Palo Alto cautiously eyes Stanford’s reopening

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As Stanford reopens its campus to graduate students and a limited number of undergraduate students for fall quarter, local leaders are considering how students on campus could raise the risk of a COVID outbreak in the area, while also noting that the decreased number of students could harm the local economy.

“If there are more Stanford people here, there are going to be more cases,” said Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine, noting that a rise in COVID-19 cases was an inevitable risk of reopening an integral part of Palo Alto. “But Stanford is an important part of the fabric of this community.”

Palo Alto Councilman Eric Filseth ’83 said he was worried that an on-campus COVID-19 outbreak could spread to the local area, citing the number of off-campus graduate students and staff commuting to and from campus.

“Stanford is really only doing a half-shutdown,” Filseth said, referring to the fact that approximately 6,300 students, both undergraduate and graduate, are living on campus this quarter, according to the University. “With research operations still going more or less as normal, you’ve got all those thousands of graduate students — many living on campus — so you’ve got a for-real public-health challenge to manage.”

Filseth was hopeful, however, that Stanford would be able to safely reopen to many members of the school community.

“Between your partly self-contained population, and your aggressive test-everybody-every-week testing regimen, you’ve got a fighting chance of actually pulling it off,” Filseth wrote in an email to The Daily. “If you manage to get through the fall term without real outbreaks, that would give you — and frankly the rest of us as well — an invaluable base of knowledge heading into the next couple academic quarters.”

Palo Alto Councilman Greg Tanaka said he was optimistic that Stanford could contain potential outbreaks: “Stanford is one of the preeminent institutions of all smart people, so I’m inclined to believe that Stanford students will follow the rules and be safe,” Tanaka said.

Even so, Tanaka said he expected that enforcing social distancing and other protective protocols would pose a significant challenge, leading to an increased risk of an outbreak.

“We’ve got to perform regular testing, randomized testing, extensive contact tracing and really stringent quarantines,” Tanaka added. “But the problem is that this intrudes on personal freedoms and there’s compliance issues.”

A Santa Clara County Public Information representative added in a statement to The Daily that the county is working with Stanford to protect both the Stanford population and local community from COVID-19, but ultimately entrusts the institution to make decisions that will ensure a safe reopening.

“We are looking to these institutions of higher learning to proactively mitigate the risks with students returning to campus,” the representative wrote.

Political and business leaders also talked about how the start of a school year with dramatically fewer students on campus would harm the local economy.

Closed and partially closed schools around the country have yielded detrimental impacts on college towns, who often rely heavily on visitors and students to generate revenue. For example, in the 2017-18 school year, visitors to Corvallis, Ore., who were associated with Oregon State University, reportedly generated a net impact of $119.9 million in added income for the local economy. Students also frequent local restaurants and bars and pay for rent and utilities, bringing important economic activity to local towns that would otherwise not exist. Now that students and visitors are staying home, college towns are left without key constituents that generate revenue for their economies. Palo Alto is no exception, local leaders said.

Stanford not reopening to thousands of students is “not good news for local businesses who are already on life support,” Tanaka said, adding that fewer students also means fewer visitors, impacting the city’s economy as a whole.

“If you look at hotels, they’re at a tenth of their occupancy, and hotels used to be a big part of our city revenue,” Tanaka said. “When you don’t have parents coming here to drop off their students, and travelers coming to tour Stanford, the impact is really big.”

Fine quantified the impact, noting that Palo Alto’s budget for general funds in 2019 was $240 million, but this year, the city is planning for $200 million. 

Fine noted that the decline was largely driven by a decrease in sales tax and hotel tax revenue. “When Stanford students aren’t buying ice cream downtown or getting their laundry done, Palo Alto is affected, and we have to make some serious cuts to our city services because Stanford is not in session,” Fine said. The loss of Stanford football games, for instance, will cost Palo Alto significant revenue for the city from visitors staying in hotels and spending money at local businesses.

Councilwoman Alison Cormack ’88 MBA 93 said Stanford’s not fully operating would, on top of affecting the local economy, hurt Palo Alto’s “culture.”

“A big part of Stanford being open includes people coming and staying in hotels, people going out to dinner, and people from all around the world coming together for conferences on important topics,” Cormack said. “That won’t be happening now.”

Small businesses also expressed concern about the reduced number of students on campus this fall.

“We saw a decrease in business, especially for Stanford, since March, and are expecting to see even less business from Stanford in the immediate future,” said Franco Campilongo, the owner and manager of Terun Pizzeria in Palo Alto. “This is true especially because we usually do a lot of events and parties for Stanford students, families and visitors, which we won’t be able to do as much anymore.”

Campilongo added that an important part of Terun’s clientele consists of families of Stanford students who come to visit throughout the school year: “Stanford being fully open — now that’s an important part of our business,” Campilongo said.

Nelly Mondragon, the general manager at CoHo, a coffee shop on Stanford’s campus, said that since Coho opened last Tuesday, business has been very slow.

“We might not be open for long if there continues to be few students on campus,” Mondragon said.

Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Sarina Deb '23 is a Desk Editor for News. She grew up in the Bay Area and is majoring in political science. Contact her at sdeb7 'at' stanford.edu