‘We Could Be Feeling This for the Next Decade’: Virus Hits College Towns

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DAVIS, Calif. — The community around the University of California, Davis, used to have a population of 70,000 and a thriving economy. Rentals were tight. Downtown was jammed. Hotels were booked months in advance for commencement. Students swarmed to the town’s bar crawl, sampling the trio of signature cocktails known on campus as “the Davis Trinity.”

Then came the coronavirus. When the campus closed in March, an estimated 20,000 students and faculty left town.

With them went about a third of the demand for goods and services, from books to bikes to brunches. City officials are expecting most of that demand to stay gone even as the economy reopens.

Fall classes will be mostly remote, the university announced last week, with “reduced density” in dorms. Davis’s incoming vice mayor, Lucas Frerichs, said the city was anticipating “a huge impact” with a majority of the university’s 39,000-plus students still dispersed in September.

For “townies,” rules require congregation to remain limited, too, as confirmed coronavirus cases continue to climb in California. One of the Davis Trinity bars has closed, with no plan to reopen. On a recent Sunday, downtown was filled with “takeout only” signs and half-empty, far-flung cafe tables. Outside the closed theater, a lone busker stood on a corner playing “Swan Lake” on a violin to virtually no one.

Efforts to stem the pandemic have squeezed local economies across the nation, but the threat is starting to look existential in college towns.

Reliant on institutions that once seemed impervious to recession, “town and gown” communities that have evolved around rural campuses — Cornell, Amherst College, Penn State — are confronting not only Covid-19 but also major losses in population, revenue and jobs.

Where business as usual has been tried, punishment has followed: This week, Iowa health authorities reported case spikes among young adults in its two largest college towns, Ames and Iowa City, after the governor allowed bars to reopen. And on campuses across the country, attempts to bring back football teams for preseason practice have resulted in outbreaks.

More than 130 coronavirus cases have been linked to athletic departments at 28 Division I universities. At Clemson, at least 23 football players and two coaches have been infected. At Arkansas State University, seven athletes across three teams tested positive. And at the University of Houston, the athletic department stopped off-season workouts after an outbreak was discovered.

Sports are not the only source of outbreaks in college towns. Mississippi officials tied several cases to fraternity rush parties that apparently flouted social distancing rules. In Baton Rouge, La., at least 100 cases were linked to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district near Louisiana State’s campus. And in Manhattan, Kan., home to Kansas State, officials said Wednesday that there had been two recent outbreaks: one on the football team, and another in the Aggieville entertainment district just off campus.

For the cities involved, the prognosis is also daunting. In most college towns, university students, faculty and staff are a primary market. Local economies depend on their numbers and dollars, from sales taxes to football weekends to federal funds determined by the U.S. census.

Students at Ohio University represent three-quarters of the usual population of Athens, Ohio. In Ithaca, N.Y., every other person in town is — or used to be — connected to Cornell or Ithaca College.

Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

The local economy in Ann Arbor, Mich., takes in nearly $ 95 million a year in discretionary spending from the University of Michigan’s 45,000-plus students. Ari Weinzweig, cofounding partner of Zingerman’s, a landmark bakery and deli, said sales have been down 50 percent, and the company has had to furlough nearly 300 of its 700 employees since the pandemic.

The town’s Literati Bookstore launched a GoFundMe campaign to keep from going out of business, and created a virtual site for its famed “public typewriter” so customers could keep leaving anonymous typed messages, a company tradition. (“Oh how I wish for a coffee not made by my own hands,” someone typed online in May.)

In State College, Pa., an estimated 65 percent of the community is made up of students at Penn State’s main campus, a local juggernaut that enrolls 46,000 students, employs more than 17,000 nonstudents and injects about $ 128 million a year into rural Centre County.

The university has announced plans to reopen with double-occupancy dorm rooms and at least half of its classes in person, but it is still not known how many students will return. Also in question is the future of Penn State football, a local economic linchpin that generated $ 100 million in 2018-19 for the university alone.

Local governments are bracing, too. Amherst, Mass., is scheduled to vote this week on a proposal to increase annual water and sewer fees by an average of $ 100 per household, a result of a precipitous drop in water use as students have abandoned Hampshire College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts in that New England college town.

Ithaca’s mayor, Svante Myrick, said his city was preparing to cut its $ 70 million budget by about $ 14 million, and has furloughed a quarter of its employees, including his assistant. He personally has taken a 10 percent pay cut. A resolution passed earlier this month asked the state to let him authorize blanket rent forgiveness for three months.

Unemployment in the Ithaca metropolitan area has soared to 10 percent from 3 percent before the pandemic. Sales tax receipts have tanked as about $ 4 million per week in student spending has disappeared along with Cornell’s students, Mr. Myrick said. About two-thirds of the land in his jurisdiction is university-owned, he said, and therefore exempt from property tax.

“We’re going to be looking at Hoovervilles — or maybe Trump Towns — all over the country,” said the mayor, a Democrat who clashes frequently with his upstate area’s Republican congressional delegation. “It’s bad. It’s really bad.”

Compounding the concern is the 2020 census. Conducted every 10 years, the national head count determines the distribution of federal funding for a vast number of local and state programs, including transit, public safety and Medicaid.

Because the window for responses has coincided with campus shutdowns, college towns are reporting significant undercounts of students living off-campus, with dire financial implications.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


A census without Ohio University students could knock the official population of Athens from 24,000 down to as few as 6,000 people. With an Oct. 31 deadline approaching, responses in student neighborhoods are currently running some 20 percentage points lower than in 2010, with response rates in some tracts of less than 31 percent.

Mayor Steve Patterson of Athens estimates an undercount could cost his small city up to $ 40 million over the next 10 years “for things like community development block grants, jobs and family services and senior services that rely on a strong census count to get a full funding.”

“We could be feeling this for the next decade,” Mr. Patterson said.

In California, where Democrats have prioritized the census, the city of Davis and its surrounding county partnered long before the pandemic with the university to maximize its response rate, which is now higher than the state average. But the exodus of students has cut sales tax revenues by 50 percent, Mr. Frerichs said.

Credit…Tommy Ly for The New York Times
Credit…Tommy Ly for The New York Times
Credit…Tommy Ly for The New York Times

Virtual graduation in May slashed hotel occupancy from 90 percent to 10 percent during the local hospitality industry’s usual peak season. Bookings have since rebounded slightly, Mr. Frerichs said, but only to about 25 percent, substantially denting hotel occupancy tax revenues.

Transit ridership has dropped so precipitously, he said, that local authorities have been using the buses to transport supplies to and from food banks. The city has begun reaching out to unions and identifying budget cuts in case the economy does not quickly bounce back.

Already, Mr. Frerichs said, the council has opted to leave three open positions for police officers vacant. “That’s three sets of eyes and ears on the street,” he said, “but this is a legitimate concern. Long term, this could be on par with the great recession for us.”

Or maybe worse than the recession, he added, because in 2008 at least the town could still gather.

Now the bike traffic is scant, the farmers market socially distanced, and the baristas working reduced hours at coffee shops ask customers to alert them when they leave so maintenance can disinfect their tables. The virus even canceled Davis’s annual town-and-gown party, Picnic Day.

“Part of me is enjoying reclaiming the community,” said Mr. Frerichs, who attended the university and has lived for 24 years in Davis. “But one of the things that makes a college town so wonderful is the vibrant young population.”

“They’re the lifeblood, and without them — well, the squirrels are having a field day,” he said. “But for the rest of us, it’s just so quiet.”

Mitch Smith contributed reporting from Chicago, and Lauryn Higgins from Lincoln, Neb.

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