On a Friday afternoon, local families sit out on benches and take off their masks for waffle cones from Lickety Split. In a pandemic summer, it has become a way to get out of the house and meet the neighbors. Outdoor tables line the sidewalks, and Images Cinema is showing films — online.
Spring Street has changed in a summer of Covid-19. Shops are reopening and students will return to campus. Restaurants and even the Clark Art Institute are expanding outdoors, but this year, no one will run into an emerging playwright with Williamstown’s celebrated Theatre Festival.
Williamstown is a college town, and this time of year it is usually brimming with actors. It is home to the Clark Art Institute and neighbors with internationally known tourist draws from Mass MoCA to the Appalachian Trail.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival, known for attracting theatrical greats such as Blythe Danner, George Wolfe, and Martyna Majok, has cancelled its regular, in-person programming and moved its performances to Audible.com. Restaurants, shops, and museums have begun to reopen cautiously in the last few weeks, after months of closure, takeout, and online sales. And the college has run remotely since March, though it plans to bring students back to campus in September.
For those who call Williamstown home, for those who run its businesses and work in its restaurants, the pandemic and its resulting lack of tourism have brought many challenges in 2020, and many adaptations.
“Like any small town, it’s hit hard, for sure,” said Susan Briggs, Executive Director of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce. “Our summer is our season, with the theater festival, and the Clark and Mass MoCA and WCMA, all the culture that this community has — in the summer, without our normal visitors, without our normal summer schedule, it’s hit hard.”
Nature’s Closet, an outdoor clothing retailer, and The Smoothie Spot, have also felt the impacts. They have found ways to transform their shop in the months when the state required non-essential businesses to close their physical storefronts.
“We did curbside pickup, we did virtual shopping, so we were always in the shop and available for the community if they needed us,” said Amy Jeschawitz, co-owner with Beth McLean.
Nature’s Closet and the Smoothie Spot operate jointly out of their Spring Street storefronts, and they have been able to reopen in a modified version of business as usual. Despite the adaptations they have made, though, business is definitely slower than it usually is, said Jeschawitz. Along with the lack of tourists visiting cultural institutions, the college’s transition to remote learning in March has also cancelled events like commencement, alumni weekend, and sporting events, all of which boost business.
Nature’s Closet is open for in-person shopping, and new occupancy limits have not strained them, Jeschawitz said.
“Our shop can only have so many people in it anyway—it’s not a big location,” she said. And at the Smoothie Spot, Jeschawitz and McLean have taken the opportunity to launch online ordering. Jeschawitz expects the new system to be useful going forward, as many customers typically place orders over the phone.
Across the street, Images Cinema, a Spring Street icon and independent movie house for more than a century, closed their building voluntarily in mid-March even before state mandated closures began. From the beginning of the pandemic, the cinema has developed alternative programming online.
“The theater has started offering films online working with some of the independent distributors,” said Doug Jones, Executive Director of Images, “so people can screen films at home online, on their own time, and the theater will share in the income with the distributor and the filmmakers.” This week the documentary The Fight takes an inside look at the ACLU, the Sundance festival presents short films, and Represent follows three women in the heart of the American Midwest as they take on campaigns from different points of view to reshape local politics.
In the spring, Images even brought the snacks.
“We were offering delivery of concession items, so people could email us or order online,” Jones said. Images Cinema has long been known for their organic popcorn and locally made treats. “Every Friday we were out running around town delivering people popcorn kernels and Milk Duds and some of the drinks that we have to offer at the theater.”
“I was in the popcorn aisle of the grocery store, and I noticed their shelves were very bare, and that was a week where we happened to get a lot of popcorn orders, so we were definitely filling a need for people.”
Now, although movie theaters have technically been allowed to reopen in Massachusetts, Images is making careful preparations before films return to the big screen.
“There are still some things that we want to do to the theater to prepare for when we do reopen,” Jones said, “some more procedures, some new equipment.” These changes include updates to the HVAC system, rearranging the lobby to allow for social distancing, and reducing the number of screenings in a day so that no two audiences interact.
The pandemic has brought innovation and cooperation. Town businesses have come together to adapt to the challenges. Businesses in specific areas, such as food, loging, and retail, have gathered virtually to organize and share concerns, according to Briggs, and the pandemic has encouraged a kind of communication and coordination that she has not seen before. “If there’s anything positive coming out of this,” said Briggs, “it has united our town.”
Beyond organizational challenges, the lack of tourism, and the sudden, sharp drop in walk-in traffic when many local businesses had to close their physical storefronts, the town is also feeling the lack of the more than 2,000 students who usually fill the Williams College campus. For many students, Spring Street serves as a welcome respite from the stress of classes, exams, and campus jobs.
On June 29, President of the College Maud S. Mandel announced the college’s plan to hold an in-person fall semester. Mandel’s email detailed a rigorous Covid-19 testing program, strict social distancing guidelines, and limitations on students’ travel off-campus. A subsequent email sent on August 6, by Marlene Sandstrom, Dean of the College, further strengthened protocols in response to “shifting national conditions as well as updated regulations by the governor of Massachusetts.”
The college’s decision has a serious impact on staff, students, and professors, but business owners in the Williamstown community anticipate the effects as well. “Just having the campus open is a big economic driver for the community,” says Jeschawitz.
Although not all students have chosen to return, more than 1600 students are expected to arrive in waves, starting later this month, according to an article in the Williams Record synthesizing information from Dean Sandstrom
Although more people means more business, the presence of students during the pandemic has implications for the broader community.
“We’re in a very, very good place,” said Briggs, “and bringing in students from all over the world, for some of our residents it’s a huge concern.”
Jeschawitz agreed: “We hope that as students you’ll be able to follow the rules because we’ve done really well here and we would hate to have an outbreak.”
But she recognized the college’s care in taking precautions.
“I think the college has put together a good plan, a good testing program,” Jeschawitz said, “and we’ll just have to see.”
“The college has really put forward a very dynamic and aggressive testing and quarantining and emergency plans,” Briggs agreed, “and it seems very well thought out and very adequate for our community and for the students coming back.”
Williams explained those plans in virtual town hall meetings for students, faculty, staff, and families, to provide opportunities to ask questions about the fall, and also held one for the Williamstown community, in order to outline the college’s plan for reopening, to assuage fears of a student-based outbreak, and to open communication between the town and the school.
The college’s initial plan, which has since become stricter, involves regular testing, quarantine upon arrival, contact tracing, certain dorms reserved for quarantine, and a hiatus from many in-person activities. The initial plan limited student travel to within Berkshire County, but the updated version requires students not to leave campus at least through September.
Students will be allowed to travel to Spring Street, though.
“Students need to access certain resources on Spring Street,” wrote Fred Puddester, Vice President for Finance & Administration and Treasurer at Williams College, “so we are treating Spring Street as part of the campus for the September quarantine period.”
Although in a quickly changing world nothing is set in stone, Williams students will soon pack their bags to prepare for their likely return to the Northern Berkshires. In between Zoom class and virtual club meetings, students will once again be able to grab a coffee at Tunnel City, and rifle through books at Chapter Two. And though it will not resemble a typical Williamstown autumn, Spring Street awaits the boisterous energy of the many returning students.