Not only is it important for learning, there is a basic human need for physical contact and non-verbal communication. If they don’t have strong social connections outside of school – either online or IRL – they can begin to feel lonely, helpless, or withdrawn. Online learning also requires strong executive functioning skills, such as planning, organization, regulating attention, emotional control, and transitioning between activities. Poorly developed executive functioning skills can be a major stumbling block to successful online learning, leading students to fall behind academically and chipping away at their self-confidence and self-esteem. Part of a remote learning plan should be to quickly identify and intervene with kids who aren’t adjusting well.

PAI Beyond supporting the educational development of children and adolescents, schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. I am particularly concerned about our most vulnerable children in Princeton – and I fear that their needs will not be met if we have all-remote instruction.

With small class sizes and space to spread everyone out, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart is planning to open 5-days a week for in-school education this fall. Families can choose this model, go completely remote or coordinate a hybrid option. Balancing the needs of our children, we asked our experts their perspectives on the benefits of in-classroom schooling:

WALKER I know how important it is for teachers to make a connection with each student in his/her class. When you greet the students in the morning, you can assess their moods, how they are beginning their day. Having the students in school would allow them to have direct contact with their teachers and would allow them to work cooperatively with their peers.

PAI Not only do schools provide our children with academic instruction, but also by having in school learning, children are provided with the social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity.

KESTLER Going to school involves so many little things that we didn’t even have to think about before. Like waking up and having to be somewhere at a certain time, dressing and taking care of hygiene…driving to school, adjusting to the cacophony of hallways, voices, squeals, and reverberations off the cafeteria walls, talking to friends, and getting to class on time. All before the first bell. While kids may say they’d prefer to wake up 5 minutes before class and sit in their pajamas all day, they are healthier, both physically and mentally, just by having that basic morning routine.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Princeton Public Schools is looking towards a hybrid model and is planning daily to check temperatures and have parents report updates on the health status of their child/family. Yet, there are still concerns associated with in-school learning for this fall. Our experts weigh in:

KESTLER Health risks to student, teachers, staff, and their families.

HALVORSEN While there is community transmission occurring, mitigation measures have to be in place such as smaller cohorts, physical distancing and consistent mask wearing for teachers and students alike.

WALKER We have very limited experience to predict what is going to happen with Covid-19 this year, or in the future. Plus, we do not know the long-term effects on children or adults. I believe we should all wear masks, wash our hands, and maintain a social distance – which would be very difficult to do in a school environment. At home, and in my car, I am able to sanitize my hands and wipe down surfaces frequently. I do not know how that will be done in classrooms that are used by multiple grades.

The Hun School of Princeton is planning an every-other-day hybrid model, to allow for social distancing while providing as much in-school instruction as possible. As several schools to date have formulated a hybrid plan, we asked our professionals what the in-school plans should include to mitigate contraction of COVID-19:

HALVORSEN We know that masks are very effective and physical distancing works as well. So, for school to safely be able to re-open this fall, these measures will need to be in place to mitigate risk. Keeping the kids in smaller cohorts will also limit exposures and make contact tracing less difficult.  I think the A/B method will make it easier for schools to be able to safely provide some in-person education.

KESTLER More students, more time together = greater health risk to student, teachers, staff, and their families. Fewer students, less time = lower risk.

PAI Outdoor classrooms when possible, maintaining physical distancing with set up for desks, classwork, etc. and make sure there is adequate PPE for teachers, students and staff. The main way COVID-19 is spread is from person to person, via respiratory droplets. Therefore, infection prevention should focus on this form of spread – which means physical distancing, face coverings, and hand hygiene. However, because the virus may survive in certain surfaces for some time, it is possible to get infected after touching a virus contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, eyes, or nose. So, frequent handwashing is important.

From Dr. Fauci to Mayor Lempert, leaders are urging us all to wear masks. They are mandated by the NJ Governor for public schools and private schools in our area are following guidelines as well. Princeton Day School is requiring all to wear a face covering when on campus but will allow short breaks from them while eating and social distancing outside. We asked our panel the pros and cons of wearing masks in schools:

PAI Universal face coverings have been shown to slow the spread of COVID. Masks will protect others if the wearer is infected with COVID-19 and is not aware that they are infected. Cloth masks may offer some level of protection for the wearer. Universal face coverings are not always possible in the school setting for many reasons – for example, a child who has a developmental condition.

