Bethlehem will soon see Lehigh students arriving back on campus for the start of classes on Aug. 24 as the university attempts to reopen its campus. Lehigh's campus was shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Roshan Giyanani/B&W Staff)

Bethlehem grapples with looming influx of Lehigh students amid coronavirus pandemic

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As Lehigh’s fall reopening plan stands now, Bethlehem will see its annual influx of thousands of Lehigh students, professors and staff members arrive on campus by the time classes start Aug. 24. 

The start of the academic year is often met with excited students moving into their dorms or off-campus residences and events that get students into the South Side community, like First Friday, where local restaurants welcome in new and returning students alike.

This year, though, it’s different: the pandemic that shuttered campus in March now threatens to wreak havoc on the approaching fall semester. While Bethlehem’s positivity rate sits at 3.44 percent — below Pennsylvania’s positivity rate of 5.88 percent — the recent surges in other states across the country have some city officials worried.

Councilwoman Olga Negron said the council was not consulted on Lehigh’s reopening plan. She said she wishes “everything stayed cyber.”

“I’m just really worried it’s only to get worse before it gets better,” Negron said. “My biggest concern of course is Lehigh students coming from all over, and I don’t know which states they were in and how bad it is back home.”

If Lehigh does reopen its campus to on-campus housing and limited in-person classes, Kristen Wenrich, the director of the Bethlehem Health Bureau, said her department will be prepared to meet the new demand on the city’s contact tracing efforts. 

But that’s a big if.

Lehigh originally announced its campus would reopen for the fall semester under a hybrid learning model, with each course being at least partially online and classes with more than 50 students being held completely remote. But an email from Provost Nathan Urban sent on July 23 said Lehigh will announce its final fall plan no later than Aug. 3.

Lafayette said its campus will remain largely closed and all classes will be held online. Muhlenberg announced similar plans, although freshmen will be permitted to live on campus in single room dorms.

Wenrich said a “practical, conservative approach” is the best way forward for any entity trying to balance safety with reopening. She said ending in-person activities at the Thanksgiving break as Lehigh plans to do is a “smart move.”

“What we see right now is based just on our residents,” she said. “Certainly if you’re bringing in students from other areas that can contribute to an increase, which is something that we will monitor.”

Wenrich said she has been in communication with Lehigh’s Health Center regarding protocols for positive tests and contact tracing. The Health Bureau currently has 13 staff members assisting with contact tracing, but plans to hire additional volunteers through the city’s emergency preparedness program. These volunteers have already been recruited, Wenrich said, and will be formally trained in the city’s database system “in a week or so.”

But ensuring health and safety on campus is going to be a collaborative effort, she said. St. Luke’s and Lehigh Valley Health Network will be helping with contact tracing as a backup. She said the city’s contact tracing works by interviewing a positive case, determining the close contacts of that case going back two days prior to symptoms, eliciting that positive patient’s contacts and reaching out to those individuals. 

“The university is going to need to play a role, too, because they’ll need to help us with classroom rosters and things like that,” Wenrich said.

Though Bethlehem’s numbers show clear progress — daily cases are now hovering between five and 10, which is down from daily case counts sometimes in the 20s and 30s in April and May — challenges remain.

Wenrich said the city’s average age for a coronavirus patient was 65, but is now much younger. She said residents who are getting tested at pharmacies are not seeing results for a week because the “national labs are overwhelmed.” And the South Side is particularly vulnerable between its senior population and its Hispanic community, which could be at higher risk because many of them are essential workers in warehouses, Negron said.

“With Lehigh students, they’re young — I was young once, too, and I remember feeling invincible and strong and capable of many things,” Negron said. “With this pandemic though, there’s no way to escape it.”

Meanwhile, Wenrich said the city is already planning for how to deploy a coronavirus vaccine when the time comes and is looking to implement drive-thru flu vaccine clinics this fall. 

From a business perspective, some Bethlehem businesses are hopeful Lehigh students will return to campus to help boost losses brought by the virus, said Bruce Haines, ‘67, a managing partner at Hotel Bethlehem.

“We certainly hope that Lehigh is going to bring students back in a few weeks,” he said. “No, it doesn’t make us nervous at all. In fact, Lehigh is a very important economic engine to the city of Bethlehem. Not having the students here has a significant negative impact on all of us in the town.”

Hotel Bethlehem saw a loss of 95 percent revenue in the months of March and April. They had to furlough 201 of their 222 employees. Since June, when restaurants began to open, Haines said they have seen a small return of business and been able to call back 50 out of the 201 furloughed staff members. 

Haines said the hotel will be disappointed if Lehigh makes the decisions to not bring students back to campus. He said the month of September typically brings in lots of business for the hotel that they budget for every year. 

With the loss of alumni weekend, parents weekend and fall sporting events, Haines hopes the hotel can bring in business through different revenue streams. 

Hotel Bethlehem has been following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure a safe experience for staff and customers. They have installed plexiglass barriers at the front desk, gift shop, boutique and host stand, as well as performing daily employee temperature checks and requiring masks at all times. 

While Lehigh and neighboring colleges have a big impact on Hotel Bethlehem’s business, Haines said their fate ultimately lies in the hands of Gov. Tom Wolf, as he dictates whether dining and other activities may occur. 

“We hope that the restrictions will be loosened as things get better, so not only Lehigh students can have a great experience on the campus, but within the community in which they are members for four years,” Haines said.  

Aley Jupina, a staff member at Deja Brew Coffeehouse & Deli, said they have experienced a huge loss of business ever since students left the area in March. 

“We are definitely excited from a business perspective, because a lot of the students are a lot of the business,” she said. 

Deja Brew has spaced all tables six feet apart, requires masks for workers and customers and encourages everyone to keep their distance. 

Though Wenrich is “sympathetic” for the city’s small businesses that are suffering, she said “we can’t ignore safety orders and that the city has to strike a “balancing act.”

“It’s a hard decision to make, it’s a catch 22,” Negron said. “We’re going to suffer one way or another, but I will not take anybody’s life for anything.”

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