For some Montclair businesses, the coronavirus surge is just too much
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Mike Guerriero, owner of Guerriero’s Gelato shops in Montclair and Caldwell, spent Christmas monitoring his phone. He was waiting to see who’d call out next.
People were getting together for the holidays. Omicron was spreading through the country. And Montclair, like many other locations, was reaching some of the highest coronavirus case numbers it has ever seen — these days, about 30 to 40 times as high as in early November.
On Christmas Eve, Guerriero’s Gelato saw a record number of orders for the holiday, the owner said. But a few days before, staffers who’d been scheduled to work the day had been exposed to coronavirus. The replacement staff, Guerriero said, had been exposed as well.
“So, I ended up having to work on Christmas Eve by myself, you know? Going down to the shop in Montclair and doing deliveries for those orders, run back up to Caldwell and help customers there,” Guerriero said. “I was just really upset because I saw how busy it was and I just said to myself: ‘We missed a big opportunity,’ you know? We’re an ice cream shop, so we don’t get many opportunities during the cold weather months.”
Guerriero said he had to refuse and cancel orders because he wasn’t able to handle it all by himself. Customers also cancelled orders as their own events got called off.
“I left a lot on the table,” Guerriero said. “I went back home and I said to myself, ‘Things are bad.’”
Guerriero Gelato posted to Facebook on Monday, Jan. 3, that he was closing his Montclair location “indefinitely.” He’d consolidate the Montclair staff with the one in Caldwell, and directed his Montclair customers there for delivery and pickup.
“We survived two years of COVID, power outages, flooding, Ida and we kept getting up,” he wrote. “We finally have been knocked down.”
Guerriero said he doesn’t blame his employees for getting exposed. He said he has a successful business because of them.
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But the current surge of coronavirus cases is just too much for the business community, he said.
“This is going to boil up and it’s going to be too much for any business to handle,” Guerriero said. “And a lot of businesses were in the same boat and they were doing the same thing.”
The same day Guerriero posted about his closing, The Little Daisy Bake Shop wrote on Facebook it would be closed until Jan. 14 due to “the prevalence of COVID in and around our community.”
“The well-being of our team and customers has always been and continues to be a top priority,” the post reads. “We will be postponing or refunding orders already placed, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”
The Clairidge also announced the closure of the cinema until Monday, Jan. 10 at the earliest. It said in an announcement on its website that was due to a shortage of available staff, and an abundance of caution.
“We value the health and safety of our patrons and staff above all, and will notify everyone once we are able to properly staff the cinemas and provide the excellent filmgoing experience for which we are known,” the announcement reads.
Rachel Wyman, owner of Montclair Bread Company, also closed for the first week of January due to staff shortage amid the coronavirus surge.
In a Town Square guest column published by Montclair Local, Wyman described how she’s kept her company alive over the past two years, throughout the pandemic. But she wrote that the past few weeks have been the hardest.
“And then, for the first time in the two-year battle, we started to lose our foothold as one after another, my team members were under quarantine,” Wyman wrote. “Everyone picked up the slack with one person down, two people down, five people down. When half of our entire staff was under quarantine orders, I threw in the towel. I no longer had the drive to go it alone and bake as much as I could to just stay open.”
Wyman said she is thankful for the customers that stood by Montclair Bread Company “through countless technology changes, long lines to wait for orders, menu developments and price increases.”
And she pleaded for township officials to do more for small businesses, something that Guerriero also wants to see.
“I haven’t seen the mayor’s face in the two years of the pandemic, because the one time where they were handing out $1,000 checks and he went around and took pictures with people,” Guerriero said. “I don’t see him shopping downtown. I’m here every day. … I also understand that they’re also trying to stay safe but when I’m in Caldwell, when I’m in Newark, when I’m in Patterson, I see the mayor and the council supporting small business and posting stuff like that.”
Both Guerriero and Wyman referenced the indoor mask mandate instituted by the Township Council on Dec. 21, in effect until at least Jan. 21 (the council will decide Jan. 18 whether to extend it). Wyman wrote that her team was yelled at by customers angry they had to wear masks. She wrote though the township provided PDFs businesses could print and hang up letting people know about the rule, it “seems a bit too little, too late.”
Guerriero said the mask mandate, which he supports, might have set panic into the town.
“Although [the mandate] was to keep people safe and be cautious, I think a lot of people took it as there’s gotta be a lot of spread in the community,” Guerriero said. “So, I think once that happened, customers largely just decided to stay home.”
Wyman, in her column, asked residents to reach out to their elected officials to ask them to do more to help the business community.
“I want my team to see support from our local government while they are working around the clock and doing everything they can to support our community. I don’t want to see another social media post from another local business with headlines that reads ‘closed until further notice,’ ‘closed until next month,’ or ‘we had to make the difficult decision …’ We’ve already lost too many great businesses and we are going to lose more if we don’t do something,” she wrote.
Guerriero has been critical of the township’s relationship with small businesses in the past, saying the township hadn’t done enough to communicate in the pandemic. He’s also been critical of township officials as hundreds of parking meters failed after Verizon cut off the 2G service they used, but the Township Council maintained a rule that anyone parking has to pay, even if the meter at a spot was broken (drivers could instead use the ParkMobile app to pay). Most meters are now once again operational.
Throughout the pandemic, the township has taken some steps aimed at helping small businesses. It waived permit fees for sidewalk cafes and offered businesses grant funds in June of 2020. Free sidewalk cafe and “pedlet” permits were offered again in 2021. The LoveOurMontclair campaign and associated website, an initiative of the small business subcommittee of Mayor Sean Spiller’s Recovery Task Force, aims to promote local businesses.
Spiller told Montclair Local in an email the community was “contending with a perfect storm of an extraordinarily competitive labor market and an extremely contagious variant right now.”
He cited the grant funds, work by his task force to lobby for modified outdoor dining rules, town hall meetings on seeking state and federal grants, work with the Montclair Center Business Improvement District to secure more grants, the waived permit fees, and a temporary suspension of parking restrictions in the early months of the pandemic.
The mayor said he's had regularly scheduled meetings with business district representatives, and "further, I meet and speak with individual small business owners all the time."
“Unfortunately, this pandemic isn’t over and its impacts will continue to be felt for a long time — including financial and budgetary constraints on the township,” Spiller wrote. “We’re committed to continuing to work with our small business community throughout town to come out of this stronger on the other side. My door and the task force’s door is always open to any business that has concerns or ideas on how to better address challenges.”
Councilman Bob Russo, in a text to Montclair Local, said he personally shops frequently at Montclair businesses, including Guerriero's, and met recently with Wyman to talk about how local officials could do more.
And Councilman Peter Yacobellis told Montclair Local by email that he believes helping businesses means streamlining "cumbersome processes like applying for a sidewalk cafe permit or certificate of occupancy, putting real resources behind a comprehensive economic development strategy for the town, including marketing Montclair businesses to the region, and making the customer experience with the township infrastructure, e.g. parking meters, better."
Guerriero, for his part, said he’ll always love Montclair.
“But at the end of the day, I have to give myself and other merchants a fighting chance,” Guerriero said. “And if that means fighting, then that means fighting. If I gotta go down, you know? My shop’s gotta close down, I’m going to do it with a fight. I’m not going to do it standing by while we’re not getting any help.”