As a community banker, I see the toll the pandemic has had on small businesses on a daily basis. Many small businesses that we know personally are struggling to survive. While I completely understand the need to proceed with caution when it comes to COVID-19 and re-opening businesses, I think we can and should be doing more.

Recent national data on the state of the small business community is extremely concerning. Yelp, the review website which has been tracking small business closures, reports that nationally 73,000 businesses have permanently closed since March 1. Researchers from Harvard think the number of permanent business closures since March 1 is closer to 110,000.

We need to help small businesses get back to something that resembles normal and an important step is giving employers a fighting chance to rehire their employees. Small businesses simply cannot afford to pay entry-level employees an annualized salary of $60,000, which is what most people have been receiving in state and federal unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

Small business employers need a level playing field. Federal and state lending programs have provided important support to many, but most business owners are looking for a return to normalcy now before they add to the aforementioned statistics.

New Jersey has some of the most vibrant downtowns in the country, but those Main Street shops that have stayed open have been too quiet for too long. Give small businesses a chance to bring back employees and our downtowns will start to rebound. For that to happen, restaurants have to start serving people indoors.

Restaurants are the lifeblood of our downtowns. Restaurants, the largest private employers in New Jersey, help bring people into our shops and stores and are an important part of life in our small towns and cities. New Jersey's nearly 19,500 restaurants employ about 350,000 people, according to the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, and it’s time to put more of them back to work.

The overwhelming majority of our restaurants cannot survive by just offering takeout and outdoor dining if they even have the ability to do so. Furthermore, restaurants in Hunterdon County, where our bank is headquartered, are extremely disadvantaged by the fact that just a few miles away, across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, restaurants can serve people indoors. If Pennsylvania restaurants can serve customers indoors as long as they limit customers to 25 percent of their capacity, then New Jersey establishments should be able to do the same. New Jersey originally had the same plan for indoor dining and that seems more than reasonable.

New Jersey has done a good job of taking actions to protect our residents and flatten the COVID-19 curve. Most people have been responsible in practicing social distancing, wearing protective masks indoors in both public and non-public areas, and wearing protective masks outdoors when social distancing is not possible.

Most people want to do what is right for their family, neighbors and colleagues. We also need to do what is right for our state’s small businesses. We need to support one another through this pandemic in every possible way. If we fail, our downtowns will be ghost towns when COVID-19 is no longer the daunting healthcare challenge it is today. The pandemic has already taken far too many lives, don’t let it take our way of life too.

James A. Hughes is President & CEO of Unity Bank, headquartered in Clinton with 19 branches throughout New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.

August 11 2020