Blacksburg businesses suffer as Virginia Tech moves to virtual instruction

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Students at Virginia Tech are now in the next phase of an unprecedented semester: online instruction only.

The drillfield at Virginia Tech was empty Monday and so were the streets of downtown Blacksburg.

Students are finishing up the semester on their computers instead of on campus.

The decision to move fully virtual after Thanksgiving was made months ago as part of a lengthy COVID-19 plan to make in-person fall instruction possible.

“We knew back in June that travel was a risky venture because it could help transmit COVID between communities,” said university spokesperson Mark Owczarski.

For university leaders, public health was top of mind. But now the financial health of downtown is suffering.

“With the students gone, it takes a huge hit,” said Casey Jenkins, executive director of Downtown Blacksburg Inc. “My initial reaction was that it was the right call from a safety standpoint, but of course, then my second gut reaction is, ‘What happens to the businesses next?’”

Downtown Blacksburg businesses rely on students, accounting for as much as 80% of annual sales for some. But now, those businesses are desperate for another lifeline.

“The people who love Blacksburg and live here, our residents, they really need to step up in a big way and do all of their holiday shopping here locally, because that’s going to be the key as the students are now gone,” Jenkins said.

Businesses are banking on the community and the return of students, which is still expected in January.

University leaders said the spring semester will look much like the fall, while stressing the plan could always change.

“We don’t have crystal clear answers although we are hopeful in that vaccines are coming soon, we hope, but we’re still concerned because we’re surging all over our country,” Owczarski said.

Copyright 2020 by WSLS 10 – All rights reserved.

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