Thursday, April 18, 2024

Porter Square Books is taking steps to adapt to coronavirus fears meaning fewer customers in the store. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Starbucks in Harvard Square was so empty at 10:30 a.m. Thursday that baristas and other employees almost outnumbered customers. “Usually in the winter it’s more packed at this time,” said Phyllis Aleman, who works at a nearby spa, as she left the coffee shop. A Harvard University professor echoed the observation: “I don’t usually come here this time of day because it’s too busy.”

With Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology emptying out for the rest of the spring semester and people asked to work from home because of the coronavirus, it’s a double whammy for Cambridge businesses. They expect to hurt, if they aren’t already.

Dillon Gargano, a manager at Mike’s Pastry on Dunster Street, said he hadn’t seen a slowdown – “yet.” He expects one, he said. “I can imagine that a significant amount of our customers will not be around,” Gargano said.

Tourism seen as dropping

It’s not only small businesses that are suffering. “Our hotels are feeling the biggest brunt and probably the first,” said Robyn Culbertson, executive director of the Cambridge Office for Tourism, the city-supported agency that promotes visits. Companies and organizations are canceling meetings in response to recommendations from health officials – and perhaps the experience of Biogen, where a meeting last month has resulted in at least 82 infections among Massachusetts residents, three in North Carolina and two in Indiana.

“Tourism is dropping dramatically,” Culbertson said. The city office, which operates an information kiosk for visitors in Harvard Square, is considering reducing its hours, she said. It’s staffed by volunteers, many of them elderly, who aren’t worried about continuing to show up, she said.

A drop in lodging bookings could affect city revenues; Cambridge collects a 6 percent tax on hotel rooms. For this fiscal year, the city expected to realize $15.2 million from the tax. It’s too early to tell what the impact will be, spokesman Lee Gianetti said Thursday.

Urged to shop local

Culbertson said small businesses may take a big hit initially but could recover if residents make a point to patronize local establishments. “Right now we’re trying to encourage residents to support their local businesses,” she said.

The point was reinforced by Theodora Skeadas, executive director of the Cambridge Local First small business group, who spotted “strong indicators of a potential economic downturn” that could last months, and Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, representing more than 400 businesses. Jillson reinforced that plea in a video message posted Thursday. Uncertainty over the Covid-19 crisis “reached new heights” when Harvard said it would close its campus for the rest of the semester, Jillson said.

Jillson didn’t quarrel with the decision, but urged residents: “If you must stay away, please consider alternate ways to shop within your community” by ordering online from local outlets or those that offer that option or buying gift cards. If people who aren’t at high risk from the virus “feel confident in your community’s ability to combat the virus,” they could “please step outside and support your local business district,” Jillson said.

In Central Square, the Business Improvement District has seen the departure of “many anchor companies and educational institutions … or instated no-travel policies for their employees,” executive director Michael Monestime said. “We’re hearing from local businesses that foot traffic and sales are already down. Their employees, many hourly workers, are worried about job security and health insurance. We are working with business owners and nonprofits to understand how we can support them and their staff under these extreme circumstances.”

The crisis has exposed the fragility of the local business ecosystem even in a strong community, Monestime said.

Rolling with the punches

Small businesses are taking steps to adapt as foot traffic drops off. Porter Square Books said Thursday it was adding free, twice weekly delivery within Cambridge and Somerville (including of bags of coffee and chocolate bars from Cafe Zing, which is inside the store, as well as puzzles and board games), free media mail shipping elsewhere and curbside pickup. Its workers vowed to put more content on Instagram and YouTube, including reading the first chapters of books, talking about books, running quizzes and polls, hold storytimes for all ages “and whatever else we can think of so you can continue to see familiar faces” even if stuck inside.

In the arts, the tendency was to stay open but clean more. Central Square’s Dance Complex and ImprovBoston both sent out messages Thursday to signal they were open for business. In addition to having its own staff clean more, Dance Complex leaders said they engaged two additional professionals for a deeper cleaning of the building, but were staying open mindful of “the effect of cancellations to small organizations already low in infrastructure, reserve, and capacity.” (Not all the arts are remaining open. The Harvard Art Museums closed to the public “until further notice” at the end of business Thursday.)

Others in the business community also said they supported decision to close that are aimed at containing infections. “We have to go with the protocol, do whatever we can,” said Gargano at Mike’s Pastry.

But the Harvard professor, who declined to give his name, said he is deeply worried about his students. He teaches a history class of 70 students, yet the university recommended he use an app for online lectures that works best for small classes, he said.

“This is extremely disruptive … The students who are leaving lose their precious time at Harvard. They lose their supportive groups,” the faculty member said. “I will do everything I can. It’s a huge challenge. I’m not entirely sure this was the way to go.”