Businesses rose to the challenge of the pandemic. When will Montclair leaders? (Town Square)
By MIKE GUERRIERO
Special to Montclair Local
I will never forget March 14, 2020.
After almost being trapped in Italy the month prior, we left a country that was shutting things down, handing out masks and doing public testing to head to our home in the “greatest country” in the world. When we got here, there were no masks available, our doctor said they had no tests for us, and many were still in denial that COVID-19 would become an issue here, as if Italy and Europe were on some alien planet.
Our federal strategy was to deny it was an issue and (fingers crossed) it would magically disappear. Doesn’t seem all that great to me.
On March 14, a few days before New Jersey would close, I received an Uber Eats order from a customer who would later become a friend of the shop. We'll call the customer JB. She ordered ice cream, and, in the notes, she left a plea for help.
"Mike, I don’t know you, but I see all you do in the Montclair community," she wrote. "I lost my infant child this week. Due to COVID we cannot have a funeral and bury our child, leave the house for supplies, and my husband who works in a hospital, on the front lines, is stuck in the basement in quarantine. Could you please spare some paper towels, supplies? I would gladly pay for them."
This message is how the pandemic began for us.
We packed out a care package for her and we shared a little of her story on Facebook, just enough to tell our customers that if there is ANYTHING they needed, they could message us. I took JB’s message home to my wife. I read it to her. We sat there for a half hour and just cried in each other’s arms.
Here are our leaders on TV every day trying to deny that anything is wrong, and here is someone in our community who lost their child to something they told you not to worry about. We began work the next day, giving up our salary and paying our bills to use our platform to purchase supplies wholesale and deliver them to the community. In 2020 we donated and helped deliver 60,000 meals and bags of groceries to those in need in Essex and Passaic County. That is in addition to the more than 10,000 ice creams we donated during the peak weeks of the pandemic to Mountainside hospital, to treat our frontline workers in town.
We survived two years of this pandemic. Rising cost of goods, or no goods at all. Sick staff, or no staff at all. Curveballs daily from state, local and federal mandates that made you nervous each day as to whether you were in compliance, which, looking back, was silly because there was no enforcement. There were no inspections or officials checking in on us at all. We had to reinvent the wheel, ourselves offering ice cream delivery on day one, months before national brands and delivery apps with their expensive R&D departments thought to do it. We created kiosks, pint of the month clubs, and new ways of scheduling and staffing. We even pivoted to selling dairy and groceries.
We always did what was right because we always believed that eventually our leaders would take care of us, but in the moment, we had to address the needs of our community. Chance after chance, we have given our leaders the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to address our needs, and yet their actions show us time and again how out of touch with the community they really are.
Take, for instance, outdoor dining. We were told they couldn’t allow more dining on Bloomfield Avenue because it is a county road. Well then how did Caldwell and other towns do it? They told us they couldn’t close Bloomfield Avenue for a special event to stimulate business. Well then how did a private organization do it for the Montclair Jazz Festival?
When the broken parking meters became a large issue this fall, the community was unanimous in wanting to rescind the silly rule that allowed the township to ticket at a broken meter. Councilman Peter Yacobellis heard the call and proposed it, but even council members who represent the downtown and sit on the parking committee all voted against the community’s wishes, citing revenue. They didn’t have an alternative idea, or another way to make it work. It was a simply a hard no. Why?
My favorite example was the elected school board. Every council person seemingly wrote an op-ed talking about civil rights as a reason to keep the undemocratic process of just appointing the board, although the NAACP education chair Diane Anglin said an elected board would better serve the youth. I saw more op-eds and posts from local officials on this issue than in two years of the pandemic, and I am so happy that unlike other issues, this was put to a vote — a vote where the council could see that 80% of the township favored the opposite of what they thought was best.
I have a lingering suspicion, call it a hunch, that if more issues like broken meters, helping the downtown, ending parking variances for developers and many other proposals that the township constantly shoots down were put to votes, the township would see that they rarely represent the interests and opinions of those that voted them into office in the first place.
Let’s not just put out a statement of being an inclusive town. Let’s do something to show it. Let’s not just say "support small business." Lets do things to support them.
In the same way small businesses in town like Samba, Stuffed Grassfed Burgers, Montclair Bread Company, our shop, and the many more put the community and their needs above money and our own interests, it’s time the township did the same thing.
Although it’s two years into the pandemic, it’s never too late to start doing the right thing. Come downtown and work a day with one of us. See how hard it is to dodge COVID-19 and giant rents, to find staff that can walk or take the bus because there is nowhere for employees to park, to get spit on by the homeless or drunks who have free run of the downtown, to clean up broken liquor bottles outside our shops, to fend off angry customers who don’t want to wear masks, to budget with increases to some supplies of nearly 50%, to try to make customers feel comfortable with rising cases, to try to turn a profit, and then to make it back to your car after a 12-hour day working alone because your staff is sick and find you've gotten a parking ticket.
Come walk a day in our shoes and I promise you the first thing you’ll want to do is take action that you have the power today to do.
Mike Guerriero is the owner of Guerriero Gelato in Montclair and Caldwell. The Montclair shop closed indefinitely this month amid rising community coronavirus cases and staff outages.
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