COVID-19 cases take UNC-Chapel Hill economy for a spin as classes go online

In anticipation of the mass exodus of students after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that all classes will be online, local businesses are preparing to take another hit while some are finding relief from overwhelmed capacity.

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After the town of Chapel Hill geared up for students to return a week earlier than usual after a dry summer, the local economy is grappling with how to navigate the sudden change in the landscape.

“We are particularly worried about our really good local businesses who need to survive this,” David Routh, vice chancellor of development of UNC-Ch,  told FOX Business.

Longtime staples and newcomer businesses felt the effects of the pandemic during the spring semester when the school moved to remote learning at the start of the outbreak, followed by a desolate summer. The return of students brought back a new sense of life to the sleepy town, but the recent reversal has sent some business owners and managers into a frenzy.

“During move-in, we had a pretty big weekend and busy week with everyone taking their kids to brunches and dinners,” Victoria Pace, assistant general manager of Carolina Coffee Shop, told FOX Business. “Since the school year started, it’s been a little slower. We were expecting it to go back up the second week of school, but with the news that the school will be going online for the rest of the semester, we don’t really know what will happen now.”

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The Carolina Coffee Shop, North Carolina’s oldest running restaurant that doubles as a nighttime bar and employs mostly students, will reconvene over ways to maintain safety and staff, as well as remain open in the event that business becomes slow.

The university’s announcement to move fully online comes as the school aims to decongest its campus and reduce campus activities. While some businesses stand paralyzed in the face of the potential loss of revenue, others are forging ahead with a sense of assurance.

“We thought we needed our students so badly to come back to keep us afloat, but it actually turned out to be the opposite with the students coming back right now,” CEO of The Purple Bowl Paula Gilland told FOX Business. “While they are coming in and it’s busier, it’s also led our families to fade away.”

The Purple Bowl, an acai bowl eatery in Chapel Hill, discovered a silver lining of business over the summer when local families filled the gaps of the student-frequented destination. Although the store had fewer sales, average order sizes and prices tripled. The flock of students that the semester brought back, however, distressed the storefront, causing two workers to quit within the second week of the semester.

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Other local businesses are losing customers who are concerned about safety. The owner of Imbibe, Mandey Brown, said the number of cases and reported clusters has scared her regular customers away from her restaurant. Imbibe’s neighboring restaurant and popular student hangout, TRU Deli and Wine Bar, drew a swarm of students at the start of the semester.

“We had a couple of nights where it was so bad with so many students coming through, and they didn’t really have much guidance or restrictions on them,” bar manager of TRU Deli and Wine Bar Matt Herman told FOX Business. “We are hoping that it’s a little easier to manage crowd size with the disallowance of students to  go to campus.”

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Even though the school’s decision to backtrack on in-person classes aims to mitigate the body count, it is unclear whether students will actually return home.

“We are seeing a good number of off-campus living students deciding that they are going to stay here at least for a while longer and take their classes from their residences in town, so that element of our student population might not actually be leaving,” Routh of UNC-Ch said.

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The residence halls currently hold 6,500 students out of a capacity of 10,000. The de-densification will pull down that number to 2,500, which is still greater than the 850 students that remained in Chapel Hill in the spring. With an extended deadline to retrieve housing contract money, some students may opt for off-campus housing as an alternative.

The conundrum has taken a toll on businesses that face major questions looking ahead.

“Our biggest challenge will be the next two weeks as we figure out how to adjust again and the personnel we need,” Gilland of Purple Bowl said. “How many people do we need? Do we need to go down again on staff? Am I hired up for the school year? Will I have to let go?”

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