Casey Martin / Ithaca News

July 8, 2020

How Ithaca Businesses Are Adapting to COVID-19

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With the end of stay-home-orders to combat COVID-19 and a loosening of mandated restrictions, Ithaca businesses now face the next hurdle of the pandemic: reopening.

The Ithaca Business Index — a database that collects the composite number of jobs in Tompkins County — reflects the initial, dire impact COVID-19 had on Ithaca businesses. In April, the Ithaca Business Index dropped 14.8 percent and jobs plummeted by 9,000, causing the unemployment rate to skyrocket to 14.3 percent.

As the Southern Tier Region transitions into phase four of reopening, Ithaca business owners must now strike a balance between economic and public health needs as they reopen their doors.

Jennifer Tavares,  president and CEO of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, emphasized that “it’s critical for all of us that we deal with the public health side of this as the first priority and the economic side as the second priority.” Faced with significant restrictions, business owners find that reopening does not mean business as usual.

The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce is just one organization helping businesses navigate these turbulent times. Tavares explained that its top priority “has been getting [business owners and managers] the information that they need and helping them digest and adjust quickly to what’s been a rapidly changing regulatory environment.”

Local businesses are also wary of the threat of COVID-19, erring on the side of caution as they reopen. George Papachryssanthou, owner of Ithaca restaurant Thompson and Bleecker, explained that his business is allowed to operate at 50 percent indoor capacity, it still only serves takeout to customers. Papachryssanthou limits customers to a pre-arranged three-by-three foot area where food can be quickly grabbed and strictly enforces mask wearing.

Similarly, Brett Bossard, executive director of Cinemapolis, is incorporating many changes to his operations such as spacing out seating, increasing online sales and the use of scanners, erecting barriers to separate staff from customers and renovating bathrooms to have all touchless fixtures.

Bossard said he also considered purchasing an electrostatic fogger “that [he would] use for sanitizing the theaters in between screenings [by putting] a mist of a sanitizing solution” that will clean the theaters and dry quickly.

With national COVID-19 infections rising and the lack of a vaccine, such changes are necessary to lower the risk of infection, but it can have deleterious effects on businesses.

If a staff member got infected, the health department would put a bulletin in the news informing customers who visited to get checked, Papachryssanthou said.

Although necessary to reduce infections, Papachryssanthou compared such bulletins to “Scarlet Letters,” which have significant long-term impacts because “people just won’t forget that someone was infected there.”

COVID-19 has also forced business owners to think on their feet in order to adapt their products and services to the current climate. As Thompson and Bleecker transitioned to an all takeout business model, Papachryssanthou said that the restaurant “had to alter recipes so that they can carry better to someone’s home.”

Unable to show movies in the theater, Bossard described how Cinemapolis shifted online and began operating what they call “virtual cinema,” a new service that offers “video on demand to our patrons via our website, but sort of a profit sharing model with independent film distributors.”

For businesses that have been struggling amid this crisis, knowing that students will return in the fall offers hope for a boost in future sales. As of last week, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College and Cornell University have all announced they will reopen their campuses for the fall.

Papachryssanthou — who noted that students make up 80 percent of his business — said Cornell’s reopening plans were thoughtful and is “really happy to hear that students will be back in the fall.”

Not only will the return of students increase the customer base for Ithaca businesses, but recent changes adopted to combat the coronavirus make businesses more accessible to students. Tavares expressed confidence that recent changes enacted by businesses will make it easier than ever “for students to support local businesses via their cell phone or via online purchasing or ordering through pickup and delivery services.”