It’s been a quiet summer in Grand Forks. UND Student Body President Matthew Ternus notices it when he’s out rollerblading every night.
While there are still a few small gatherings and some social activity at bars, it’s different.
“It's a little more quiet this summer,” Ternus said.
There are fewer students around and more precautions being taken. There’s been no campus activities as leaders continue to plan for the upcoming semester, one that likely will be filled with uncertainty due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It’s been that way since mid-March, when UND students were asked to pack their things and go home as the pandemic's impact hit the country. Students finished their courses from home and there was no graduation ceremony.
Businesses in Greater Grand Forks noticed.
“We have felt it,” said Nicki Tellmann, who owns the Red Pepper – a favorite among college students – with her husband, Jeff.
The restaurant closed its lobbies and cut hours for several months. She said it was a decision made after speaking with staff and thinking about the health of their patrons.
Although the lobbies are now open again, the restaurant’s original location on University Avenue, the one most frequented by college students, is open until midnight instead of the typical 2:30 a.m. The restaurant’s other locations are open until 10 p.m. That means less opportunity to take advantage of traditional trends.
“We don't have that late-night rush that usually is full of college students,” she said.
UND students will return Aug. 24, marking the first time back for thousands of students whose exodus in the spring was as sudden as it was stunning. The university shut down in-person education on March 13, prompting the majority of students to finish the semester remotely. For the Grand Forks business community, it was a financial punch in the gut, since many retail stores, restaurants and bars rely heavily on the dollars that the thousands of students have brought to Greater Grand Forks for a century.
Now, as the students’ return nears, business owners say they are excited, but still remain cautious. Will students go out as often? Will they interact with businesses in the same way?
Ternus said it may be too early to know.
“It'll be interesting to watch UND adapt to COVID lifestyle, as well as watching how the community adapts to having that larger population there too,” he said.
Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, said college students leaving in March not only had an effect on the businesses they frequent but also the businesses that employ those students.
He said the business community will “welcome students back with open arms” this fall.
There’s generally been much uncertainty for business owners in the area and questions of what the semester will ultimately look like for UND and the community, Wilfart said. However, he said if any silver linings have come from the pandemic and its impact on the economy, it’s that people have a deeper understanding and appreciation for small, local businesses.
“I think people realize how important it is to support their local businesses, if they want to have those types of choices and those kinds of amenities in their community,” he said. “I think we've seen more local support from local people of local businesses than we've seen in a long, long time.”
Todd Feland, Grand Forks city administrator, said the city is excited to have students coming back. The pandemic and lack of students has had a negative impact on the city’s sales tax revenue, he said.
“UND plays such a critical role in the health and the economic impact of our community and all the really positive things that (the university and its students) bring, so I think we really are excited about (students coming back),” he said.
Feland said the city has been in discussions with UND, Altru Health Systems, Grand Forks Air Force Base, Grand Forks County and Grand Forks Public Schools about how the entities can have “restart” plans that work well together, as new people again enter the community.
The return of students has been on the minds of businesses, and especially those where college students congregate.
Even with the pandemic, Joe Schneider, co-owner of downtown bars Joe Black’s and the Hub, said his businesses have seen an uptick of young patrons this summer. The patio outside the Hub has been a drawing point for people who may feel a little more comfortable sitting outdoors, Schneider said.
“We haven't suffered any, really, for us business-wise,” he said.
There are still precautions in place, Schneider said. Staff at the bars wear masks and can get tested for COVID-19 often. There are thermometers to check staff members’ temperatures and more hand sanitizer available for customers.
It’s hard to control customers, Schneider said. People get up and move around, talk to one another.
“It's hard to just confine everyone to a table and say ‘don't get up and stand next to someone and talk to them.’ … That's not really practical,” he said. “We've been doing the best we can with that.”
Grand Forks, Schneider noted, had been doing fairly well with its number of cases until after the Fourth of July, when cases began to tick back up as lake gatherings became more popular. He’s hopeful there will be a vaccine developed soon so everything can return to “normal, normal.”
At the Red Pepper, the goal is to return to accommodating the late-night eating habits of college students. The Tellmanns, however, say there’s no rush. They plan to wait and see what happens in the community before moving back hours again.
“Part of the reason is Jeff and I feel like we don't want to encourage people to be out in the bars and be in big groups of people at this time because we're seeing a little bit of a rise in cases,” Nicki Tellman said. “Our staff and our customers are our number one priority. So keeping them safe and not getting them sick is number one to us.”
Beyond businesses, the pandemic’s impact may be felt for the next decade in Grand Forks, as city and university leaders wonder what the exodus of students last spring might mean for the U.S. Census.
Students were sent home just as the census was nearing. April 1 was Census Day, but a majority of students already were home – and not in Grand Forks.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the self-response rate in areas around UND is considerably lower than the rest of the city. The city’s overall self-response rate is 68.4%; near UND, the numbers hover between 35% and 46%.
The self-response rate does not reflect data from UND residence halls, however, which is reported by the university, according to Grand Forks City Planner Brad Gengler. Where the numbers ultimately end up remains to be seen, he said.
Meloney Linder, vice president for marketing and communications at UND, said the university has been working with the city to communicate – through emails, texts, newsletters and other ways – to students that they should mark Grand Forks as their city of residence when filling out the census form, since that’s where they would have been living on Census Day. But whether that message was heeded remains to be seen.
That’s not unique to Grand Forks, she said. Other college towns have the same concerns.
The Census Bureau has extended the deadline for responses until Oct. 31, which may give UND more time to reach out to students and ensure they are counted in Grand Forks.
While the census doesn’t have a direct impact on UND’s budget, it does affect the city and its budget.
College towns across the country depend on students’ responses to the census because its results can help determine how much federal funding cities will get over the next decade, the U.S. Census Bureau says. Federal funding is around $1,900 per person counted in the census, which equates to about $19,000 per person over the 10-year census period.
That’s money for roads and city projects that have a direct impact on UND, Linder said.
In June, the New York Times reported about the troubles facing college towns both now and in the future. Some of those schools aren’t planning to have in-person courses this fall, which could have a big impact on those cities over the next decade. Grand Forks is more than a university town, though, Feland noted. There’s manufacturing, an ag industry and health care work here, but an accurate census count is still key.
“It seems like we're in a similar boat,” he said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to be as strong as we can, despite all the headwinds that are in front of us moving forward, so that we can get an accurate count of our people.”