The holiday shopping season is upon us – that time when retail stores might make a big chunk of their income for the year as people rush to get gifts for everyone on their list.
But it’s going to look very different this year thanks to the coronavirus. And there’s still a chance that Gov. Phil Murphy might decide to shut down the so-called nonessential retail stores in an attempt to reduce transmission.
The stores the state deemed nonessential — including appliance stores, toy stores, book stores and more — were completely closed this spring until the governor permitted them to reopen for curbside service only beginning May 18. They were able to open to in-store customers June 15 if they met requirements including capacity limits, clear plastic barriers, universal masking and signs and markers to promote social distancing.
Murphy has said he will consider every option as he tries to stem the tide of new COVID-19 cases. But he and state health officials have also said that the most frequent cause of outbreaks, according to information gleaned through contact tracing, is people holding gatherings in their homes, as opposed to business-related spread.
The state reported 4,679 more coronavirus cases and 34 additional deaths Saturday while hospitalizations rose for the 22nd straight day. The statewide seven-day average for new positive tests is up 29% from a week ago and 278% from a month earlier.
We asked three experts whether they think Murphy should consider shutting down nonessential retail to curb the spread of the virus. Here’s what they had to say.
Bindu Balani, infectious disease doctor at Hackensack University Medical Center and faculty physician at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine:
Balani said that she thinks these stores can remain open as long as they are taking the state’s guidelines and restrictions seriously.
“I think in that perspective, they have actually done a pretty significant amount of changes — restricting the number of people inside the store, having the essential workers behind the cash registers being well protected, which is very, very important,” she said.
People should not hang out in stores for long periods of time given the greater risk of transmission indoors, but they can still pop in to buy something, she said.
“You just need to have the responsibility to say… you know exactly what you want and you get in, get out, and don’t linger around. Try to stay six feet away from the other people within that same store,” she said.
D. Brian Nichols, virologist and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Seton Hall University:
Nichols also recommended limiting your time in a retail store because of the risk of being indoors with other people, and suggested stores could keep taking steps like keeping doors and windows open even in the cold to promote airflow.
He’d also like to see more nonessential retailers providing curbside pickup options.
“I think a lot of them have adopted that, so people don’t have to walk in but they can still sell somebody some merchandise. I think they still hurt a little bit because they lose a little bit of the business from browsing, so I’d hate to shut that down entirely if it was if it were my decision,” he said.
“What I worry about the most is not so much the shoppers, if they’re social distancing and have their masks on,” he said. “But I do worry about the employees who are there. Because many of them, they just simply have a Plexiglas barrier that protects them from somebody else… When I go into a lot of drugstores and places, there are usually plenty of gaps in between these Plexiglas barriers.”
Corey Basch, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health at William Paterson University:
Basch said that people should avoid shopping in person if possible because they could catch the virus not just from the particles in the air but also from surfaces, if the store isn’t cleaning frequently.
“Think about when you want to complete your shopping and if you must be in a retail space to do that, or if it can be done online,” she said. “To reduce your risk, it is highly recommended that this take place at times when the store is less busy. For older individuals and those with underlying health conditions, take advantage of early openings and hours that are reserved for these populations.”
As we get more comfortable being back in stores, it’s important not to let your guard down, she said.
“Maintain your distance while in the store, continuously keep your mask on and consider the level of filtration that the mask you are using has,” she said.
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Rebecca Everett may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.