ITHACA, N.Y. — There is no beating around the bush here. While Cornell’s decision to ask students to stay home after Spring Break due to the COVID-19 pandemic is necessary from a safety standpoint, there will be a swift and severe economic impact.

Among those who will take the hardest hit are the hundreds of service staff at the university who will experience loss of wages or layoffs. Also taking a hit is the hospitality and leisure sector of Tompkins County’s economy, which employs over five thousand people and for whom visitors to the colleges or those at the colleges make up a large portion of their clients.

People may gripe about the noise students make, the bad drivers, the general friction between town and gown. But those students also shop here, they eat out here, they have fun here and some of them make their post-graduate life here. Their parents stay at hotels and AirBnBs here and their prospective employers send recruiters to wine and dine them here. Much of that has now been erased, and the jobs that their presence and their dollars support are in peril.

Jennifer Tavares, President and CEO of the Tompkins Chamber of Commerce, is well aware of the risks the coronavirus poses, both from a health and safety perspective, and from an economic perspective. But when reached for comment Tuesday evening, Tavares sought to stress two things – remain calm and stay informed.

“We’ve been watching the situation that’s been developing on a daily basis, we’ve been reading a lot from local and national sources. Certainly, we saw some other movement with other higher education institutions, we knew Cornell had a team evaluating the situation and we weren’t totally surprised. It’s an evolving situation and I think all of us are trying to take in as much fact-based information as we can,” said Tavares.

Read our latest COVID-19 coverage here — Cornell students not returning after break, transitioning to online classes

“We are looking at things from our own operations and our own program, and whether we need to make any changes. For now, we’ve been issuing advice and referring people to resources to help them make good decisions. We definitely have concerns about the broader economy, nationally and locally. We’ve been looking at supply chain disruptions to businesses, and Cornell’s decision will have impacts on businesses in other parts of the economy. We’re going to continue to evaluate and provide advice and resources and help our members to respond to and adjust to the situation, but the situation is very fresh.”

While it’s tempting to draw comparisons to the last economic crisis at the onset of the Great Recession, the truth is, the circumstances and effects are very different. The late 2000s crisis started off in the financial sector and radiated outward, while this is an exogenous event, something that started outside the economy, but now threatens to upend many livelihoods. The parts of the economy that it hits hardest are also different. Hospitality, manufacturing, healthcare and higher education, which were not as severely hit in the last crisis, are now at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis. They also make up a greater proportion of the Tompkins County economy than financial firms and construction do.

“We have an economy here that is largely protected from a lot of the things that might impact the economy nationwide. We are usually fortunate to not feel recessions as dramatically as other places might. It would be ignorant to imply it’s not going to have a big impact. April 3rd to mid-May is only a matter of weeks, and a couple of those larger weekends, the hope is that a month or two of extra precaution will help protect our community from what’s a pretty serious health concern.”

As for advice for local business owners, Tavares offers this: “We certainly would advise business owners spend some time thinking through the news, that they do some deep planning regarding their business operations and their inventory. Hopefully, many folks have already thought about hours of operation, staffing, what to do if people do get sick. The health of their employees and customers needs to be at the forefront. I think business owners have more resources than they realize at times. People may need to make some difficult choices. Hopefully people have a continuity plan in place, but some will be caught off guard.”

“I would like to get together with some of our local leaders and talk about ways we can get together to support local business over the next several months. We don’t know how things will look in several weeks and how that will impact activities, so we need to listen to our officials and verifiable sources. We are providing the same advice as CDC regarding cleanliness and hand washing. We all just need to be as safe as we can. The best thing to do is to stay calm and do some problem-solving and think of ways to collaborate with each other and mitigate some of the impact. ”

Tavares made clear she holds no hard feelings towards Cornell for their decision. “I understand why Cornell and the community needs to prioritize. The campuses have different concerns than our local community in terms of the populations that they serve. Their students go out all over the world and come back, so they have very different risks to mitigate.”

We hope that people will continue to do the best they can to support local businesses. We’re going to keep watching the situation and sharing info the best we have it. This local economy and our country are quite resilient, they tend to bounce back well. I have to be hopeful that we can move forward from the short-term pain.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.