SUCO chaos puts local economy in peril

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Sal’s Pizzeria on Main Street in Oneonta is shown Tuesday.

ONEONTA — Several downtown restaurants have scaled back dining operations amid the recent spike in COVID cases largely fueled by the return of more than 6,000 college students to the area.

SUNY Oneonta’s current COVID case count among students accounts for 69% of the 357 total confirmed cases reported in Otsego County since March. Student cases have more than doubled since Sunday, when SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announced a two-week suspension of in-person classes and the confinement of resident students to campus.

“Of course this has a negative impact on our businesses,” said Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig.

Herzig said there are “no indicators” that the virus has spread from the college students to the general community, noting that non-students represent only two of the 138 Otsego County COVID cases announced since Monday.

The free rapid testing sites scheduled to go live Wednesday will “hopefully confirm that we caught (this outbreak) in time and isolated it to the colleges,” Herzig said. “It should be a great relief.”

“We hope this is just a temporary setback,” he continued. “None of us wanted to see this happen — it shouldn’t have happened.”

Wise Guys Sammy’s announced Monday it would eliminate in-person dining effective immediately, but will continue to offer take-out, delivery and curbside pick-up.

The Latte Lounge enacted a similar policy effective Wednesday, Sept. 2.

Less than a day after announcing it would be offering take-out food only, the Autumn Cafe posted Tuesday on its Facebook page that the restaurant will be closed until further notice, “due to the current environment.”

Sarah Garcia Diaz, owner of Fiesta Mexican Grill and Cantina, opted to scale back dining operations to exclusively take-out and outdoor dining beginning Tuesday, Sept. 1.

“We’re choosing to be proactive with our decision-making. We thought this was the best way to still provide quality food in a safe environment,” said Garcia Diaz, the mother to a 4-year-old and a newborn. “To a young family, it just seems like the right decision.”

Garcia Diaz said the restaurant caters to a “fair mix” of locals and college students.

“We were curious to see how it was going to go with the college students coming back,” she said, adding that the business took a hit over the summer with fewer students and no baseball crowds.

“We have a great community that has really stepped up and supported us through all this,” Garcia Diaz said. “Our customers did a great job of coming out even more than usual.”

“Our businesses really stepped up from Day One, complying with personal protective gear and sanitization requirements,” said Barbara Ann Heegan, president and CEO of the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce. “I commend our business community for providing customers a safe environment. They took all the proper precautions.”

Eighth Ward Council Member Mark Drnek, former co-chair of the city’s Survive Then Thrive task force, announced the cancellation of this week’s Saturday dining on Main Street event and likely next week’s as well amid the recent coronavirus outbreak.

“We’ll see how this starts to shake out over time,” he said.

The Oneonta Common Council approved eight Main Street closures for the event, Drnek said, adding that he hopes to have two more before cooler temperatures set in.

The weekly program has been “a real boon to the economy for both retailers and restaurants,” Drnek said. “It’s generated a real nice familial buzz on Main Street that hopefully we’ll be able to continue in summers to come.”

Jennifer Grigoli, owner of Sal’s Pizzeria, said the news of SUNY Oneonta’s campus shutdown was devastating.

“This has put us back where we started in March,” she said. “Our business has taken a complete nosedive.”

Grigoli said she and her husband haven’t paid themselves since March in order to keep all of their employees on the payroll.

“We certainly saw a bump in business when the students came back,” Grigoli said. “It felt good. We were hopeful that we could make it through November when they all went back home again.”

“Students add a lot — not only to our economy, but to our community,” she continued. “We really enjoy having students here. They bring youth and life into our community, and the vast majority of them are polite and courteous.”

The depletion of Sal’s customer base, coupled with the rising cost of pizzeria staples like cheese and pork, has created a grim outlook for the restaurant.

“If we continue to lose money, we’d have no choice but to shut it down,” Grigoli said. 

If it came to that, Grigoli said, the shutdown would at first be temporary but could become permanent if business does not improve.

“We’ve been here 45 years,” she said. “It would be horrible to say we’re going to shut down and never open again.”

“We just hope there’s an end soon,” Grigoli said. “Oneonta’s a strong community. We’ll get there, I just don’t know when.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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