Without students and holiday boost, Harvard Square businesses fear for future

By Roesli Arena, originally published on Cambridge Chronicle on October 28th.

College students, their parents and faculty provide a lifeline to many of Cambridge’s small businesses. With fewer of them on campus, shops are struggling without the boosts they rely on at the start of the school year and leading up to the holidays.

At Harvard University, only first-years and students who must be on campus for their studies were allowed back this fall due to COVID-19. At MIT, seniors and students who must be on campus were prioritized.

“A lot of Harvard faculty have been our steady customers for 30-plus years and with them not coming to Harvard for work, we are losing sales,” said Beverley Coniglio, the current president of Cambridge Artists’ Cooperative, an arts and crafts gallery located on Church Street in Harvard Square.

CAC closed in March for much of the pandemic, only opening its shop in August to the general public. During closure, members focused their attention on online sales, something Coniglio explains was challenging due to the unique nature of the art being sold. They are now open with reduced hours and smaller capacity.

“Students’ parents are other big customers, and without them and the usual parents’ weekend, we expect the impact to be huge,” said Coniglio.

Coniglio worries for the future of her business as the holiday season approaches, a time that normally gets CAC through the winter.

“I’m unsure of how we’ll stay afloat,” said Coniglio.

Her hope is that their new option to rent the shop out for small events will allow them to maintain their business, which supports more than 100 local artists.

Pinocchio’s Pizza, a popular restaurant with students in Harvard Square, has also been hit especially hard.

“Typically this time of year we’re very busy with students, football games, and other events on campus, but obviously this year this isn’t the case,” said owner Adam DiCenso.

With business only back around 50%, according to DiCenso, Pinocchio’s has cut back their hours to midnight instead of 2:30 a.m. on weekends.

“I didn’t, in our wildest dreams, imagine that six months [after the onset of COVID-19] that business would only be OK,” said DiCenso, “We’re worried about the months to come with most schools sending kids home at Thanksgiving, making the winter break period longer and that will be an extended period of not having much business.”

Darwin’s Ltd., a local chain with four cafés all located in Cambridge, is facing similar setbacks.

“We were expecting things to go back in September, but with the schools not opening [to full capacity], things have remained remarkably flat,” said co-owner Steven Darwin.

Theodora Skeadas, the executive director of Cambridge Local First, a non-profit network of small businesses in Cambridge, said her organization is seeing this across the board.

“All of our businesses (in Cambridge) have experienced a significant reduction of revenue or are not experiencing the kind of revenue that would allow them to maintain their business,” said Skeadas.

Cambridge Local First supports around 500 member businesses by promoting and celebrating a “local economy community.” However, its mission since COVID-19 has shifted to informing the public about how and where they can support local businesses. COVID-19 made the non-profit busier than ever, as it also began offering resources to non-members after a boost of interest in its work.

Cambridge Local First has offered multiple types of assistance to the small businesses it represents since the outbreak of COVID-19, such as hosting a live local shopping hour online, training on virtual platforms like Zoom, connecting businesses with resources such as loans and grants, and supporting rent release efforts.

“All of our businesses had to close for some period of time, making it harder for them to bounce back,” said Skeadas. “There is a strong relationship between reduced student presence on campus to reduced revenue in surrounding businesses.”

Roesli Arena is a Boston University journalism student, writing as part of a collaboration between the Cambridge Chronicle and BU News Service.

Cambridge Local First