KESTLER Mask wearing is a must, but it is not realistic to wear one in school all day. Even if we could, if COVID is aerosolized, mask wearing inside with bad ventilation may be magical thinking.

WALKER The pro would certainly be that medical professionals have recommended masks as an effective way of slowing the spread of the virus.  The cons could be that children would remove their masks, play with them, misplace them, share them. There would have to be a supply of PPE that would be made available to the students.

One of the arguments for returning to a classroom setting is for kids to regain some normalcy and socialization. At most in-school programs, like Chapin School, students will have a cohort they stay with, there will be no field trips, they will be seated at least six feet apart facing one-way and will no longer eat together in a lunchroom. What are the pros and cons of the pandemic environment with regard to normalcy and socialization?  Our experts share their perspectives:

HALVORSEN I don’t think kids should expect that their “in school” days will look or feel anything like the last school year. Although the kids won’t be getting to hang out at lunch or recess, I do think they will appreciate being able to socialize with their peers and teachers during class time. I know my kids are looking forward to catching up with friends they haven’t seen in months, no matter how limited the interaction.

WALKER I don’t know how my former classroom would look now, during the time of Covid-19.  My classroom had four tables at which the students sat – there were usually 5-6 children per table. That would not be social distancing. I don’t know how the resources are going to be spent to re-outfit the classroom. In terms of recess, structured games being played outside could provide socialization, but again, social distancing would have to be implemented.

KESTLER There is an opportunity for a paradigm shift in how we do education; and holding onto “normal” doesn’t fit right now. We may have to put school on hold for a year and go back to “normal” next year. With each passing day, it seems less and less likely that there will be in-class school.

It’s important to help our children emotionally through this time. Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart plans to be on campus and continue its morning runs to get kids moving outside. In addition, it hopes to leverage regular yoga and meditation to create some balance and calm, though it will all have to be reimagined with social distancing in mind. Our professionals share their thoughts on the emotional impacts of schooling during this pandemic environment:

KESTLER In the long term I think the kids are going to be alright. There are lessons to be learned from how past generations have dealt with pandemics and war. This is a profound change to our society, in so many ways, and there were many societal ills before this that could use some change.

WALKER I realize that it is important that educators and parents present a positive role model for the children. Every student should have at least one supportive, caring adult who will listen to them, someone who will help them. My hope is that this could occur whether the education takes place in a classroom setting or remotely.

HALVORSEN I definitely saw an increase in mental health visits during April and May when most of the kids and families were isolating and quarantining at home.  The teenagers in particular were struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety.  For my patients, some of these symptoms improved once families started to expand their “pods” or “quaran-teams” to involve another family or neighbor, etc. Therefore, whatever the school year ahead may look like, I think for the kids’ mental well-being, they will need to have some social interactions. Thankfully with masks, distancing and including outdoor spaces, this can be done in a safer manner.

And our experts’ final thoughts to help guide you:

PAI Each parent needs to make a choice for their child – weighing the risks and benefits of in-person vs remote learning, while simultaneously taking into consideration the emotional, mental and physical health needs of their child. I think it is important that we make these decisions using scientific-based evidence and not with our own personal emotions.

KESTLER My wish-list would be an equitable way to provide small group in-person instruction, outdoors or in open-air as much as possible. Create a volunteer corps of young adults, teachers, retirees, or people looking for work, volunteer or paid, who can assist families with online learning needs and keeping kids on track with the daily school routine.

WALKER I realize that eventually our lives must get back to some sense of normalcy. In my opinion, the School District should follow the guidelines established by the CDC for the re-opening of schools.

HALVORSEN If the community is truly invested in the education of our children, we ALL have to follow COVID safety recommendations. Social distancing and consistent, correct wearing of masks by old and young alike is the only way I foresee the possibility of in-person education this fall.

Drs. Pai, Halvorsen, Kestler and Mrs. Walker’s perspectives are culled from years of experience, but they haven’t met you or your child. As Dr. Pai said, each decision needs to be made with your child in mind. We hope the thoughts from our experts helps you make them and feel more comfortable in doing so.

Last Hurrahs of Summer – Fun Things to Do You Haven’t Thought of Yet!

