Good evening. Happy New Year to everyone. Happy 2021. I don’t think any of us have wanted to usher in a new year so badly as this one. First, a moment of silence for the 66 Berkeley Heights residents who have lost their lives and the 713 residents who have battled COVID19, the horrific virus that has wreaked havoc on our lives and our economy.
Given the historic nature of the past year, today you may regard this speech as atypical from previous State of the Township addresses. It is important to remember how our community came together and rose to combat the pandemic. It was a year in which we had to adjust and adapt. It was a somber year, but also one which showed our resilience and our collective strength when we work together.
Never could I have imagined when I ran for Mayor in 2018 that I would be tasked with managing a global pandemic, locally, a little over a year after taking office. I could not fathom a daily routine of reporting the statewide and county number of patients hospitalized, those admitted into ICU, those on a ventilator and, sadly, those who died. I will never forget the first time I reported the death of a Berkeley Heights resident at one of our Long-Term Care facilities (LTCs) and, as recently as last week, in our community. It does not get easier.
New every-day words entered our lives in 2020: social distance, hand sanitizer, masks, travel bans, birthday honks, reductions in indoor and outdoor capacity. Regular residents formed groups like BH FLAG and Neighbors Helping Neighbors to help front line and essential workers, seniors, and residents in need with every day matters we took for granted like childcare. Mask delivery from members of the community to our first responders and to veterans showed how we took care of one another.
Many of us dusted off our bikes and began a new healthy routine of walking regularly with loved ones and many, many walks with our beloved dogs. Dog and pet adoption at an all-time high. We truly saw our neighbors and stopped to take the time to ask how they were doing.
So, it was reasonable in January and February, when we watched Asia and Europe fall into an abyss of a global pandemic, we felt hopeful about 2020 with the prospect of graduations, spring sports seasons, weddings, vacations, birthday parties, family gatherings for holidays, travel abroad or just travel across state lines. What was to transpire has been a roller-coaster of emotion and feelings.
By March 9, 2020 the first case of Coronavirus was reported in Berkeley Heights. The Office of Emergency Management team and I took a conservative approach to the pandemic, declaring a State of Emergency. Shortly thereafter, I ordered the closure of Township playgrounds and parks as well as local government offices by mid-March. Our world came to a screeching halt when the Governor issued a stay-at-home order on March 21. We anxiously watched the daily press briefings as childcare centers and non-essential businesses closed. Union County became the first county Covid testing site to open in New Jersey - at Kean University.
In April, 2020 though parks and golf courses reopened, we were learning of asymptomatic patients that were impacting Long Term Care facilities and triggering a staggering death toll. It became clear our community was not immune to this deadly virus. I ordered flags half-staff on April 3rd to honor residents lost only three weeks after the first case. Foreign-licensed physicians were called upon to combat shortage of doctors as our health care system in New Jersey was in crisis while New York Governor Cuomo sent 100 ventilators to New Jersey - a shortage that seemed impossible and a concept unimaginable just a few weeks prior. The state and federal government launched small business loan programs, but many businesses cannot complete an application before funds were depleted. Covid-19 testing was at an unprecedented new high at the Union County testing site and by early April all state and county parks were also closed. I wrote about my experience volunteering at the site—the fear of those coming in droves to be tested. A shortage of public workers emerges as front-line workers were struck by the virus and the Governor allows retired public workers and law enforcement to rejoin the workforce without penalty. It is impossible to think, now reflecting back, that no mask requirement was in effect but only a strong suggestion.
Bright spots emerged despite the darkness that seem to fall upon our community Berkeley Heights Business Aid is launched to help raise funds to enable our struggling businesses stay to afloat during shut down. Easter 2020 will be emblazoned in my mind as the Easter Bunny traveled the Township on the Berkeley Heights Fire Department firetruck. I can never forget, seeing the faces of children and those of adults in tears at the prospect of some normalcy and connection. Running aside the bunny not wanting to let go of that hopeful moment. Our isolation was difficult.
Then, it seemed as though the pandemic stood still from a moment on May 25, 2020 when the life was squeezed out of George Floyd in 8 minutes 46 seconds. A recording-breaking number of residents came out on June 7th to March for Black Lives in Berkeley Heights. It was the beginning of doing the hard work of being truthful about systematic racism and discrimination, at a time that xenophobia was bubbling up in the Asian community with the spread of coronavirus. So many of our neighbors and friends have suffered in silence as we have since come to know. I commend all of you for breaking your silence.
