May 6, 2020

Princeton Businesses Prepare for Post-Pandemic

By Anne Levin

Back before COVID-19, Patricia’s Hair Design washed, cut, colored, and set the hair styles of eight to 10 customers a day, five days a week. Now, the East Nassau Street salon is preparing to cater to half that number.

Pre-coronavirus, The Meetinghouse restaurant on Witherspoon Street was serving up to 180 people at a time, especially on weekends. Now, the owners are contemplating a future of smaller groups of diners, in revamped configurations.

As Princeton’s business community awaits the green light from Gov. Phil Murphy to reopen — not expected anytime soon — preparations are underway for what is sure to be an altered environment. The safety of customers and staff is everyone’s priority. But fewer guests means less revenue. For nonprofits, the challenge is how to accommodate a smaller number of visitors.

“We will have limits on the number of people we can have in the store at one time,” said Andrew Siegel, president of Hamilton Jewelers on Nassau Street. “Believe me, I hope that’s a problem we’re going to have. I hope the town will be busy and bustling. There’s no playbook for this.”

The jewelry store will still be “experience-based,” said Siegel. “Our goal through all of this is that we want people to feel the Hamilton experience, no matter how they choose to shop. It should feel unmistakably like our store, our company, our business. So the curbside pickup program will still be personable and understanding of the customers’ needs.”

The store will have special Hamilton Jewelers masks for customers who arrive without face coverings. Trying on jewelry will be a different experience. “If you want to try something on, every item in the case will have been pre-sanitized. And when we take it out, we’ll hand it to you. If you don’t want it, it will go straight back to one of our sanitizing stations and ready to go back in the case. That goes for our tools, too,” said Siegel.

A few doors down at Labyrinth Books, online sales have been continuing while the store is closed. Owner Dorothea von Moltke wants to be ready once reopening is permitted. “I’ve been learning from the grocery stores. They’ve been doing a lot,” she said.

Since browsing books is about touching books, Labyrinth will have lots of hand sanitizers available. The staff has been wearing masks and gloves while doing online sales, and that will continue. “We will ask the same of customers,” said von Motlke. “And that raises the question of supplies. We’ve started to order masks, little by little. But we don’t want to hoard. I also think that people are starting to have their own masks, so that makes it easier.”

Labyrinth is spacious but its aisles are narrow. Fewer tables of books, shields at the registers and information counters, and removal of seating are among the measures planned. The bookstore will still have outside tables. “But they will be spaced differently,” said von Moltke. “We want to use some of that space for curbside pickup or some sort of selling outside. All of these things mean extra cost and extra work. It’s a more complex way of operating, and how do we afford it? That’s the big unknown.”

Like Labyrinth, Homestead Princeton on Palmer Square is spacious. But the store still faces challenges. “We’ll be limiting our capacity when it comes to those coming in and out, and of course will follow CDC guidelines,” said owner Ron Menapace. “We’ll prop the doors open. We want to keep things as safe as possible for our customers. Luckily, we have some elbow room.”

So does The Meetinghouse, where owners Amar Gautam and Amanda Maher have been rethinking how to serve customers once reopening is allowed. The restaurant has kept staff on during the closure, to prepare meals for takeout and for community members in need.

“Fortunately for everyone, this is happening in May as opposed to January,” said Maher. “We can still get a significant amount of people if we use our outdoor space while also using the indoor space, always maintaining safe distancing. We’re thinking about a different plan of what the outside will look like, with trees, pots, and other things between tables to have separation. We’re also sourcing Meetinghouse masks for our front-of-house staff. And we’re thinking about where to put hand sanitizer and looking into different technologies for ridding the air of bacteria.”

Guatam has been keeping a close eye on how restaurants are handling reopening in states where it is now permitted. “You want to strike a balance between people being careful and, at the same time, wanting to sit across the table from each other with a drink in their hand,” said Maher. “We’re conscious of trying to meld those experiences together.”

Patricia’s Hair Design has a patio outside its back door. Owner Patty Chiavoni is considering setting up a tent with two chairs underneath, possibly taking care of some clients outside. That would be in addition to the interior of the store, where only one or two customers will likely be allowed at a time.

“We’ll have to spread them out. In between appointments, I might have to have them sit in their cars, and call them on their cell phones when we’re ready for them,” she said. “What else can we do?”

As someone who suffers from asthma, Chiavoni is hoping to get some special surgical masks to wear when she is working on clients. Air filter cleaners and keeping windows open are other ways of keeping the salon safe. “It will be a whole new way of working,” Chiavoni said. “It is definitely a challenge.”

James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, has been engaged in what he calls “scenario planning” in preparation for the time when the institution can open its doors to the public. A big part is understanding what social distancing in a museum environment would look like.

“To actually enforce social distancing and not put each other at risk, we’ll have a heavily enforced visitor capacity. Security staff and others who are on the floor will have to enforce this, and they have been undergoing training,” Steward said. “We’ve also been thinking about how we might provide a separate entry, or possibly special viewing hours for people who are at risk — kind of like what the supermarkets are doing.”

The museum has a second entrance on its west side, which is now for visitors who have physical challenges.
As a public space that attracts more than 2,000 people a day in normal times, Princeton Public Library is particularly challenged by the idea of limiting the number of visitors. Staff has been planning for multiple scenarios for what is often called “the community’s living room,” ranging from curbside pickup of materials ordered online to a limited reopening, adhering to whatever social distancing regulations are in place at that time, according to Executive Director Jennifer Podolsky.

“We know there are many people who are eager for us to reopen,” she said in an email. “We are, too. All of our staff miss the in-person contact with the community.”

The library’s board of trustees must approve any reopening plan once it is permitted. “Our overriding concern will be the safety of the public and our staff,” Podolsky said. “We will be guided by the science and by the advice of state and local officials, including statewide library organizations that are at work on best practices and guidelines.”

The library also relies on the advice of Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser and on George DiFerdinando, the chair of the Board of Health. “Both are very familiar with our building and Jeff met with staff and offered advice prior to our closure,” Podolsky added.

For local businesses, and nonprofits, much remains unknown. “We don’t know exactly what the future holds,” said Siegel of Hamilton Jewelers. “But clearly, we’re all going to have to be a little bit more flexible. It’s not like you can lead with best practices, because we don’t know what they are at this point. But we are trying to figure out what works, and we will.”