Princeton Adapts in Year of COVID Pandemic Struggles
ZOOMING IN ON SHAKESPEARE: Meeting virtually became the norm this year as everything from cultural events to government meetings went from live to online. McCarter Theatre’s Shakespeare Community Reading Group adjusted from gathering in the main lobby to getting together on Zoom. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)
By Donald Gilpin and Anne Levin
“Princeton Responds to Coronavirus Threat” read the February 5 Town Topics headline. At that point the “threat” seemed overstated and the community’s “response” — assessing individuals who had recently traveled to Wuhan, China — seemed more than sufficient to dispel any risks. There were eleven reported cases in the United States at the time, but none in New Jersey.
In the ensuing eleven months of 2020, the COVID pandemic changed the town of Princeton as it changed the lives of almost everyone across the globe. Eighteen Princeton residents died with confirmed cases of COVID, according to the Princeton Health Department, and an additional 13 deaths (symptomatic but not tested) were probably COVID-related — most in long-term care facilities and almost all in the first three months of the pandemic.
There have been more than 470 cases since the first case was reported in Princeton on March 13, and in the final days of 2020 health officials are continuing to report record numbers of new cases daily. More than 400 Princeton residents have recovered from COVID-19.
STAYING IN TUNE: Seven-year-old Albert Zhou kept up with his cello lessons via Skype with Laurie Cascante, his teacher at Westminster Conservatory of Music. The pandemic took music and dance lessons out of the studio and onto the computer and television screen. (Photo courtesy of Qiwei He)
The pandemic forced Princeton and its residents to adapt in almost every aspect of their lives. Stores and work places shut down; all but essential workers stayed home; lives moved from in-person work, school, play, and socializing to the virtual realm, as online activities multiplied and Zoom became a prominent part of many people’s lives. School buildings and the Princeton University campus were mostly deserted.
“We’re all in this together,” Mayor Liz Lempert proclaimed, and Princeton displayed unprecedented capacity to work collaboratively, as local government, community partners, and generous individuals teamed up to provide much-needed support for struggling institutions, businesses, and neighbors.
Prevailing over the multiple challenges of communications and interactions that were usually restricted to the virtual realm, the Princeton Council finalized a long-debated affordable housing agreement. With the co-leadership of Sustainable Princeton and a host of other environmental organizations, the Council continued to successfully implement its ambitious Climate Action Plan. And the Alexander Street/Road three bridges project, which seemed like a priority at the time it was initiated, was completed on schedule in April.
Though somewhat muted in comparison to gatherings of recent years, demonstrations in Princeton took place in support of Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, diplomacy not war, voting rights, and the post office.
Controversy continued over Westminster Choir College. While Rider University has moved much of the institution to its Lawrence campus, Rider cannot proceed with a sale of the campus as long as legal efforts continue — and they are continuing.
Elections — most notably for mayor, Council, and public School Board, in addition to the national election — were different too, with most voters voting by mail and everybody waiting a bit longer to find out the final results.
And it wasn’t only the coronavirus that contributed to the many changes in town. Princeton will be starting 2021 with a new mayor, a new police chief, and many new leaders taking the helm of many of the town’s most esteemed and influential institutions and organizations.
“Traffic” was the first word in the headline of last year’s 2019 in review article, as the Alexander Street bridges replacement project dragged on and other roads into town were backed up with lines of frustrated drivers. But 2020 has been a year like no other. Suddenly, in March 2020, the roads were no longer congested and the perennial Princeton parking problem lessened, but the pandemic continues to take its toll in so many other devastating ways.
SILENCE ON THE SQUARE: Palmer Square was practically empty on the afternoon of Friday, March 20 as residents and visitors heeded requests to stay at home and practice social distancing. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)
As the pandemic spread rapidly in mid-March, Princeton, with the leadership and guidance of local authorities, pivoted quickly. Retail establishments shut down, most offices went virtual, most schools moved to remote learning. Most Princeton University students were required to leave campus by March 19, with virtual classes in all subjects beginning on March 23. The University students remained off campus through the fall term, but all have been invited back in February 2021 for the second semester.
