Just one month ago, Ithaca was teeming with life: Libraries and lecture halls were packed with students while frisbees flew above the Arts Quad.
But the exodus of college students from Ithaca, combined with preventive measures enacted to combat COVID-19, have driven much of the town to a halt, leaving hundreds of hospitality workers jobless and local businesses struggling to stay afloat.
On March 18, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) closed restaurants’ dine-in service to enforce social distancing, forcing many to shift to takeout business. While some eateries have successfully transitioned to this new, takeout-only economy, those that haven’t are experiencing devastating losses.
The Sun reached out to over 100 Ithaca businesses — and of the 37 that responded, they reported a combined total of 715 layoffs in the past three weeks.
Ithaca businesses have felt the effects of COVID-19 far and wide. Even essential businesses — which remain open — have been forced to lay off workers and reduce their hours.
The 24,027 Cornellians drawn to Ithaca — almost equivalent to the city’s resident population itself — collectively spend, on average, upward of $4 million a week contributing to the Tompkins County economy, pumping in a total of $225 million dollars a year.
As a result, bars, restaurants, movie theaters and other establishments depend on student spending during the academic year to turn a profit in order to survive the slower summer months.
Gabriel Flores and Hiroko Takashima, co-owners of Mama Said Hand Pies in the Ithaca Commons, were faced with the dilemma of reducing hours or laying off staff.
“We’ve been able to keep our employees on payroll but hours have significantly declined,” Flores said. “We went from operating nine hours a day, six days a week to three hours a day, three days a week.”
The owners of New Delhi Diamond’s, an Indian restaurant in downtown Ithaca, have been forced to let all outside workers go, turning to family members for support in operating the business.
Coltivare Restaurant has downsized to just salary managers, while Ithaca Ale House furloughed 43 workers until business picks up again.
Some businesses have managed to maintain their staff: Wings Over Ithaca and Jason’s Grocery and Deli have yet to relieve any employees.
“Up until last week, we were very busy,” a Jason’s manager said. “There are government programs that incentivize grocery stores to stay open, so we have not had to lay off anyone.”
Local delivery service Ithaca-to-Go, on the other hand, was able to capitalize on the transition, hiring more drivers as demand for delivery picks up.
“Ithaca-to-Go has actually partnered with more delivery drivers and we’ve been able to provide them with an extra source of income,” said manager Scott Porr.
But the overwhelming reality for most businesses was expressed by Gregar Brous, co-owner of Collegetown Bagels and other student staples. Brous worried that in the absence of significant intervention and support from Cornell and Ithaca College, many businesses, including his own, will be financially destroyed and possibly forced to permanently close their doors.
“We sell to the dining halls, fraternity and sorority houses and cater for a host of University events,” Brous added. “Paying us forward would allow us to remain in business. Otherwise, I’m not sure what will happen.”
Brous reported that between Collegetown Bagels, Rulloff’s, Ithaca Bakery and Agava, he and the co-owners laid off 400 employees in the last three weeks.
About two-thirds of the layoffs were full-time workers while the remaining third were part-time employees, reducing the total staff to only 50 across three locations of Collegetown Bagels and two locations of Ithaca Bakery. Rulloff’s and Agava remain closed.
Alongside many other small businesses, the future of Collegetown Bagels and Rulloff’s have now been left in question. Student Agencies — which owns the building on the corner of College Avenue where both operate — announced their plans to demolish the structure last August.
But in the wake of the outbreak, construction on Sheldon Court, CTB’s new location, has temporarily stopped.
Brous expressed uncertainty about whether the new Collegetown Bagels would be ready for students when they return. Both leases end on June 1, and with no plans to relocate Rulloff’s, Brous was even more concerned that the restaurant would be gone before students arrive in the fall — if the owners couldn’t raise financial support.
With the resumption of online classes on Monday, students have already had to adjust to their new routines away from campus. And for now, Cornellians will have to wait for their homecoming in August — but come fall, they will return to an equally appreciative, albeit likely altered, local economy.
Alec Giufurta ’21 contributed reporting.