Now is the time for your last hurrah of summer! With Labor Day falling one week into September, most schools in the area are starting September 8th or later. Public schools in Princeton are planning to start even later than that, on September 14th. That leaves plenty of time to get out and explore!

While there are many great things to do in the Princeton area, after five months of the pandemic you may be grasping for new ideas. And it can be fun and rejuvenating to have a change of scenery. If your summer vacation plans were sidelined and you’d love an opportunity to feel like you got away – even if it’s a stay-cation – we have ideas for you! From day trips to short get-aways, even a trip to help you through remote schooling…all suggested with the safety of COVID-19 in mind. We’ve kept our suggestions local and within New York and Pennsylvania, currently safe options for travel. If you prefer to stay home and entertain with some friends in your yard, we’ve got safe ideas for that, too!

Day Trips

It is always nice to wake up with something to look forward to.  If you have little ones, there is a great animal farm to explore just a one-hour drive from Princeton. Brookhollow’s Barnyard in Boonton, NJ has figured out how to attract visitors that want to ensure their children can enjoy the animals in complete safety.  How do they do that? With a drive-thru car tour experience!

“What an incredible, super safe and fun experience for Leo!” says Daryl Rothman, whose son just turned one. “I cannot speak more highly of this wonderful and safe experience for kids! They allow you to bring your own carrots so you can throw them to the animals from the window, and they mandate that nobody can get out of their car! Leo had so much fun waving to the animals and saying “hi” to them from our window!“

Drive-thru tickets are available for Sundays only, with one low cost per car for a one-hour experience. You can drive through as many times as possible during that hour. If you are comfortable walking around, Brookhollow’s Barnyard also offers individual walk-thru tickets for each person over age 2, Tuesday-Saturday. Each time slot is limited to 45 people and face masks are not required if you safely social distance. Tickets are released at 10am each day, for the following day.

For children of all ages, another great outing located one-hour away is in Bucks County, PA.  Bring your own hammer and head to Ringing Rocks Park located in Upper Black Eddy. This 128-acre park has a giant boulder field and the rocks resonate when struck with a hammer.  Sue Evans recently made the drive from Princeton with her husband and tween daughter.

“When we were there, we saw all ages, toddlers and there were a lot of teens. The field is huge and the more adventurous climbed all the way across, hitting rocks all the way,” she shared.

Evans notes that hammers really work best. They tried a wrench, and it didn’t create much sound. Interestingly, only about 1/3 of the rocks are audible to the human ear, but those that are, make great music! Ringing Rocks Park is also home to Bucks County’s largest waterfall.

Photo Courtesy: Friends of Read Wildlife Sanctuary

If you’re willing to make a 2-hour day trip, there are a few great options crossing north into New York state. For an outdoor experience with birds and marine life, drive up to Rye, NY for a day at the Edith G. Read Natural Park and Wildlife Sanctuary located on the shore of the Long Island Sound. The grounds are open from dawn til dusk though the nature building is currently closed due to COVID. Recognized as an “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society, the 179-acre sanctuary has three miles of walking trails and ¼ mile of shoreline along the sound. The publicly accessible shore has an intertidal habitat home to an array of plants and animals. Near the water, you can spot Osprey nesting on the platform. This is a great outing to take now, but also one to keep it in mind if you want to get away when the weather turns. In winter months, the lake becomes home to 5,000 ducks and you can spot owls, blue herons, loons and more.

If you’ve already taken in the outdoor art experience at nearby Grounds for Sculpture, which has recently reopened, there is another grand outdoor art option in the Hudson Valley, New York. There you can immerse yourself in art and environment at Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre open air modern sculpture park located about 2 hours from Princeton.

Photo Courtesy: Storm King Art Center

“Every visit to Storm King is different, changing seasons, weather conditions, and even the time of day offer new ways to experience art in nature,” states John P. Stern, Storm King Art Center President. “The Art Center’s dramatic landscape has been designed, preserved, and maintained to accommodate and enhance the collection, frame vistas, and encourage movement through the site. In collaboration with artists, we thoughtfully place artwork that is bold, ambitious, and often site-specific.”

There are two new exhibitions this year from artists Kiki Smith (Kiki Smith River Light includes two large-scale flag installations–Hudson River (2020) and River Light (2019)) and Martha Tuttle (Outlooks: Martha Tuttle presents carefully sited stone stackings, or cairns, which the artist made from more than eighty hand-molded glass and marble stones placed atop larger boulders selected from Storm King’s grounds).