Near the end of March, with 30 cases having been reported in Princeton, Public Health Officer Jeff Grosser stated, “We’re not out of the woods yet,” and the mayor added that the official numbers were probably significantly understated.
In April, as case numbers continued to rise, outbreaks and multiple casualties occurred at Princeton Care Center and Acorn Glen. Local support organizations and individuals sprang into action to help feed and care for individuals and families in need. The Princeton Public Schools (PPS) teamed up with Send Hunger Packing Princeton and other organizations to provide meals for 500 students. Princeton University launched a $1 million relief fund for the community. The Princeton Health Department, with the guidance of state and federal authorities, worked with the long-term care facilities to bring the outbreaks under control.
COMMUNITY COMES TOGETHER: For week one of Town Topics’ campaign highlighting fun projects for kids to do, we asked local youths to send in images of chalk art. This colorful design was created by Tommy, 13, and Sophia, 18.
As the summer approached, Princeton began to see fewer new cases. The curve began to flatten. “Princeton Looks to Reopening — With Restrictions” was the May 20 headline. A July 1 headline referenced the “bumpy road back,” as the Council moved to facilitate reopening by easing parking regulations and sidewalk use requirements for restaurants and businesses, and making Witherspoon Street one-way from Nassau Street to Spring Street. A July headline noted “No New COVID Cases in the Past 2.5 Weeks.”
Despite extensive contact tracing and mitigation efforts by local health authorities, Princeton was not immune to the second wave of the pandemic. September saw the beginning of a spike that gained momentum in October and November, with the onset of colder weather and more indoor activities, students traveling to and from colleges, and the holiday season approaching.
By the week of Thanksgiving, the second wave was in full force with Princeton recording record high new case numbers. Though “COVID fatigue” and carelessness have set-in in certain quarters, the second wave has so far been less deadly than the first, with long-term care centers under control, and Princeton residents more experienced in mask-wearing, social distancing, and other precautionary measures.
The last two weeks of the year have brought the arrival of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, with a roll-out plan that could see most Princeton residents vaccinated by late spring and perhaps an end of the pandemic in sight.
DINING AL FRESCO: The outdoor tables at restaurants along Witherspoon Street were popular with locals and visitors alike this summer. Town officials were able to keep some outdoor dining going into the fall and winter months. (Photo by Weronika A. Plohn)
Keeping Downtown Alive During COVID
Once the pandemic began and people were urged to stay home, it didn’t take long for local retailers and restaurants to start losing customers and worrying about the bottom line.
The downtown and Princeton Shopping Center business communities were hit hard. Among the businesses to close this year were Marlowe’s, Kitchen Kapers, Brooks Brothers, Bon Appetit (in Princeton Shopping Center), New York Sports Club, and Modern Nails.
There was welcome relief from the Princeton University Relief Fund, the Princeton Small Business Resiliency Fund, and corporate and private donors. To keep restaurants open and encourage patronage of local shops, the municipality turned Witherspoon Street between Nassau and Spring streets into a one-way stretch, making room for outdoor dining along the sidewalks. The effort was a success, and the town was crowded — some would say over-crowded — with patrons on weekends.
Once fall turned to winter, some retailers wanted to turn the street back to its two-way, pre-COVID status. Many residents hoped the street would either stay one way, or become closed to vehicular traffic altogether. This month, Princeton Council voted in favor of an ordinance that keeps the one-way traffic arrangement, flowing north, in place.
To encourage local shopping during the holiday season, the municipality and local merchants began promotions before Thanksgiving. Special shopping incentives and a Winter Village with small chalets selling art and other objects, curated by the Arts Council of Princeton, were put in place.
