Local businesses in New Brunswick continue to experience the effects of having fewer students on the Rutgers campus with the University’s shift to online classes during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Business has slowed significantly,” said Andrew Spina, owner of Spina Records. “Typically, we are extremely busy during the first weeks and months of any new school year. More recently, we have witnessed a marked decline in foot traffic, sales and general business activity.”
Local business owners said a large percentage of their business comes from students living in the area. Essentially all of Scarlet Fever’s business is from students alone, said the store’s owner Stephen Ostergren.
While Scarlet Fever has had far fewer customers than it would in a normal year, it costs approximately $400 a day to keep the brick and mortar store open, Ostergren said.
“Very simply, it sucks,” he said. “You turn the clock back to when all you (students) were told to go home, we were mandated to shut down for three months. But the costs don’t go away.”
When Scarlet Fever reopened in June, business was slow due to it being the summer season, Ostergren said. Because the local population decreases and students return home during the summer, most local businesses rely on the traffic that accompanies the spring semester, Spina said.
When Rutgers canceled in-person classes last spring semester and moved the current semester online, it essentially resulted in a 12-month summer season for every New Brunswick business, Spina said.
“We rely on the support and patronage from the students but the students just aren't here,” he said.
Spina said he was forced to reduce Spina Records’ hours of operation to stay open. Staffing is an issue as well, said Matthew Poznick, owner of Stuff Yer Face.
“Trying to cut costs payroll wise and trying to keep your good staff from looking elsewhere for a more consistent schedule, as well as navigating scheduling to accommodate their unemployment claims,” Poznick said. “It's an enormous headache.”
Local businesses have also had to make adjustments according to COVID-19 guidelines. RU Hungry can only let five customers in at a time for social distancing and has spent a large amount on gloves, sanitizers and masks, said the restaurant’s owner Ayman Elnaggar.
Despite these measures and losing approximately 35 to 40 percent of its business, RU Hungry has maintained its usual hours of operation and seen its online service rise by 25 percent, Elnaggar said.
“Other businesses on Easton Avenue couldn’t take the hit and sadly they are closed,” he said. “Even the guy next door is not operating now due to the pandemic.”
Several local business owners said it is important that students who are living in the area continue to support local businesses at this time. Small businesses are the glue that hold their respective communities together, Poznick said.
“If students want a city that can offer more than just mediocre pizza shops, rundown bodegas and generic cell phone stores, then they have to support and frequent the businesses trying to give the city some character, vibrancy and uniqueness,” Spina said. “Without the support from students for local, small businesses — New Brunswick would be a mundane landscape similar to a mall food court. Nothing memorable.”
Christianna Kuznetsova, a School of Engineering senior who has been supporting local businesses, said students do support the local economy, but should not feel the need to go out of their way to do so.
“This is a free market, and those businesses exist because there are students who provide the demand, and not the other way around,” she said.
Ostergren also said it is not students’ responsibility to support businesses.
“Businesses fill needs,” he said. “It's America. If somebody thinks there's a need or they can do something better, they start a business. That's the beauty of America. So it's the opposite. The businesses fill the need, it’s not the responsibility of the customers or students to make sure the businesses stay there.”
Still, New Brunswick is and will always be a town centered around Rutgers, Spina said.
“New Brunswick is a college town and a seasonal town — with the loss of in-person classes, it was a devastating blow and we are still seeing the fallout play out,” Spina said.