ITHACA, N.Y.—In its first COVID-19 pandemic update in months, Cornell University officials provided updates on a wide range of topics, some of which will be covered in subsequent stories here. In terms of economic impact, though, thousands of Ithacans know one of the most important dates on the financial calendar comes at the end of May each year, when Cornell’s Commencement Weekend brings a tidal wave of people to the area to celebrate the graduations of their families and friends and serves as a lasting boon to the local economy before students leave for the summer.

Losing graduation weekend last year due to the coronavirus drained hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least, from the local economy, but hopes that it could be back to full strength for 2021 seem unlikely now, after comments from Cornell University Vice President Joel Malina during the update event held on Wednesday afternoon.

When asked about the status of commencement, Malina said that a final decision had not been made but that due to the event’s normal scale, a full comeback isn’t likely. The school anticipates making a definitive call on the event some time in March.

We recognize that while there are current guidelines, this will likely be in flux as more and more people are vaccinated,” Malina said. “Given the current public health situation, what we’re able to predict is that it would be very unlikely that we would be able to safely and, frankly, legally welcome tens of thousands of families and friends to campus as we would in an ordinary year. But we aren’t yet ready to make a firm announcement, we are exploring options that would be both consistent with the state guidelines and allow us importantly to celebrate the many achievements of our remarkable graduating students.

How distancing and density guidance over the next 3-4 months will change is anyone’s guess. The vaccination rollout seems to be picking up steam, a welcome development, and recent research seems to indicate that the vaccine is effective at reducing the transmission of the illness, which could theoretically be a major step toward allowing gatherings—but again, the research is young.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com