CONNECTING NEIGHBORHOODS: Blair Miller, founder of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project, prepared to distribute bags of food and other necessities at the Free Store/Tienda Gratis, also known as Studio Hillier, on Witherspoon Street. Thousands of “neighbors bags” have been made available in the project for neighbors in need, local businesses, and community members looking to help. (Photo courtesy of Blair Miller)
A settlement agreement between Princeton and the Fair Share Housing Center was approved in February, ending almost five years of litigation initiated by municipal officials. A compliance hearing in November completed the final step in this third round of municipal housing obligations.
The plan is a mix of inclusionary developments, 100 percent affordable housing development, senior units, family units, and mixed income projects. The judgment protects the town from a builder’s remedy lawsuit, which allows a developer to file a suit for the opportunity to construct housing at higher densities than a municipality would otherwise allow.
Virtual public meetings on the topic were well attended by members of the community. The organization Princeton Future held productive gatherings about bringing affordable and market-rate housing to the former hospital parking lot on Franklin Avenue, and a task force is now studying the initiative.
The first affordable housing project to come on line will be the Thanet Circle properties, which will include 221 apartments, six of which are affordable, and five of which will be special needs units. Additional projects that are planned, in addition to Franklin Avenue and Maple Terrace, include new affordable units at Princeton Community Village, 375 Terhune Road, and at the site of the former SAVE animal shelter site on Herrontown Road.
Princeton Public Schools
PPS started 2020 with a large public gathering on January 25 and an emphasis on community involvement in planning to address concerns over equity, growing enrollments, and aging facilities at the six district schools.
On the agenda was the implementation of facilities improvements scheduled for all the schools with major renovations and additional classrooms, mostly now complete, at Princeton Unified Middle School (PUMS). Ongoing work on the referendum projects will include renovation of the guidance area, addition of new classrooms, and creation of a new remote dining facility at Princeton High School.
On March 16, the focus shifted as schools shut down and remote learning brought major new challenges. Plans changed frequently, at the mercy of the spreading pandemic. Flexibility and creativity were essential in all facets of the school
Superintendent Steve Cochrane stepped down on July 1, and Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso took over as PPS continued to navigate its way through the complexities of remote, in-person, and hybrid learning in the pandemic. Original plans called for a phase-in of a hybrid system, but staffing and social distancing challenges, along with the vicissitudes of the pandemic and exposures to infection in the community, necessitated several returns to periods of remote learning throughout the fall term.
John Witherspoon Middle School became Princeton Unified Middle School in August after the BOE voted, in response to a petition with more than 1,500 signatures, to remove the name of John Witherspoon, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of Princeton University, but also a slaveholder opposed to abolition.
Students, teachers, school officials, and representatives from the community have been working together and will decide by June 30, 2021 on a permanent new name for the middle school that will better reflect the values of the school and the community.
Continuing to improve equity and remote learning, keeping children and staff safe and healthy as they come back into the schools, and hiring a new permanent superintendent are among the districts’s top priorities in the months ahead.
ALL QUIET AT NASSAU HALL: On what would have been Princeton Reunions P-Rade Day on Saturday, May 30, the Nassau Hall lawn remained mostly empty. A virtual P-Rade was held instead. Princeton University’s 273rd commencement was also held virtually this year, with an in-person event planned for the Class of 2020 on campus next May. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)
Many of the traditions of Princeton University transitioned to the virtual realm after the March shutdown. At the end of May, the University
celebrated virtual reunions, a virtual P-rade, and a virtual graduation ceremony, with speakers including Princeton University’s first Black valedictorian, Nicholas Johnson.
As classes continued remotely throughout the spring and again this fall, many University professors and other researchers refocused their work to address pandemic concerns, such as the development of personal protective equipment and ventilators, and the economic effects of pandemic shutdowns on marginalized groups. The University also created its own COVID testing lab.
