September 2, 2020

Reopening Speeds Up, Princeton Weighs Risks

By Donald Gilpin

The COVID-19 news, as usual, is mixed. Gyms were permitted to reopen on September 1, and indoor dining, movies, and indoor performing arts venues can open on Friday, September 4, under an executive order from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy — all at 25 percent capacity with social distancing and other restrictions.   

Schools are preparing to reopen either remotely, in hybrid fashion, or in-person in the coming weeks. And on Tuesday, September 1, New Jersey added two states, Alaska and Montana, to its list of COVID-19 hotspots placed on a coronavirus quarantine travel list of 33 states and territories.

Princeton Public Health Officer Jeff Grosser reported on September 1 that the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) has assessed the central-west region of the state (Mercer, Hunterdon, and Somerset counties) as “low risk,” and that Princeton is among towns with the lowest rate of COVID-19 per 10,000 people in Mercer County. The current COVID-19 prevalence rate in the county as a whole is 230 percent higher than the rate in Princeton, Grosser said.

“The rate of coronavirus spread is currently low in Princeton, but COVID-19 is just as contagious and dangerous as before,” wrote Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and the Princeton Council in their August 31 Princeton Coronavirus Update. “It is still important to practice socially distancing whenever possible, wear a mask when you cannot socially distance, and wash your hands frequently. These precautions are especially important as the state loosens restrictions.”

Grosser emphasized that a safe, successful reopening of gyms and restaurants would require “a few key strategies”: proper mask wearing, increased building ventilation, and managing a flow of customers. “The reduction of large groups in one location, increased space between patrons, and ensuring visitors wear masks will all ultimately reduce the potential for disease spread in our community,” he said.

The Princeton Health Department reported only one active positive case of COVID-19 in Princeton on Tuesday, with five new cases in the past two weeks, a total of 215 positive cases, and 184 COVID-19 cases recovered with isolation completed.

Though permitted to open yesterday, Princeton Fitness and Wellness (PFW) on State Road will be taking an extra week, planning to reopen at 5 a.m. on September 8. “We are taking the necessary time to rehire and train our employees on the new safety protocols,” states a message on their website. “In preparation for your return we have scrubbed, sprayed, deep cleaned, upgraded air filters, increased the quantity of sanitizing stations, rewritten protocols, and provided social distancing on the fitness floor and in the studios.”

PFW General Manager Tony Parziale noted that everyone will be given a health screening at the door, the HVAC system has been upgraded, equipment will be wiped down before and after each use, the machines are all distanced, and health ambassadors  will be going throughout the center to make sure that protocols and safe distancing are followed. 

“We’re eager to get members back,” Parziale added. “There are so many benefits to a prescribed exercise program, including boosting your immune system, which helps people be resistant to COVID-19. I’m excited about being back here and about all the safety precautions we’ve put in place.”

When some other establishments will open up is less clear, with the Princeton Garden Theatre on Nassau Street still considering issues of safety and whether reopening makes fiscal sense, according to their website, which states “we believe that it is too early to confirm a clear reopening date.”

Grosser commented on the ongoing challenges facing the schools as they prepare to reopen.  “Going back to school will likely look different from what everyone was used to before. It is crucial that schools continue to plan ahead and look at what additional measures they can put in place to help ensure students, teachers, and other staff are safe when they return, and communities are confident in sending their students back to school.”

He continued, “It’s possible that schools may reopen for a period of time and then a decision may be made to close them again temporarily, depending on the situation at hand and the community transmission rate. Because of the evolving situation, we will need to continue to be flexible and ready to adapt to help keep every child, teacher, and school staff member safe. In Princeton we have seen our public, private, and charter schools choose from a variety of options for reopening.”

Grosser pointed out that schools have had to quickly adjust to fit their specific plans within the framework of reopening guidance issued by the NJDOH in mid-August.