The center just reopened in July and plans to remain open for the 2020 season until early December. Storm King is currently an outdoor-only experience with social distancing due to COVID, and no tours are operating. But you can use their audio guide by texting STORM to 56512. (No download required but message and data rates may apply). If you’d like to eat on the property, you can order 24-hours in advance and pick up food from their outdoor café.

Timed-entry ticket are available in advance, based on the number of people in your car. You must arrive on-site during the hour printed on the ticket. Currently, the website is offering spots through August 31st. The next block of tickets will be available starting at noon on Wednesday, August 19 for visits through September 14.

Photo Courtesy: The Bannerman Castle Trust

Pollepel (Bannerman) Island is a great day outing also about a two-hour drive from Princeton to the lower part of Dutchess County, NY. Bannerman Castle, the main attraction, is an historic military warehouse. Designed as a simulation of a Scottish castle with construction beginning in 1901, the father of the army navy store used it to house tons of surplus military supplies he acquired. The arsenal caught fire in 1969, leaving ruins of the castle and his former residence open and partially standing. You have the option of taking a 20-minute boat ride from Beacon, NY along the Hudson River to the 13.4-acre island. Alternatively, you can kayak, canoe or take your own small boat to the island and enjoy the castle and beautiful gardens.

“There’s a ruin of an incredible castle there…you don’t have that very often in America,” explains Neil Caplan, Executive Director and Founder of The Bannerman Castle Trust. “All the buildings were pretty much ruined. The residence, now a Visitor’s Center, had no roof, floors, nothing – just poison ivy and trees. Now it’s got roofs and floors. We normally have people coming from all over the world to see it.”

Photo Courtesy: John Morzen Photography

The facility has adapted with many new safety regulations for the pandemic. The boat, which normally takes 45 people at a time, is only taking 20 (with masks required). Everything is sprayed down and cleaned regularly. And the residence, allowing only 10 people in at a time, has been altered so there is nothing inside to touch (the gift shop has been moved outside). Once you arrive on the island, you’ll hear a 25-minute informative talk and then have 1.5 hours to enjoy the property (masks can be removed when properly socially distant).

The season runs until October 31st and you should book a week in advance, if possible. You can also get tickets to attend two special events – a Chef’s Consortium Farm Fresh Dinner on September 5th which will be served like a dinner picnic box with musicians playing, an art sale and raffle. Tickets for a concert with world-renowned classical rock violinist, Daisy Joplin, are also on sale for September 30, 31, October 1, 2, and 3. Only 40 people are allowed at each performance, which will be accompanied by a light show on the castle.

Overnight Get-Aways – for now and yearlong!

If you’d like to go away for a night or more, there is a lot to consider during the pandemic. There are currently 35 states on New Jersey’s travel restriction list. That means if you travel to one, you must quarantine for 14 days upon returning – even if that time overlaps with the beginning of school. Our two suggested travel sites alleviate some concerns by offering outdoorsy vacations without requiring a quarantine.

Photo Courtesy: TripAdvisor

The first is across the border in New York state. Ward Pound Ridge Reservation has options for both the novice and experienced camper, offering lean-to and tent options for sleeping. Both have limited availability right now due to social distancing protocols. Located 2-hours away in Westchester County, the reservation sits on 4,315 acres of land.

Ward Pound Ridge is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife including wood turtles, raccoons, great-horned owls, cliff swallows and woodpeckers. On the grounds you can hike amongst the 41 miles of trails or go horseback riding, for an additional fee. Fly fishing is available in the park in Cross River and there is also fishing allowed in two streams that run through the park, home to 13 species of native and stocked fish. A NY State fishing license may be required.

If you prefer the outdoor experience with more organized activities and a building with beds (bunk beds!), you can travel to northern New Jersey, just below the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and spend time at Fairview Lake YMCA. Their Family Camp is offered with weekly cabin rentals Sunday-Friday until Labor Day then Monday-Friday or weekends only through Thanksgiving. Protocols, such as family-assigned dining tables, water coolers and life vests, as well as extreme sanitization measures have been put in place to protect from the novel coronavirus.

