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Ithacans ponder the risks and benefits of Cornellians' return to campus this spring.

March 21, 2021

Ithacans Weigh Risk of Outbreak and Economic Benefits of In-Person Spring

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After witnessing Cornell’s performance in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the fall, Ithaca residents express that they are far more comfortable with students returning to campus for an in-person University experience this spring. 

When Cornell announced that it would open for the fall semester, many Ithaca natives, including Ward 3 Alderperson Donna Fleming, feared the worst.

“We were all scared out of our minds, about thousands of people coming back to this city when those of us who live here had felt kind of safe over the summer,” Fleming said.

When it came to the spring, however, she had a much different reply: “Not at all,” she said.

Fleming attributes change in heart to Cornell’s transparency and efficacy in managing COVID-19 among its students last fall. 

“Administration was so thorough about developing and communicating the plan and reaching out to the neighborhoods and the legislature,” she said. “It was amazing how careful and thorough and sensitive they were about all that.”

Another member of the Common Council, Ward 5 Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff, praised Cornell’s efforts to manage student behavior and provide testing, quarantine and isolation for its students. She was especially impressed by Cornell’s ability to control cases among off-campus students, whom she predicted would be hard to control last fall. 

Mohlehnhoff also acknowledged that Cornell students were generally cooperative with the safety restrictions put into place to protect them and the Ithaca community from increased risk of spread. 

Fleming, who lives near Cornell and spends a lot of time walking around campus, concurred. 

“Students are hanging on the best they can and being good sports about it. I always see students keeping their distance and wearing their mask, but they seem cheerful,” Fleming said.

Mohlenhoff said that she would have been concerned if Cornell students hadn’t returned this spring. A great portion of Cornell’s financial contribution to the community comes from sales taxes on student purchases and the University’s contributions to local infrastructure like the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit system. 

“The majority of our economy here is driven by students,” said Mohlenhoff. “For us to have any chance of our economy completely not falling apart at all, we needed students in our community.”

Even with local universities reopening, pandemic restrictions on students are taking their toll on the local economy. According to Mohlenhoff, Ithaca’s hotels make 30 percent of their revenue from the start of University commencements to the end of Ithaca High School’s graduation. Local businesses were hurt when these events were held virtually last year

Although Cornell has not made an announcement regarding this year’s graduation ceremony, Mohlenhoff expects it to be held virtually again.

Tim Mooney, a manager at Ithaca’s Moosewood restaurant, confirmed the crucial nature of commencement weeks and repeated a sentiment of relief that students are continuing to patronize the restaurant. 

“We get a lot of business towards the beginning and the ends of the semesters and the graduation” Mooney said. 

Although Mooney had a positive impression of Cornell’s performance in controlling the virus last semester and this semester, he and the other managers at Moosewood decided not to reopen seating at the restaurant indefinitely after Cornell students returned. 

“If we open for dine-in right now, we’ll be doing more business than we would be with takeout delivery only. But we don’t feel like that risk is at a point where we’d be comfortable [opening dine in],” he said.

Besides welcoming students’ financial contributions to the city, residents are glad that returning students can continue to contribute to the city’s social and cultural wealth. 

The community is better for the engagement of the students that come and spend time volunteering in nonprofits, eating in local restaurants and swimming in the gorges, Mohlenhoff said.

However, even the Ithacans who are now confident of Cornell’s ability to handle the semester ahead were shaken in January, when Ithaca had its highest number of cases and February, when students in collegetown held a crowded social gathering that was connected to a cluster of 30 positive cases

“There was definitely a moment where we were like, ‘did we lose track of this?’ And then it seemed like it stabilized,” said Mooney.

Fleming was also concerned about the incident, but she did not feel that the University was at fault. 

“It was hardly the fault of the administration,they dealt with it quickly and were transparent about it,”she said. “I would fault the people who were at the event because they were fully informed of the risks”. 

Other residents voiced concerns held over from last semester — Ri Bornstein, a local resident, founded “Redirect Cornell” to encourage the University to hold a fully virtual semester. 

Last semester, in an open letter to the Sun, Bornstein requested that the University reinvest the resources appropriated for holding an open semester towards “new and existing local medical infrastructure to ensure that the broader, local community have direct access to the highest quality of care”. 

Although Bornstein acknowledged that the University’s response was more “focused” than they had anticipated last summer, they believe that more substantial steps could have been taken to protect local residents. 

The situation remains in flux –– just days ago, the University released an announcement that substantiates many of the fears residents previously held. Cornell has returned to the yellow alert level after a cluster of positive tests were discovered on North Campus.