The buzz of excitement anticipated by the re-opening of businesses in the Southern Tier region on May 15 resulted in a small but visible increase in Commons activity in downtown Ithaca.
That’s just how local officials and business leaders want it: a measured approach, free of fervent crowds but gradually building back up. But all are hopeful and cautious about what happens next.
The tepid response on the Commons during Phase 1’s inaugural weekend points to the balance between optimism and anxiety that will likely see-saw over the next several weeks as the state’s phased re-opening plan, which is tied to metrics that will indicate the intensity of the pandemic locally, hopefully continues. How the summer plays out for small businesses will be the most intriguing. The first phase of reopening didn’t change very much for retailers, many of whom were already conducting curbside pick-up (although the stations around the Commons for pick-ups are a new addition), but it did signal the start to construction, industrial and agricultural sector jobs, etc., mostly businesses that are some mix of significant to the public, but relatively easy to retain social distance at. The next two weeks will determine if the region can move into Phase 2, which includes expansion of retail services, real estate, professional services and more.
Sunny Days owner Deirdre Kurzweil said that their business, which is family owned and only has three employees in Deirdre, her husband and son, will be taking things “slow and steady,” prioritizing proceeding at a speed they are comfortable with while considering state guidance.
“We want to wait and watch what happens as each Phase begins,” she said. “Even when Phase 2 begins, we will likely be starting with outside sales first. While we are eager to invite customers back into the store, we will be erring on the side of being extra cautious.”
Some of the adjustments Sunny Days, located on the Commons, has made are indicative of steps other local small business retailers may also take. Kurzweil said in terms of online service, they have been adding products to their web store so customers can possibly order something either for delivery or no contact pick-up. In front of their store, they’ve constructed a plexiglass barrier at the front door and set up a television with a series of images of products inside, a tweak that Kurzweil calls “an enhanced version of window shopping.”
Mayor Svante Myrick has been warning of the pandemic’s specific effects on Ithaca essentially since March 15, the day Cornell University sent a shock-wave through the area by announcing that it would be sending students home in reaction to the coronavirus outbreak, evaporating the most important revenue stream for Ithaca businesses.
“What I’m afraid of is we’re going to re-open and nobody is going to show up,” Myrick said. “And that that will create more problems then it solves. There’s nothing to do about that except develop a national testing and tracing and vaccine policy at the federal level. [...] The local government’s doing its job, and the regional control room is doing their work, and the state government is doing their work.”
Myrick’s fears aren’t unfounded. The overarching theme of this early stage of re-opening is caution: the health department couches each re-opening update with warnings that people should still adhere to social distancing, wear facial coverings, and generally stay inside, as they have been, in a way that the term “re-opening” doesn’t quite portray. So even as the news is encouraging, the official advisement continues to be, in so many words: “Keep doing what you were doing.” Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said last week that the “quarantine rules are still the same.”
Some data, while raw, shows that despite the reopenings many people are still remaining inside, even in places where public rules are rolling back quicker than New York. Restaurant reservation app OpenTable has been publishing data to show the impact of the shutdown on the restaurant industry in dozens of major cities around the world, and even those that are in regions or states which have initiated reopenings are seeing precipitous decline in patronage. In New York State, reservations and walk-in usage across OpenTable’s network of registered restaurants was down 99.98 percent year-over-year compared to 2019, and through Monday night that had only risen to 99.23 percent below last year. Even in states that are well on their way to a full re-opening, numbers are still down between 70-90 percent.
How successful a short-term economic recovery can be may additionally hinge on the return of the traditionally spend-friendly student population in fall. Ithaca College announced this week that they are aiming for an Oct. 5 restart of fall semester classes, in-person; President Shirley Collado said the school was “planting a stake in the ground,” using the date as a safe postponement from the normal schedule, which would have started Aug. 24. Cornell University and Tompkins Cortland Community College have both not announced their own plans for re-opening. In a CNBC appearance on Monday morning, Myrick said an autumn without students would be “cataclysmic” for Ithaca’s economy.
In an interview last week, Myrick explored that possibility in greater detail.
“We can crush the virus locally, which we’ve done a pretty good job of,” Myrick said. “But if parents from California don’t feel comfortable sending their kid across the country, we’ll open all of our stores and then look around and see the stores close again for lack of business, not because the government told them to close to flatten the curve. That’s what I’m worried about.”
One way to mitigate those potential pitfalls would be for Congress to pass a more comprehensive stimulus plan, Myrick said, something that would extend benefits both to employees and to small businesses directly. He said he wasn’t sure if the City of Ithaca and its partners would be able to replenish the newly-established Small Business Resilience Fund, a $390,000 forgivable loan program for small businesses struggling from the COVID-19 outbreak. The application load for the fund was so immense that the city had to close the period after just 48 hours, and ended up awarding 96 local businesses some amount of funding.
Desperation has started to take hold among some businesses that are stuck in limbo, having applied for pandemic help from New York State but yet to receive any financial help. The Big Red Barbershop, in Collegetown, opened for several hours last week in violation of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order closing non-essential businesses, telling the Ithaca Times that they felt cornered because not only had they lost their income, but no state benefits had come in to help bridge the gap. Subsequently, they filed a lawsuit against New York State demanding they executive order be lifted and businesses be allowed to reopen if they choose.
“We need to continue to take smart, strategic, and slow approach to reopening,” Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino said in response to a question last week about making sure businesses that aren’t allowed to open stay closed while watching others around them take customers. “Slow and steady is going to win the race. The worst thing we can do is jump into this too fast and then have to pause or regress to get a resurgence of the disease under control.”
Molino, who is serving on the regional control room with Myrick and several other county leaders from the Southern Tier, said the weeks of patience it will take to re-open properly will be worth it to avoid a setback to square one if there's an uptick in numbers that crosses the acceptable threshold of the state’s re-opening rules, though those haven’t been very clear so far. His comments Yet still, he acknowledged the challenges that some small businesses have faced over the last several weeks.
“I know everyone’s eager to open, but the slow and steady approach to this is what’s going to make sure we have a prolonged, successful re-opening,” Molino said.
Asked last week how people can guarantee their personal safety in public while the re-opening process takes place, Molino offered a stark but honest assessment.
“You can’t,” Molino said, simply. “So you have to be vigilant.”