In the past two months, the coronavirus epidemic has killed almost 7,000 New Jersey residents, and sickened tens of thousand more. State directives have closed all but the most essential businesses, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without work and with no means to pay the bills. Looking ahead, we have to find ways to allow businesses to re-open, without putting public safety at risk. “Social distancing” has emerged as one of the most effective approaches we have to prevent spread of the virus, but social distancing in downtown Princeton is currently almost impossible, because people are packed together on narrow sidewalks. To keep people safe, and allow more businesses to re-open, we have to consider doing things differently, and that means closing streets to traffic so that people can space out more.
Some streets in downtown Princeton, such as Nassau Street, have relatively wide sidewalks, which allow people to maintain the 6-feet of separation that is recommended as a minimum to avoid the spread of coronavirus. Many other streets, such as Witherspoon Street, have sidewalks that are far too narrow. Previous efforts to increase the amount of space for pedestrians have been unsuccessful, because it has been argued that most of the street space should be dedicated for car traffic and on-street parking. Those issues are less important now, because traffic has dropped to a fraction of what Princeton normally sees. Instead, the major concern is public health, and restoring confidence so that more people can go downtown without catching a potentially-deadly disease.
Princeton has experience of opening streets to pedestrians, most notably at the extremely-popular annual ‘Communiversity‘ event. If we could implement something similar during the current crisis, it would allow people to maintain social distance in downtown Princeton, and feel safer returning to the central business district. Restaurants could place more tables in the street, maximizing the number of active tables, while ensuring that patrons are still seated a safe distance apart. There is some evidence that coronavirus infections are much less likely outside, compared to inside buildings. Enjoying more food outside could therefore help get the local economy going again, while at the same time reducing the risk of a second wave of coronavirus infections. Other stores could presumably also set up stalls in the street, as is done regularly at Labyrinth books.
Opening streets to pedestrians is something that has already been done in response to the coronavirus threat in many towns and cities around the world. Princeton should work as quickly as possible to make it happen here too. The most obvious street to open to pedestrians would be Witherspoon Street, between Nassau Street and Hulfish Street. Use of face masks would presumably also be required, until we are confident that community spread of the virus has been stamped out (as has been achieved in other countries, such as Korea and New Zealand). Instead of the usual months and years of discussions, the town must rededicate street space to maintain public safety immediately, and certainly no later than Memorial Day, or as soon as the Governor lifts the current ‘Stay-at-Home’ directive. Anything else will put Princeton residents at risk, and harm local businesses.