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College Towns Welcome Students Back But Worry COVID-19 Tags Along


College towns are in a dilemma. They need students for their businesses to survive, but bringing students back could mean increasing the risk of COVID-19, and that could mean shutting back down again. NPR's Elissa Nadworny spent some time near the University of Michigan.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: If you're looking for some Wolverine or Go Blue gear and you're in Ann Arbor, you're probably heading to The M Den.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. You want to try anything on, let me know. I can open a fitting room for you.

NADWORNY: You want a tube top with the U of M logo on it, you're in luck. They've got mugs and keychains, even dog beds. Sandy Koski is the manager here. She says business has been challenging. Having the football season canceled, that was a blow.

SANDY KOSKI: That was a big - shoot.

NADWORNY: A hundred thousand people filling the stands at the biggest football stadium in the U.S. means big money. But students are back. About 6,000 moved into campus housing; many more thousands are off campus. There are some in-person classes; many more are online.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're selling lot of pajamas. And one of my co-workers is like, that's because no one's going anywhere (laughter). They're staying cozy in their dorm rooms.

NADWORNY: Sandy Koski's daughter is among the returning students. And Koski says having her back at school, it's done wonders for her mental health.

KOSKI: Getting shut down in March, it was so sad. I think about it now, going to her dorm and packing her up - you know, it was so sad.

NADWORNY: But having students back? It's a mixed bag for residents. In many college towns, students don't just stay on campus, and businesses wouldn't want them to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I have seating inside. Outside's going to be...

NADWORNY: They go out to eat. They study inside the coffee shops.


NADWORNY: They go shopping and out to the bars.

JULIE GRAND: There's just this sense of fear that's palpable. You can feel it from people in the community.

NADWORNY: Julie Grand is a city council member in Ann Arbor. She works at the university and loves living in a college town. But that fear, she says, it's fueled by recent memory here in Michigan, a state that got hit hard by the virus in the spring. To date, more than 7,000 people have died.

GRAND: We know people who are family members of those body bags that were stacked up in the Detroit hospitals. There's a real fear that that could happen again.

NADWORNY: Grand says the city of Ann Arbor actually has little control over what the university does. The local government did enact an emergency order making masks mandatory and limiting the number of people at outdoor gatherings to 25, and statewide restaurants and bars are still at 50% capacity.


ADAM LOWENSTEIN: This is Good Time Charley's. Adam speaking.

NADWORNY: That's a tough business model for a bar like Good Time Charley's, a popular spot in Ann Arbor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The strawberry mango margarita's really popular.

NADWORNY: They're known for a drink called the fishbowl, served in a 64-ounce jar. You can now order those to-go. Adam Lowenstein is a co-owner of the bar.

LOWENSTEIN: You want to be able to say, hey, everybody, stay at home, you know? Don't go out. Don't go to restaurants. Don't go to bars. But when you're a restaurant and a bar owner, and you realize, all right, there's no other alternative for me in this situation.

NADWORNY: The whole idea of the business - bars in general, really - is like an epidemiologist's worst nightmare when it comes to spreading coronavirus.

LOWENSTEIN: You have people moving from one to the other, seeing people that they haven't seen all summer - I mean, massive hugs.

NADWORNY: That vibe, it doesn't fly in a pandemic.

LOWENSTEIN: Right now we're cracking down on debauchery.

NADWORNY: Many nights they close at 11:00 instead of 2:00 a.m. because, Lowenstein says, COVID rules are hard to enforce when folks get sloppy. All of this comes at a huge cost.

LOWENSTEIN: You know, it's like, you're not going to make money, but can you lose as little as possible and get through to the other side?

NADWORNY: As long as students are drinking fishbowls this fall, Good Time Charley's has a chance to make it through the winter.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Ann Arbor.


Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.