Even though the University of Maine is weeks from reopening, businesses in Orono are already full of college students. Early Tuesday afternoon, the Family Dog restaurant on Mill Street was filled with young diners, as was Nest, a coffee shop on Main Street.
On Aug. 31, UMaine will reopen for on-campus instruction. Thousands of students will head to Orono, many from out of state. Local business owners and residents are concerned about their arrival, but need their business.
“I obviously want the kids to come back, but I want them to do it in a safe way,” said Family Dog owner Luke Wardwell. “Without the kids, none of us would be in business. We can’t live off of the locals. It’s just not enough.”
College towns across the country have struggled since students suddenly left campuses in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as colleges reopen, they risk becoming sites of outbreaks that could lead to a wider spike in coronavirus cases. Some campuses that tried to bring back college athletes have already shut down again after students tested positive. Fraternity rush parties and other large social gatherings have also resulted in cases in college towns across the country.
Now, with the start of the fall semester approaching, Orono — which had recorded just six coronavirus cases as of earlier this week — is trying to balance the safety of local residents with the economic boost that an influx of students promises.
When the pandemic first hit, The Store Ampersand, a coffee shop that also sells produce and household items, became a local grocery store. Owner Roberta Bradson said it’s returning to normal now.
“Everybody that comes in here, we know them and we feel pretty safe around them,” she said. “We are pretty concerned about that influx of 12,000 people coming in on one day. We don’t want to see them come back, but at the same time, we need them for business.”
Bradson said she’s worried more for her regular customers than for herself.
“I almost wish that the state would offer to just shut everything down and give us some kind of compensation for two weeks until everybody gets settled in,” she said.
While many restaurants in Orono have opened for some version of dine-in service, one of the town’s oldest dining establishments, Pat’s Pizza, is only open for takeout and delivery. And the restaurant plans to keep it that way for the foreseeable future, said Manager Sherri Cunningham.
“With thousands of students coming from different states, I don’t think there’s one person in Orono that would say that they’re not maybe a little bit concerned about it,” she said. “We do a lot of business with the University of Maine. We always have. And hopefully, we’ll be doing a lot of business with the delivery and the takeout.”
The fall semester at UMaine will bring a requirement that all students wear face coverings as well as smaller classes that allow students to keep their distance from each other. The semester on campus will also be shorter, as students won’t return after Thanksgiving. And much instruction will continue online, as many professors have said they’re concerned about the return to in-person instruction.
While UMaine doesn’t plan to test every student, unlike some of Maine’s private colleges, students living in dorms, students and faculty coming from outside the state and student-athletes will have to take coronavirus tests. Those coming from outside Maine will be subject to the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement until they can present a negative test.
Town Manager Sophie Wilson said she has received just a couple complaints so far from residents concerned about students returning to Orono.
“There really hasn’t been a major outcry,” she said. “We tend to focus more on the returning students later in August. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear more, but we just haven’t at this point.”
Orono received approximately $50,000 from the state to raise awareness about the importance of wearing face coverings in public. The initial funding paid for some outreach to residents, but most of it went toward hiring an attendant at Gould’s Landing on Pushaw Lake to ensure people were practicing social distancing there.
The town has applied for a second round of funding that would allow it to put up signs urging COVID-19 safety precautions, better communicate with students via social media and hand out masks and sanitizer.
The university is planning to hold a town hall with Orono officials this month to discuss students’ return to campus.