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    Ithaca’s Reemergence of Tourism: A Public Health Concern?

     

    Despite the dull weather, the Ithaca Commons was lively over the weekend due to the 39th annual Apple Harvest Festival. Photo Credit: Erin Terada

    As Ithaca slowly adapts to a new normal almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it has welcomed back students from throughout the country and visitors. Local events like Apple Fest, Ithaca College’s Alumni Weekend, and Cornell University’s homecoming were the largest social gatherings locally since the pandemic began, potentially causing some concern for an increase in COVID cases in the greater Ithaca community.

    Like many areas, Tompkins County and the city of Ithaca suffered a blow to their local economies in early 2020. The Ithaca and Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau stated in its annual report that in 2019, the county’s visitor’s centers welcomed tourists from 83 countries. However, only 11 countries were represented among 2020 visitor center goers, which was about a $1 million loss in just visitor center revenue alone. This loss was also reflected among local businesses in the county, with many shifting their hours of operation, laying off employees, and even closing for good.

    Despite the economic decline, Tompkins County has maintained a low COVID rate throughout the pandemic. Cases peaked in the winter of last year and in late August, potentially due to the spread of the delta variant, the return of students to campus, and relaxed regulations. As of Sept. 29, the weekly average is 24 cases.

    Stewart Auyash, associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education at Ithaca College and Ithaca resident, said that out of all the places he has been during the pandemic, no place is wearing more masks than the people in Ithaca. Auyash attributed mask-wearing to the clear recommendations made by the Tompkins County Health Department.

    “When tourists come in, they may not have that same experience,” said Auyash. “They may not know that that’s the recommendation here and they may not be interested in following the recommendation.”

    Auyash said that through contact tracing, it was discovered that a spike in COVID cases in Tompkins County after Memorial Day was from people visiting out of town. The CDC had started giving reopening guidance just shortly prior to the holiday. Because of this, it is believed that tourism does have an impact on COVID-19 cases for local communities.

    Multiple businesses in the Ithaca Commons have signs stating whether masks are required or suggested to be worn in-store. The Cornell Store says masks are mandatory for customers to enter. Photo credit: Erin Terada

    The Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s annual Apple Harvest Festival, brought in an estimated 35,000 attendees in previous years before 2020. This year’s Apple Festival was held on Oct. 1st to the 3rd in the Ithaca Commons, bringing in significant crowds throughout the weekend. Although organizers encouraged mask wearing and vaccinations through their website online, it is unclear whether there were any efforts to enforce mask wearing. There were little to no effort policing social distancing as crowds formed in front of vendors.

    Crowds lining up in front of vendors at this year’s Apple Fest. Though individuals are seen wearing masks, many were not. Photo Credit: Erin Terada

    As of Oct. 4, 72% of Tompkins County residents had received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. Cornell University’s population is 96% vaccinated, and Ithaca College is also at 96%. In the legislative meeting, Kruppa mentioned that 50 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Tompkins County were from vaccinated individuals, reiterating the importance of wearing a mask in indoor spaces.  

    “We see from the hospitalization information that we have, fully vaccinated people [who are infected] are seeing significantly minor symptoms and less hospitalizations, so it’s still very important to get vaccinated and we want everyone to do that,” said Kruppa.

    Despite the high vaccination rate, Auyash believes that there is still a need for caution when reopening while still navigating through the pandemic.

    “I think that it’s difficult for any community to try and convince tourists to follow local recommendations when they are not requirements,” said Auyash.

     

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