Photo Courtesy: Fairview Lake YMCA Camps

“Family camping has become a wildly popular option for lots of families,” shares Fairview Lake YMCA Executive Director Marc Koch. “They come here, get their own cabin, and with such a great big outdoor setting, they feel comfortable with social distancing. It’s the only time families have the opportunity to do something like this, at least in our 106-year history.”

Each cabin is equipped with bunk beds, flush toilets and showers. In the warm months, there is an exchange unit that circulates the cool lake air and heat is included in the colder months. The Family Camp fee includes the cabin rental (for up to a family of 4, plus cost for each additional person), breakfast and dinner daily and all activities except horseback riding. The 110-acre lake and 660-acres of camp offers paddle boarding and other lake activities, archery, ax throwing, hikes, court games, an animal farm and more.

If you can’t get away before school begins, Fairview Lake YMCA is extending its day camp into the entire school year – an interesting option if your child is schooling remotely or your school is offering an A/B weekly hybrid model. For an added fee, you can rent a cabin but also have your child take part in the day camp while you work off the camp’s Wifi (available in and outside of the dining hall and main lodge). Located at the other end of the mile-long lake, the day camp will offer activities 2 or 3 days per week, and also includes help from their online learning support staff to tackle your child’s remote learning assignments before day’s end.

Entertaining at Home

If you are not able or do not want to travel elsewhere, you can create a fun experience with friends or family at home. It can feel awkward to remind guests to stay socially distant, so we suggest you set up the environment to naturally do so.

Barbara Majeski, a television contributor who brings audiences the best in lifestyle and entertainment as a featured regular on Today, Good Day NY and Fox & Friends, says it’s easy to maintain social distancing if you mark it out.

“Stars (or any shape) in your backyard are a great way to physically show your guests where they should sit to keep everyone 6 feet apart! Using spray chalk and a stencil, make stars in your backyard, driveway or open lot that are all spaced 6 feet apart,” details Majeski.

Supplies needed:

  • Cardboard
  • Marker
  • Scissors
  • Spray chalk
  • Tape Measure

How To: 1. Take your large piece of cardboard and draw a large star on it. 2. Cut out your star and use it as a stencil. 3. Use your tape measure to space the stars 6 feet apart. 4. Lay down the stencil, grab your spray chalk and create the perfect star on your grass!

To help keep everyone spaced apart, Majeski also recommends creating individual meal baskets.

“Buffets are not en vogue this year but enjoying a meal with friends while adhering to social distance protocols is in style. Each small, dollar store basket includes individually wrapped sandwiches. I suggest going to Olives, Hoagie Haven or Princeton Soup & Sandwich, then you include individual condiments, a bag of chips, and individual salads in a cup!”

If you prefer your company wear masks when not eating, you should make that clear on the invitation. To be safe, you could buy some to have on hand. Majeski suggests local manufacturer Locked Down Designs , which has over 150 fabrics in stock and ready to ship, sized for both children and adults. You could also pick up your masks right here in Pennington.

The most important factor to consider, whether you are staying close to home, taking a day trip or getting away for a night or more is to be safe. Remember the COVID-19 protocols. Once you’ve got those in order, take the time to escape and create a moment, day or week to remember!

Editor’s Note

Movements for civil rights are not new. They date back generations, even centuries. In recent decades, the United States has seen cries for help, with protests breaking out around the country over police brutality and racial injustice. The movements start and then they seem to lose steam. Most people go back to their lives – until the next time.

In late May, George Floyd was killed in police custody. The horrifying moment, caught on video, went viral. The protests that started in Floyd’s hometown of Minneapolis quickly spread across the state, the country and the world. This time, people seem to be engaged in a different way.

This time people are making changes they were never willing to make. Schools and sports teams, that had refused in the past, are changing their names. People are being promoted to advance racial literacy in their environments, not held back. There seems to be a momentum like never before.

The first major protest in Princeton was on June 1st, and in short time the municipal government, schools and businesses declared they would act differently. In the two and a half months since, where has this movement taken us? We take a local look at what has changed and what still needs to happen in this issue of Princeton Perspectives, When the Dust Settles – How a Community Turns Awareness into Action.

In The Pulse of Princeton video, you can see and hear the perspectives of African Americans, as teachers, parents, civic leaders and more from our town answer – What needs to change in Princeton today to combat racism?