Yet with all the darkness, a light shined once again showing the best of us. Our Berkeley Heights Police Department stood in the streets-- in front of the homes of our veterans-- offering a stirring and beautiful tribute to our war heroes playing Taps and saluting them. This served as another moment of community connection as we cannot hold our traditional Memorial Day remembrance. It is true that May 2020 vacillated between an easing of our collective anxiety to a stark realization of the destruction the virus had created. Non-essential businesses reopened to curbside pick-up and tennis courts opened for singles. We collectively exhaled, as we began to see numbers trend on the backside of the curve. Yet, one of the most challenging issues to confront us as parents, on-line learning, would remain in place as Governor Murphy announced schools would remain closed for the remainder of the year. This just as the number of unemployment claims for the year exceeded 1 million - a 524 percent jump from 2019, according to the state Labor Department.
Despite a high of 97 actives cases among our vulnerable population institutions (VPIs) or LTCs, June 2020 saw the stay-at-home order lifted, indoor and outdoor capacity increased at our businesses, restaurants reopened with outdoor seating, seniors banners were hung in our downtown for our GLHS graduates and luckily, personal care facilities reopened.
A spike in young adult Covid cases occurred in July, and regardless, our seniors graduated-- though not together-- in an unprecedented graduation ceremony that required two groups. Much of New Jersey reopened. As was our luck in 2020, August brought Superstorm Isaias, causing me to write the Governor insisting on changes to regulations and communication that the BPU should require of power companies. We rounded out the summer with intensified negotiations with the developer of the municipal complex, Epic, to amend the redevelopment agreement to tighten up areas of concern and ensure substantial completion in 2020.
The return to in-person/hybrid learning ushered in September 2020 with trepidation and excitement. As construction progressed with the new municipal complex, an old vehicle buried deep beneath the new parking lot was extricated, as 2020 would have it. We proved, once again, that we were truly all in it together as Delicious Heights and DiMaios offered their outdoor dining areas for our seniors to safely assemble for bingo. Embassy Suites hotel offered socially distanced exercise space for our seniors when the weather was inclement to meet up at lower Columbia. The Township was able to remember Commander Murphy & Scott Hazelcorn who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks. The light at Snyder Avenue and Locust was installed and energized, which proved to be a high point of the entire year. Voting by mail began resulting in a record number of votes cast in 2020.
Firmly entrenched in the second wave, we learned we must remain vigilant with our masks, social distance and practice frequent hand sanitizing. October 2020 also marked the return to a number of important township issues while keeping a mindful eye on the pandemic. I am proud to have led the effort to get a bill introduced in Senate and Assembly to allow municipalities to establish priority for first responders for affordable housing. The Township Council passed the Mondelli Park maintenance agreement, and an unusual Halloween was marked by socially distanced trick-or-treating and a memorable Trunk or Treat sponsored by our wonderful PBA at Connell. Despite the pandemic, the Township moved on with the westside drainage study and infrastructure pushes on. Berkeley Heights hosts one of the first Union County Covid mobile testing site for our residents.
November 2020 the Township witnessed a large spike in student Covid cases as a result of indoor Halloween parties, causing virtual classes at GL as well as a pause on outdoor sports. But by December 2020, the Township employees moved into the new building and the community mastered the art of the virtual event with Veteran’s Day, Christmas tree lighting, menorah lighting and Diwali celebration. What we missed greatly this year was Winter Walk and the July 16th Mt Carmel fireworks. Both hallmarks of Berkeley Heights.
After this grueling and difficult last year, I submit that we have gained more than we have lost. In times and moments of utter turmoil and fear, we are all in it together. We helped one another when it mattered most. More time with our family proved to be the best gift we could have wished for; teachers are to be revered as remote learning is hard on us all, from kindergarten to college and parents; essential workers like grocery store and delivery personnel are to be exalted in our community; doctors, nurses, health care providers are angels and cause for daily celebration; front line workers such as our local police department, our volunteer rescue squad and fire department, our DPW, our sewer department never wavered in their commitment to the Township. Township employees were taxed beyond what they thought they could do. They got the job done. Many of these people who we took for granted were now our everyday heroes. Our residents continued to step up to help. As they say, “things don’t get easier, you get better.” We are so much better, Berkeley Heights.
So I ask you, imagine a world where Black Lives Matter and we respect and celebrate our police department; imagine a world where your color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious background or learning differences are admired; imagine a world where we can agree or disagree on politics and still love our neighbor regardless of their party label. Imagine a world where we can hug, hold hands, dance together, come together as a community and just BE with one another. That is what I wish for every resident in Berkeley Heights. Happy 2021.