For months, Greater Boston shops and restaurants had been looking forward to the return of college students, who left abruptly in mid-March when campuses closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But a few weeks into the fall semester, those hopes have been tempered by reality: It’s hardly back to business as usual.
Mostly, of course, that’s because far fewer students are attending school in-person, with schools opting for remote or hybrid learning.
Last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology housed nearly 6,000 students on campus; this year, it’s about 2,200. Other institutions, such as Berklee College of Music, are only offering classes remotely, so roughly 4,600 undergraduates were not required to return to the city.
That translates into a lot of money not being spent around town.
Amir Shiranian, who runs Amelia’s Taqueria, told the Globe in June that he was eager to see business get back to normal once the fall semester began. The taqueria ― with locations near Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, and Berklee ― typically counts on students for roughly 75 percent of sales.
While sales at Amelia’s have doubled since the spring, when students left Boston, they are still down by about 50 percent from this time last year. Shiranian said he hasn’t noticed any uptick at the restaurant near Berklee.
“We are doing better, but we are far from where our numbers were last year at this time,” he said.
Even at schools offering some in-person classes, students may have fewer reasons to move around if many of their classes are held online and they are following social distancing protocols. Colleges say there has been a decline in sales of semester MBTA passes, which offer an 11 percent discount and are popular among students who live off campus.
Last year, MIT sold 1,000 passes, but only about 75 this year. At Emerson College, sales are down about 50 percent to just over 400.
Shiranian said he briefly considered extending the reduced hours at the Amelia’s near Northeastern University on Huntington Avenue once the semester started, but decided to “play it safe,” based on sales numbers over the past few weeks.
Julio Guerrero, who owns Temple of Groom in Cambridge, between Harvard University and MIT, said traffic at his barbershop has increased slightly over the past few weeks, but only from fewer than 15 customers a day to about 20. His monthly count sits at around 500; before the pandemic it was closer to 1,500.
Guerrero said he hasn’t noticed an influx of clients from nearby colleges, but he’s hoping that might change — especially since students and local biotech workers make up 70 percent of his clientele.
“In my business, we need a couple months to see students . . . most students get a haircut at home before coming back to college,” he said. “Even if it is not close to what it was, it is something.”
The effects of a different kind of fall semester are visible in Harvard Square. Only about a quarter of Harvard University’s students are on campus, and business owners are lamenting the lack of foot traffic in the normally bustling area.
Behind the cash register at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, employee Stephanie Proia said the business “very much relied on students.” While students have recently contributed to a rise in wine and beer sales, the relative lack of activity is noticeable.
“It is so much slower . . . you can tell there is no one really walking around,” Proia said, looking out the window. “Before, we were running around like crazy and had to have people working both registers.”
Cardullo’s is trying to reach customers who live outside of Harvard Square with newly added delivery options through DoorDash, Uber Eats, and ChowNow.
“It seems to be popular for people who don’t want to leave the house,” Proia said, "but it doesn’t make up for the lunch rush we are used to.”
A few stores down the street, Brattle Square Florist’s owner Randy Ricker said in-person sales have increased more than 100 percent since the start of the semester, because students are buying plants for their apartments and remote learning spaces. But that comes with a caveat: Harvard Square was a ghost town this summer, and sales are still off by at least 40 percent from last year.
“No one is seeing any real foot traffic,” Ricker said, sitting on a bench outside of the shop.
It’s a similar predicament for businesses on the Huntington Avenue retail strip near Northeastern University. On a recent day, students walked between campus buildings, but nearby businesses didn’t reap the benefits.
Charlie Me, sitting behind the counter at the bubble tea shop Chatime, said it is considering closing if sales volume doesn’t pick up soon. He said the cafe was hoping to see students and faculty from Northeastern, but so far there have been only one or two customers each hour. That’s down from up to 150 customers daily before the pandemic.
Cafes and coffee shops are outliers among businesses that cater to college students — they have been acting as pseudo-classrooms for remote learning and studying. Over the past week, several downtown coffee shops appeared to be full, although with occupancy reductions to allow for social distancing.
While businesses try get by with a slower-than-usual fall, a worry looms: the possibility of a second coronavirus wave that would again send students home and force business owners to close their doors.
“It’s been good to have students back in town," said Temple of Groom’s Guerrero, "But we don’t know if the pandemic will peak again.”