The Reverend Lukata Mjumbe, pastor of the historically black Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, has spent a lifetime fighting for racial justice. He shares his message in our first article, Knowing Justice, Knowing Peace.

Knowing and doing are two different things. The Municipal Reaction to Racism takes us inside local government. Through interviews with Mayor Liz Lempert, Police Chief Nick Sutter and more we find out what Princeton has done and how the municipality intends to change.

Change is not easy but perhaps it can come if we start earlier. Educating today’s children in social justice and having institutions that educate about racism could make a difference. Schools in Princeton: Their Roles in Combatting Racism shares the ways some schools in town are reviewing their roles and altering their ways.

To make change, groups must talk and learn from each other. In Five Point Guide to White Allyship social justice leaders from our area provide concrete ways to begin the path forward, working together.

Despite all of the hardships that have been cast upon us these past few months, we hope you are finding ways to enjoy the summer. Before we know it, the warm days will give way to fall. In our August issue, we’ll help you prepare for the change as we take a look at some of the COVID-19 realities of returning to school, how you can best prepare or how you could be making other arrangements. We’ll also help you plan your last hurrah – making the end of summer days to remember!

Stay healthy and Safe!

The Pulse of Princeton: What needs to change in Princeton today to combat racism?

Teachers, parents, civic leaders, and more…Black voices share their perspectives. Play the video to hear them.

The Municipal Reaction to Racism

According to Federal census records, in 1838 the twelve last known slaves were recorded in Princeton Township, NJ. As they and the slaves before them gained their freedom, they began to settle on Witherspoon Street. Through the 1800s, the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood became home to Princeton’s Black community.

It was a segregated part of town. In 1858 the first school, exclusively for Black children, was created. Unwelcomed in most stores, restaurants, beauty parlors and bars in town, in the 1900s they built their own. In 1916, Princeton High School was integrated, but lower schools did not do so until 1948, when mandated by law.

In the 1930s, large numbers of African Americans were displaced, moved further from where many worked at the university to Birch Avenue, as downtown development took over their neighborhood. Though Princeton as a society has integrated through the years, many African Americans today contend the rising costs of housing pushes them out and that education and employment opportunities remain unequal.

Last month, thousands of locals gathered at the gates of Princeton University to protest racism, to demand better treatment of Blacks and that as a community we work harder to ensure all opportunities – housing, education and economic – be as available to them as to their neighbors of other races. The protests occurred at the same gates that had at one time been locked to keep out the nearby African American residents from town.

The recent rallying cry led the municipal government to take a closer look at its role in enacting change. On June 8, 2020 Princeton Town Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. It is a means for the municipality to assess internal policies and procedures and advocate for relevant ways to dismantle racism.

“It’s not like this was a sudden realization. We have been working to try to reverse the decades and centuries of problems,” explains Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, noting the re-establishment of the Civil Rights Commission as a stand-alone advisory body in 2017.

Since the passing of the resolution, the Civil Rights Commission has been tasked with trying to find the right national framework on racial equity to guide municipal practice.

“I found it useful for other initiatives we have worked on to be plugged into a wider network. We can learn from other communities and they can learn from us. It helps what we’re doing here have a greater impact and vice versa,” adds Lempert.

As a government entity, Princeton is trying to be more intentional in diversity and hiring. Though it remains largely Caucasian, the percentage of African Americans and Hispanics hired by Princeton is greater than those represented in the general population as compared to the 2019 Census numbers for Princeton:

Racial Demographics of Princeton Municipal Staff

Percentage # Employed
Caucasian 78% 201
African American 10% 27
Hispanic or Latino 10% 26
Asian 1% 4
2 or more Races 0.30% 1
Total Employed: 259

2019 Census Numbers for Princeton, NJ

Source: United States Census Bureau, 2019

Lempert knows they can still do better. Employees are required to attend diversity training twice a year. To fill open roles, the municipality is advertising and recruiting with professional networks that will help diversify its candidate pool.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mayor notes racial disparities have become even more apparent with people of color in New Jersey being disproportionately hurt by both the medical and financial aspects of the pandemic. To help, the town is offering quarantine housing for anyone with a positive COVID-19 test, facilitating the development of a small business resiliency fund – with priority given to women and minority owned businesses – and other services.

