When the pandemic abruptly sent Cornell students home and led to a lockdown in March, restaurant owners worried what unexpected slow months would mean for business. Now, as the pandemic nears its one-year mark, Ithaca restaurant owners are finding creative ways to keep their lights on through safety restrictions and winter weather.
Many local eateries have shifted to delivery and takeout only, while others have implemented creative safety measures. All are hopeful that, with the pandemic’s end possibly in sight as the vaccine rollout unfolds, they’ll be able to make it through a trying period for small businesses.
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said that while a few businesses have closed, most have weathered the storm — even as downtown foot traffic has dropped by 50 percent over the last year. The alliance has worked to help its merchants work through questions about safety procedures, pandemic regulations and Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“The good news is that there really are a great number of businesses that have been able to hold on, that are still plugging away, working really hard every day to just try and stay afloat,” Ferguson said. He added that there are many vacancies in the retail and office sectors, because around half of the area’s workers are still working from home.
The return of Cornell students after a 10-week winter break is good news for Collegetown and downtown restaurants, which rely on Cornell for a significant portion of their sales. In the spring, George Papachryssanthou said Cornell students account for around 80 percent of his sales.
Papachryssanthou, the owner of Thompson and Bleecker, a downtown pizzeria that has been operating with takeout and delivery only during the pandemic, said since Cornell students are tested twice a week, he feels safe serving them.
“Anyone that has a problem with students being back in Ithaca is just really sort of out of touch with reality and does not understand the Ithaca economy,” Papachryssanthou said. “Without students here, we are nothing.”
Some restaurants have laid off workers or cut back hours of operation to reduce expenses.
Thompson and Bleecker opened in 2018, and Papachryssanthou — who also owns the Collegetown liquor store Ithaca Wine and Spirits — said he’s hopeful that the restaurant can eventually return to its originally intended business model. Pizza and alcohol sales have been stable, he said, but the end of in-person dining meant he has needed to furlough around 20 workers across his businesses.
Safety concerns and state regulations — restaurants are limited to 50 percent indoor capacity — have forced small businesses to get creative.
Luna Inspired Street Food, which opened a new location on Dryden Road in Collegetown last fall, has continued takeout and delivery and installed plexiglass barriers between its outdoor tables. Argos Inn, on State Street, has set up heated, outdoor seating for small groups to enjoy their high-end cocktails.
The cold weather presents another issue: Outdoor dining is impossible, or at least unpleasant, during a frigid Ithaca February. Ferguson said once the weather gets warmer, the city plans to block off Aurora Street to traffic and recreate the Aurora Streetery, allowing downtown restaurants to expand their outdoor seating capacity as they did in the fall.
Collegetown Bagels, which had to lay off around 400 workers in the spring and shut down indoor eating in December in response to employee concerns, has two igloo-like bubbles on the patio of its College Avenue location, hoping to attract customers despite the cold weather.