RENAMING: Visitors viewed the “Double Sights” Installation, presenting both positive and negative views of Woodrow Wilson, in front of the Princeton (formerly Woodrow Wilson) School of Public and International Affairs. On June 26, Princeton University’s Board of Trustees decided to remove Wilson’s name from campus buildings because of his racism and segregationist policies. (Photo by Erica M. Cardenas)
Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber announced multiple initiatives to expand diversity and inclusion and to combat systemic racism. On June 26 the Princeton University trustees voted to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and international Affairs and from the Wilson residential college because of his “racist thinking and policies.”
Large alumni gifts came from Jose E. Feliciano and Kwanza Jones for two new dormitories and from Mellody Hobson for a new residential college, as the University pursues its goal of undergraduate expansion.
UPROOTED: This tree on the Westminster Choir College campus was among the casualties of Tropical Storm Isaias, which slammed Princeton with heavy rain and winds on Tuesday, August 4. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)
Westminster Choir College
Now going on four years, the saga of Rider University and Westminster Choir College continues. After an unsuccessful attempt to sell Westminster, with which it merged in 1992, Rider this year moved the Princeton-based choir school to its Lawrenceville location. The plan is to sell the Princeton campus.
But legal hurdles remain. The Westminster Foundation, a nonprofit made up of alumni and supporters of the choir college, has sued the University claiming terms of the 1992 merger prohibit the sale. Whether Rider will be able to sell depends on the outcome of the lawsuits, which have yet to receive a final ruling. A court date for the latest round of oral arguments is soon to be scheduled, according to a spokesperson for the Foundation.
The legal back-and-forth and the pandemic have had serious effects. In April, Moody’s downgraded Rider’s bond rating to junk status. Enrollment at Westminster has declined precipitously. But the Foundation continues its fight to reclaim the Princeton campus.
Alexander Street Bridges
There was widespread anxiety when the municipality announced late last year that Alexander Street and part of Alexander Road, major connectors from downtown Princeton to Route 1, would be closed for the replacement of two bridges. Several months of commuting misery were predicted.
But the pandemic hit midway through the project, unexpectedly cutting down traffic as people adhered to guidelines and stayed home.
After seven months of construction, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and Mercer County announced that the bridges on Alexander Street in Princeton and Alexander Road in West Windsor had been replaced with wider, safer spans. The projects were completed on time.
MAKING A STATEMENT: The Arts Council of Princeton’s new mural, “Vote,” made a statement on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring streets in downtown Princeton a few weeks before the election. (Photo by Weronika A. Plohn)
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert announced a year ago that she would be stepping down at the end of 2020. Mark Freda will be stepping up. A longtime volunteer for the Princeton Fire Department, president of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, and formerly a member of the Borough Council for 13 years, Freda ran unopposed for mayor and will take over on January 4.
Incumbents David Cohen and Leticia Fraga were re-elected to Princeton Council, defeating challenger Dina Shaw in the July Democratic primary and running unopposed on the Democratic ticket in the November election. No Republicans ran in the mayoral or Council elections.
Eight candidates competed for the PPS Board of Education, with new candidate Jean Durbin and incumbents Beth Behrend, currently BOE president, and Michele Tuck-Ponder, BOE vice president, winning the three available spots.
“DIPLOMACY, NOT WAR”: More than 200 protesters gathered at Hinds Plaza on Saturday, January 11 for a “No War with Iran” rally. The event featured 10 speakers from political, academic, religious, and military communities, along with music. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)
In early June, demonstrators gathered on Nassau Street to protest the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter had earlier released a statement condemning the violent police actions. Princeton Police Officer Courtney Navas stood in solidarity with the protestors.
Policing issues in the country became a focal point for discussion in subsequent community virtual dialogues at a meeting of Princeton Council, at a Princeton Community Democratic Organization police forum, and at a forum conducted as part of Joint Effort Safe Streets.
In response to the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general and the increased threat of war with Iran, the Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA) led a rally for diplomacy not war with Iran on January 11. In leading up to the 2020 elections, the CFPA also conducted its extensive Peace Voter Campaign, including peace voter guides. The CFPA also co-sponsored a Save the Post Office rally on August 22 and a Protect the Results rally in Princeton on the day after the election.
