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Mayors Of College Towns Face Economic Toll Of Remote Learning


Campuses are usually buzzing with excitement about now, welcoming students back for the fall semester with parades, move-in days and lots and lots of campus swag. But this year, that energy is dampened by the pandemic as many schools turn to remote learning, while others tried to reopen campus, only to dial it back after seeing a spike in coronavirus infections. Municipalities that are host to colleges and universities are bracing for a challenge, whether it's curtailing the spread or coping with an economy without the typical influx of student spending. We're joined now by three mayors of college towns from around the country.

Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa, Ala., which is home to the University of Alabama, welcome to you.

WALT MADDOX: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Donnie Tuck of Hampton, Va., which serves as the home of the HBCU Hampton University, welcome.

DONNIE TUCK: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: And finally, Mayor Bruce Teague of Iowa City, Iowa, home, of course, to the University of Iowa. Welcome to you.

BRUCE TEAGUE: Hello and go Hawks.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Maddox, I'll start with you first. Roll Tide, I should say.

MADDOX: Roll Tide.

ELLIOTT: Tuscaloosa has been grappling with a huge spike in cases. More than a thousand students have tested positive since coming back to campus a couple of weeks ago. Can you give us a sense of what's going on and if you think the university is doing what it should to curb the spread?

MADDOX: Well, I think they're doing everything that's humanly possible. They did nearly 30,000 reentry tests and only had roughly a little bit over 300 that came back positive that never made its way to campus. But last Tuesday, they began testing. And within four days, they were nearly at 500 tested positive. That's why we had to take some extraordinary measures within the city, as the university did on campus, to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

ELLIOTT: What did you do?

MADDOX: We closed down the bars, and we eliminated bar service in restaurants. The university, through its contact tracing, had identified bars as one of the two hot zones that we're seeing in Tuscaloosa. We hated to make that decision. There's 29 bars in particular that were impacted by this. But we've got 6,500 businesses in the city, and we have to protect those businesses. We cannot lose the fall here in Tuscaloosa. It would be economically disastrous for our community.

ELLIOTT: I'm going to turn now to Mayor Tuck, who in a sense has lost the fall. Hampton University has decided to go totally remote this semester. I imagine that is a significant blow to your economy. Can you walk us through the conversations that you had with the university leaders and how it came down to this option?

TUCK: Well, let me say, first of all, with respect to the blow to the economy, Hampton University only has about 4,000 undergraduate students. Because of our location in Hampton Roads with Newport News, Virginia Beach and Norfolk, the students go other places. So actually, the dollars they spend is spread out. So there's not the same economic impact, but there is that sense of loss of energy that the students bring and certainly with the activities on campus - the athletic events and the cultural events.

ELLIOTT: So it's much quieter.

TUCK: It is much quieter.

ELLIOTT: So Mayor Teague, let's get you in the conversation now. The governor of Iowa has issued an executive order shutting down bars, restaurants and other local businesses to help stem what has been a sudden spike in cases there in your city. This comes after the University of Iowa president, Bruce Harreld, criticized those same businesses for not implementing stricter safety measures. What is your response?

TEAGUE: The governor's order - honestly, it needed to be done. We need to take some time to try to get our numbers down. One of the challenges is it was after the fact. So we need to be a little more proactive here in our community, but I am very grateful that our governor did the order that she did. Even our local community college, Kirkwood, announced that it's going 100% online. And the university hasn't done that yet, but I believe it's going to follow suit.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Maddox, I'm going to come back to you. Your population there in Tuscaloosa swells when the Alabama students return, and then even more people show up for football in a stadium that can hold more than a hundred thousand fans. I know that is a huge economic impact in your city, but is it worth it with the pandemic raging?

MADDOX: Well, right now, the university has limited the attendance to 20%, so roughly 20,000 will be in the stadium. They've also - are not going allow tailgating on campus, which means we're coming up with a plan and a vision of how to deal with that because, as you know, football is a religion here in Tuscaloosa. We're even talking about closing down University Boulevard, which is a large four-lane highway that runs in front of the stadium, and creating tailgate spaces 10 to 12 feet apart. We're not going to be able to stop the influx of people into the city, but trying to keep them safe is going to be a huge logistical undertaking.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Teague, you have to admit socializing, going to parties - this is all a part of normal campus experience. Is there a way to kind of preserve somewhat of a college experience but still keep students safe?

TEAGUE: I think right now, people are honestly becoming innovative. As we know, it is important. These are young people, and of course, we keep saying the same thing. We were all young once. And I know my college experience - I really enjoyed it. And so it's going to take some efforts to really find out, how can we abide by regulations and also be able to engage and socialize with each other? - because if the bars are closed, young people - they're going to do something. And the key is going to be educating relentlessly and constantly sending out messages so that they know that - hey, let's try to figure out solutions together in hopes of keeping everybody safe in our community.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Tuck, do you anticipate having a spring semester at Hampton?

TUCK: I believe so, but I think the challenge here is that across Virginia, our numbers are still increasing. We had started to flatten the curve, but then as we started removing some of the restrictions - Hampton is a beach community. We've got Virginia Beach down here. And so what happened was initially, the population that was affected by COVID-19 was your seniors who were in nursing homes. But then you start getting the spread from the beaches and the bars and things like that. And so you saw that demographic start going all the way down into the 20s.

And so I don't know. We're hoping that we can get things under control because now our area seems to be having the greatest number of instances in new cases. And unless we can get that down, I don't think that we're going to be able to do it.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Maddox, how do you see this playing out going forward?

MADDOX: I think in the end, it's going to be very difficult, especially on college campuses, because as students return and then as we see the emergence of flu season, I think you're going to continue to see this spread. Let's all remember - the experts were telling us in April and May, summer is when you get your break. Well, that hasn't happened for Tuscaloosa, and it doesn't sound like it's happened for Hampton or Iowa City as well.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Bruce Teague of Iowa City, Iowa, Mayor Donnie Tuck of Hampton, Va., and Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa, Ala., thank you all for speaking with us today.

TEAGUE: Thank you.

TUCK: Thank you.

MADDOX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.