To help create a more diverse stock of housing options, Lempert looks to the increase of affordable housing recently approved and partially funded by Princeton. The allocation of funds in the municipal budget also plays a role in various agencies abilities to respond to the needs of the community. Retirements and restructuring of some departments help adjust the budgets annually.

One department budget that is receiving a closer look due to recent protests is the police. At the time of consolidation in 2013, combining the township and the borough’s police departments into one helped guide reductions in spending. Each year the numbers are analyzed, and already a 3-4% reduction was put in place from last year to this year for the police.

“Looking at a budget and saying maybe we don’t need 6 cars this year, instead we can pay for a 2nd responder. That’s program budgeting,” states Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter. “Let’s not conflate that with defund the police.”

Sutter has been in the department for 25 years, at the helm for the past seven. He says he’s been pushing for five years to have a better system of 2nd responders, those that follow up after a situation has been de-escalated to find proper assistance for the person in need.

“In my experience it’s become a revolving door – we don’t solve the problem. We deal with it in the moment, make it safe and often respond back to same person again. We need a crisis intervention team,” Sutter adds. “I don’t know a social worker that’d walk into an unsecure scene that’s violent. That’s unrealistic.”

The police have developed a strong relationship with Corner House for those with drug dependency issues, but more help is needed with situations such as homelessness and personal crisis. That would fall to 2nd responders. Lempert says with today’s increased support, perhaps now is the time they’ll find more funding for them. To have a responder like a social worker first on the scene, as suggested by supporters of the “Defund the Police” movement is less likely. While Lempert, Sutter and others agree it would be wonderful to have a team of mental health professionals available 24/7 to respond with the police, in a municipality like Princeton, the budget capabilities are not there. Head of Human Services, Melissa Urias, whose only other staffer is a part-time administrative assistant, says resources severely limit follow-up and intervention capabilities.

“Throughout the nation, mental health and social services are under-resourced. Unfortunately, here in Princeton, it is no different. Police officers are meant to act as guardians of public safety but are often the first to respond to individuals dealing with complex issues,” Urias explains.

The police often refer people to Human Services or reach out directly after a situation. To better address the needs of those in the Black community, Urias says she is meeting with other leaders and partners to be sure to understand their needs and focus on desired improvements. Sutter admits his department can always do better but states it has included the community in its planning process and policy decisions for years.

Loretta T. lives nearby and her children attend Princeton Public Schools. She agrees that community-oriented policing is a must. “When law enforcement presence goes beyond emergencies, police officers and communities are able to truly connect with one another and therefore view each other as whole individuals rather than the narrative be pushed by the media. It invites an opportunity to have authentic experiences which shape broader perceptions.”

The national narrative has caused the department to take another look at its failures and look at how it can improve. Recruitment, policy, supervision and training – all guided by community input, are constantly evaluated.  4-5 retirements are expected this year, including that of Chief Sutter, but the 55-person department has made an effort to reflect the community in its hiring. As of the latest reports from 2019, the Princeton Police Department has hired more people of color than are represented amongst its residents:

Racial Demographics of Princeton Police Department

Caucasian 73%
African American 8%
Hispanic or Latino 16%
Asian 4%

As for policy, Princeton police say they are listening, but have been proactive too. The policy towards immigration and law enforcement, for example, was put in place with locals back in 2013, before it became a national issue. Redefining Use of Force, Vehicle Pursuit and Forcible Stopping was officially done in 2017 but all have been highlighted through the department’s training for at least seven years. Now, Sutter and his team are looking to see if they can get stricter in some areas than what the state mandates. In terms of training his officers, he believes their focus has often stemmed from national community needs and instead they should add more training based on local community experiences. Improvements can also be made in vetting out unconscious biases and training officers to better recognize and deal with theirs.

The Town Council resolution aiming to dismantle racism, applies to all municipal departments, not just the police. Each is being asked to take a closer look. As soon as town council approves a framework recommendation from the Civil Rights Commission, Lempert claims it will have the tools to better review ordinances and other needs through a racial equity lens.

“I think having a framework will be helpful and almost essential to get us to move from conversation into action,” declares Lempert. “It’s important we take this opportunity and we look at ourselves and our institutions with open eyes, and we use this period where everything is being shaken up already – no one has ever lived through a period like this before – and when we come out of it we don’t just return to February 2020.”