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College towns across US feeling financial pinch linked to COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 12:16 PM, Oct 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-05 12:16:32-04

In a college town like San Luis Obispo, California, the local economy relies heavily on student spending.

Since the pandemic hit in mid-March, however, COVID-19 has been costing colleges and this community big bucks.

“It’s affected us business-wise; it’s not as many employees nor as many students,” said Darnell Harris, manager of Firestone Grill.

Harris says pre-COVID, the college hotspot was selling up to 3,000 meals a day. Now, that number has been cut almost in half.

“It affects me and it hits me because it is my livelihood,” Harris said. “This is what I’ve done for a living for 25 years.”

Coronavirus concerns have resulted in fewer college students living in this area, especially on campus at nearby California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

“I can’t remember the last time a had a full night’s sleep,” said Keith Humphrey, Cal Poly Vice President of Student Affairs.

Humphrey is projecting a $35 million operating deficit for 2020-21 after the college refunded about $21 million in student rent and food plans after the school went all online back in March.

With the dorms now about half full, Cal Poly is spending about $245,000 a month in COVID testing.

“There’s no playbook or script for something like this,” Humphrey said. “We will be okay. We budget for rainy days. It’s raining.”

San Luis Obispo city leaders say the last economic impact report shows Cal Poly’s and nearby Cuesta College’s direct impact to this entire region was worth $1.1 billion.

With more classes being taught virtually, some students say the cost of college during this crisis doesn’t add up.

“It’s not worth it to pay out-of-state tuition to essentially have online school,” said Keaton Foster-Adams, who left the University of Colorado, Boulder and returned to his hometown on California’s Central Coast, where he’s now studying automotive technology at Cuesta College.

“I’m hesitant to go back just because I’m feeling less and less connected to what I was doing there,” Foster-Adams said of CU Boulder. “I’m kind of thinking about just going to a trade school at this point.”

The California State University system, which includes Cal Poly, SLO, is the nation’s largest four-year public university system.

It recently announced classes will continue being held online during the upcoming spring term, which means an economic rebound for college towns could take a while.

Despite the economic challenges college towns are facing, businesses like Firestone Grill are focusing on keeping people healthy and keeping their doors open.

“As long as we stay together, we’ll make it to the end of this,” Harris said. “We’ll get back to whatever our new normal is going to be.”