The scene the last few nights on Aurora Street in downtown Ithaca has been vastly different than the last several months. As the weather warmed, restaurant row would normally have spent the late winter and spring becoming more and more popular, with students celebrating graduations and permanent local residents celebrating the onset of seasonal warmth (and, of course, the departure of the students).
But coronavirus has upended norms of all kinds, and that includes virtually every business, all of which will surely continue to see impacts, even as they are allowed to open as Southern Tier region moves through Phase 4. Movie theaters, gyms and malls are the only businesses still expressly forbidden from opening.
With the three month lockdown in mind, there may be a desire to make up for lost time, both among businesses and customers, something that could become problematic if not done so responsibly. The result is an unclear middle: an urge (and increasing government allowance) to get out, see friends and reconnect, all while a pandemic—which has largely left Tompkins County but could easily return overnight—continues to rage to the point that visitors from 16 states are now required to quarantine upon entering New York. So: What now?
When asked the question, Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino invoked the personal responsibility for the greater good sentiments that he has pushed consistently throughout the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing public health crisis, we have to stay vigilant – even while people feel in-limbo, the best things to do are to wear a mask, limit contact with people not in your household, and keep six feet apart when we are around others,” he said in an e-mail. “In response to ‘What now?’, we’ve seen other communities who have increased case numbers as a result of one person's irresponsible actions which could include traveling, going to work when ill, and/or not remaining vigilant with wearing a mask, washing hands, maintaining distance, etc. Keeping our community healthy will be a matter of ongoing personal responsibility for all of us. We can’t rest on our laurels of having done a good job curbing the spread so far, it’s crucial that we stay attentive and act with each other’s safety in mind.”
Downtown bars like Silky Jones, The Range or Chanticleer have not yet reopened, but Collegetown has been a different story. Murmurs on social media, which have not been able to be confirmed, alleged that at least one local bar had seen sizable crowds over the weekend and had only lackadaisically enforced any type of mask requirements. Though asked if the county or the county health department has received reports of any such situations, Molino declined to get into specifics.
“The environmental health team at our Health Department has been extremely responsive throughout reopening phases, and they have been able to deal with most complaints simply by having a dialogue and educating the establishments on the proper guidance,” he said. “The guidance from New York State has been thorough and if businesses have questions about how to operate safely they can contact us.”
The most notable sign of reopening has been the aforementioned City of Ithaca’s shutdown of the 100 block of Aurora Street, which now allows restaurants to seat people in front of their restaurant to the curb, and pedestrians to walk in the street while closing it to vehicular traffic. It’s been very popular so far since debuting June 25, but some restaurants have been noticeably absent during the Aurora Streatery experiment. Pasta Vitto and Viva Taqueria, both owned by Peter Browning, remain closed, as do Mercato and Le Cent Dix, both owned by Gregory Norkus. Norkus said he isn’t planning on opening his restaurants until late July or early August, giving them some more time to gauge the severity of the public health situation and the risks that would come with reopening. Browning couldn’t be reached for comment.
“It’s important to demonstrate to the public that the measures you’re taking creates a level of comfort for them,” Norkus said. “We will reopen, we just want to be safe.”
Norkus has been discouraged from opening in light of the outbreak’s reinvigoration over the last week or two. Things appeared almost rosy just a few days ago. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was congratulating New Yorkers on “crushing the curve,” even after nearly 25,000 deaths in the state. Then on Tuesday, with states pausing or backpedaling on reactivation plans Dr. Anthony Fauci said the United States could see 100,000 new coronavirus cases per day “if things don’t turn around.”
“Just watching these increased spikes in the country, my son and I are concerned that there could be some re-transmission in the area, especially with summer tourism,” Norkus said. “The last thing we want to do is reopen and get shut down again. That’s not very entertaining for us.”
Norkus said they didn’t even consider opening even when presented with the Aurora Street plans, though he understands why others might want to given some of the economic benefits that could come with it. To be sure, the early returns on the Aurora Streatery experiment seem to be quite good: although restaurants are strictly limiting indoor dining (and, in Ithaca Ale House’s case, prohibiting people from sitting at the bar)
“I think it’s a good idea what they’re doing, but we’re just still concerned,” Norkus said of the Aurora Street plan. But there was also a financial component that precluded Norkus from participating, since he said a breakeven analysis showed that with a reduced capacity and perhaps some more expenses from extended sidewalk rental from the city, there would barely be any financial benefit to be had for restaurants the size of his.
From a customer perspective, confidence in the reopening process is a wide spectrum. The bulk of people, likely, fall somewhere in the middle: they are tired and wary of staying inside, and are generally aware that at least to this point, the coronavirus’ public health impacts in Tompkins County have been minimal relative to other places. Simultaneously, they’re also cognizant of the risks that remain, illustrated by the spikes in other parts of the country. Such describes Tyler Lawrence, who was on the Commons on Friday night taking in live music that was being played by an impromptu DJ.
“We went to Ithaca Beer, that place was the most packed I’ve ever seen it,” Lawrence said. “They had an overflow parking area out back, people were parking in the grass.”
Still, Lawrence said, Ithaca Beer required masks and had clear signage and rules dictating that one person from each party go up to order food, specific places to order, etc. He also saw some encouraging signs in terms of people checking others on behaviors that could put others in the building at risk, like an elderly woman who Lawrence said he saw tell three different people to adjust or put on their masks. Even when out and about with friends, Lawrence said there’s still a bit of nervousness that lurks.
“It still bothers you in the back of your mind, because you hear that we’re getting a second wave, and yet everyone’s going out and doing sh*t,” Lawrence said. “So you’re worried about that, but at the same time you are just sitting at a table by yourself, with the group of friends you’d be hanging out with anyways. [...] It’ll be a while before you catch me in a crowded bar again.”
The overarching message from local authorities has held mind-numbingly steady: despite the reopening, precautions are necessary. The most significant question, though, will be whether or not local residents heed the warnings among a “return to normalcy,” such as it is; and what happens if they don’t?
“It is likely, due to a variety of factors, that there will be fluctuations in the number of cases until we have a vaccine, the key is to keep the number of cases low, and in-line with our healthcare system capacity,” Molino said. “Wearing a mask is going to be the best way to keep the spread at a minimum, and even if there are only a few active positive cases in the community, there is still the chance of asymptomatic individuals spreading the disease. We all have some responsibility to stop the spread, Tompkins County citizens have done a good job to-date, and we’ve been able to flatten the curve, but now we need to stay vigilant to prevent any future curves.”