As Cornellians return to campus, Ithaca business owners are receiving a new influx of customers, yet face increased safety challenges.
Ithaca businesses continue to adapt and implement new procedures. Throughout 2020, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance balanced safety with maintaining economic growth. Early on, the organization encouraged online shopping, and more recently, restaurants are shifting to focus on takeout, with increased curbside pickup locations.
“All of the businesses have been working extremely closely with the Tompkins County Health Department, making sure that they are COVID compliant,” said Kristina Thelen, the alliance’s business support coordinator.
The organization created permanent curbside pickup spots on major commercial streets, and installed sanitizing stations on the Commons and inside each business location to create safer alternatives to indoor dining.
Different businesses have varied virus safety measures — some are using sign-in sheets to make contact tracing easier, and others have launched new online platforms, including websites for customers to engage remotely.
U Tea, a bubble tea shop in Collegetown, has transitioned to a takeout-only model, with customers ordering either in the store or online. U Tea asks customers to enter the store in groups of four or less at a time, and masks are required.
The shop has operated on shorter hours, which the business has changed several times throughout the pandemic. Apart from this, U Tea employee Alvin Mai said, “Nothing much has changed.”
Jason’s Grocery and Deli has kept up a mask requirement, but owner Jason Burnham said operations have otherwise gone unchanged, with the same hours as before the pandemic began. “We’re probably slightly busier than where we were before,” he said.
Autumn Leaves Books, a used book and record store on the Commons, continues to enforce its protocols. According to owner Joseph Wetmore, it operates at half capacity, places plastic shields between workers and customers and keeps MERV filters in its air-handling system.
“We’ve enacted all the things we can think of,” Wetmore said. “The next step would be to close back down again, which is still a possibility.”
All businesses follow the local health department’s shifting guidelines and the Ithaca Promise — a collective call to action from the City of Ithaca, the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Local First Ithaca and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance –– to respect coronavirus safety procedures as a community, including distancing, wearing masks on the Commons and staying home while sick.
“We want to make sure that not only are customers and consumers safe, but so are the workers, the owners and the proprietors with businesses,” said Gary Ferguson, Downtown Ithaca Alliance executive director.
According to Ferguson, more people are following public health measures than he observed earlier in the pandemic. He has seen less hesitance toward the safety guidelines and procedures.
Thelen explained that Ithaca will wait for a green light from the health department to lift virus restrictions. But for now, TCHD is “staying very, very cautious as far as what we’re going to do going forward,” according to Darlene Wilber, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance communications manager.
Over the last month, the alliance has encouraged businesses to participate in the Small Business Administration’s second round of the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal assistance funding process which opened on Jan 11.
The business alliance is continuing various support programs for businesses and workers in Ithaca, including Go Ithaca, which provides transportation resources for workers. According to Wilber, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance will keep hosting in-person and virtual gallery tours to showcase regional artists. There are also several bailout programs, including an ongoing loan program for “anchor businesses” in the Ithaca community.
The alliance also hopes to relaunch its limited-edition gift card program, which gives $5 bonuses to participants spending $25 or more at Ithaca retail outlets, restaurants and entertainment businesses. They also promote annual events, such as the Chili Cook-Off and the Summer Festival Series, which will take place in modified forms.
Wilber encourages Cornell students to engage safely with local businesses, visiting downtown areas with small groups or their living pods.
“The downtown community is grateful for this part of our community and grateful for the businesses that they do bring downtown and the ways that they’ve been very respectful during this time,” Wilber said.