A POIGNANT STORY: The open space of St. Michael’s Farm Preserve was once the site of an orphanage where Josephine Allen lived as a small child. Now a volunteer with D&R Greenway, which preserved the land, Allen spoke at a program about how she finds solace spending time at the site. (Photo by Carl Geisler)
Many bicyclists, at least, found cause for celebration in the dearth of cars on the road during the pandemic lockdown. A bicycling boom took place with local bike stores selling out and more cyclists of all ages on the streets. Princeton’s Bike Boulevards, loops ranging from 4.5 to 16 miles connecting residents with the schools and most other parts of town, enhanced the experience and the allure for cyclists.
A silver Bicycle Friendly Community award this month from the League of American Bicyclists recognized efforts by the Princeton Bicycle Advisory Committee and the municipality and highlighted Princeton as the most bike-friendly town in the state.
In February the Mercer County Improvement Authority clamped down on recycling scofflaws and began enforcing the recycling rules with red tags and no pick-up for bins containing improperly recycled materials.
And as Princeton continues on track with its Climate Action Plan for reduced emissions — by 50 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, by 65 percent by 2040, and by 80 percent by 2050 — electric vehicles have been in the news and gaining popularity.
An electric vehicle and e-bike event at the Princeton Shopping Center (PSC), sponsored by the PSC, Sustainable Princeton, and NRG Energy Inc., demonstrated the advantages of electric vehicles, and Princeton Council is considering an ordinance to increase the number of electric charging stations around town.
Departures and Appointments
This was a year for leadership change. Mayor Liz Lempert will end her two four-year terms on December 31. New Mayor Mark Freda will be sworn in January 1. Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter was on the force for 25 years, six as chief, before he retired on October 1. Former Captain Christopher Morgan is now Chief Morgan.
Penn Medicine Princeton Health CEO Barry Rabner steps down as of December 31, retiring after 18 years at the job. A successor has not been announced. Peter Crowley, president and CEO of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber, retires as of December 31; Hal English takes his place. Judy Hutton, CEO of YWCA Princeton, led the organization for 13 years before retiring on June 30. Tay Walker was announced in May as the organization’s new executive director.
After an extensive search, the Arts Council of Princeton named Adam Welch, the director of New York’s Greenwich House Pottery, as executive director in August. And, following an equally long search, McCarter Theatre named Sarah Rasmussen, former artistic director of Minneapolis’ Jungle Theatre, to succeed retiring artistic director Emily Mann in April.
Richard Tang Yuk, executive and artistic director of the Princeton Festival, announced his departure in September after 16 years. In November, American Repertory Ballet named Ethan Stiefel, a former principal dancer with American
Ballet Theatre, as new artistic director.
Community leaders, activists, and philanthropists were among the notable individuals Princeton lost this year. From Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center, who died suddenly at the very end of 2019 while on vacation in Hawaii, to Roger Berlind, the Princeton University alumnus and Broadway producer who funded the Berlind Theatre as part of an expansion of McCarter Theatre Center, and died December 18, there were many influential people on the list.
Activists who made a difference in the community included Daniel Harris and Stephanie Chorney. Former Mayor Marvin Reed, photographer and prominent Witherspoon-Jackson resident Romus Broadway, Suppers Program founder Dorothy Mullen, and philanthropist Betty Wold Johnson were among those who died this year.
The loss of Bob Gregory, Princeton Emergency Services director, was keenly felt. Ruth Mandel, a champion of women in politics and longtime head of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics; J. Seward Johnson Jr., sculptor and Johnson heir; and renowned math genius and technological visionary Freeman Dyson also passed on.
SIGN OF THE SEASON: The Palmer Square Tree Lighting was virtual this year, but the 33,000 bulbs on the 70-foot Norway spruce tree lit up the night and enchanted visitors throughout the holiday season. (Photo by Charles R.Plohn)