Over the past two weeks, Tompkins County locals watched their county’s COVID rate skyrocket as college students returned to the city, hitting a record high of 488 cases on Sept. 5. On the same day, Cornell reported 233 positives over a seven-day period, accounting for over half of the county’s active cases.
Residents expressed unease at the University’s high case count, but said they understand college students’ needs to go to class and meet their peers.
Even as cases have risen, Ithaca resident Talaya Centeno said she feels safer this year than last due to the high vaccination numbers.
“Last year, I was really freaked out,” Centeno said. “This year, when I saw that you folks are at a 95 percent vaccination rate — and they’ve done really wonderfully with communicating to the community as well as to the students and faculty — it felt a lot better.”
Ithaca resident Christian Delutis said that many students have taken the precautions they can in the current circumstances, short of reverting to lockdown.
“I feel like life has to go on, and people should be able to get their education and do what they need to do work,” Delutis said.
Delutis also sympathized with students who’ve spent a year in online school and are returning to college life after a hiatus. He said that students with heavy academic loads will naturally want to decompress through in-person socializing.
“I don’t really see a way of controlling that without [students] going back home and only doing online learning,” he said. “I think if you’re going to put [students] here, they’re going to live here.”
Veron Raymond, owner of local store Mane and Wigs and a nurse in the Cayuga Medical Center ER, said she thinks the rise in cases is not just Cornell specific, but also a result of members of the wider Ithaca population not taking adequate safety precautions. As a business owner, she offers masks to anyone that walks in her store.
As an ER nurse, she said she has seen a rise in cases among a broad demographic, spanning many ages and populations.
“I don’t think it is specific to one group of people,” Raymond said. “What I think is quite interesting is that people are still … going out in the community without masks.”
Deirdre Kurzweil, owner of gift shop Sunny Days of Ithaca and downtown resident, shared a similar view, suggesting that cases were rising even before Cornell students returned from summer vacation. Daily new positive cases started climbing up from almost none in June, to seven or eight in late July, reaching more than 20 cases per day even before college classes started in late August.
“I see a natural amount of concern because our numbers are rising, but honestly I think the numbers were rising before you all came back,” she said, ”just from people wanting to get out there, more people are going to music festivals, things like that.”
For residents with children in school, the rising cases add an extra layer of anxiety. Centeno has three children in a local elementary school, all of whom are too young to receive a vaccine. Ithaca public schools reopen this week.
“It is reassuring that Cornell is trying really hard to make sure that all of its population is vaccinated and that they are being really diligent,” Centeno said. “But as a parent, there’s always that kind of nagging doubt. You’ve got the breakthroughs, you’ve got the delta variants, you’ve got just general bad luck.”
The rising University cases have also increased the workload for the Tompkins County Health Department staff. According to Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County public health director, the department does a case investigation and contact tracing on every positive case in conjunction with Cornell Health.
“I would point out that the numbers are beginning to drop,” Kruppa said. “We’ve seen fewer cases over the last few days, and many of the original students are now being released from isolation, having reached their 10-day mark. It does feel like we’ve peaked and we’re on the way back down.”
Ithaca residents expressed the importance of Cornellians to the city, saying they hope that both groups can work together and make the area safer.
“Ithaca can’t survive without Cornell and Cornell can’t survive without Ithaca,” Centeno said. “I hope that symbiosis continues.”