For Coley Newkirk, an absence of Temple University students impacts his career, income and day-to-day routine. With Temple students back on campus this fall, he wants to return to some normalcy, but still feels the threat of COVID-19.
“It’s good that y’all are back around here, going to school and doing what y’all need to do,” said Newkirk, a 44-year-old barber at Mecca Unisex Salon who lives on 11th Street near Diamond. “We just gotta do what they are telling us to do to move forward and get through this together.”
After three semesters of primarily virtual learning, thousands of Temple students have returned to North Philadelphia amid increased measures from the university to combat COVID-19’s spread. While many residents and local business owners are excited about increased activity in the community, they are still nervous about a potential surge in COVID-19 cases.
Many students were eager to return to campus when former Temple President Richard Englert announced in March that Temple would hold primarily in-person classes this fall.
Cinco Small, a 21-year-old resident who lives on 20th Street near Gratz is excited that Temple is back in person, she said. Small likes Temple events and having access to off-campus parties that students host.
“I live around here so of course I’m going to go to different things going on, it’s fun to have you guys back at Temple,” Small said.
SPREAD OF COVID-19
The spread of COVID-19 hasn’t stopped as its Delta variant has accounted for almost all cases in the Philadelphia area, said Dr. Frederic Bushman, chairman of the microbiology department at Penn Medicine, in an interview with 6ABC.
Terry Freeman, a self-employed resident who lives on 16th Street near Montgomery Avenue, is choosing to keep his distance from students living off campus.
“Temple students coming back doesn’t really affect me,” Freeman said. “But you know, I stay my distance. I’m aware of COVID, but I’m not all geeked about students being back.”
Some residents are nervous Temple students will spread COVID-19 by hosting parties and other large gatherings.
Ahmed Leake, a 40-year-old barber who lives on Diamond Street near 11th and works with Newkirk at Mecca Unisex Salon, worries parties will contribute to the spread of COVID-19, he said.
“It’s too many parties around here,” Leake said. “And I get y’all are here to have fun and learn, but it’s too many all the time.”
Of the more than 37,000 students enrolled at Temple during the 2020-21 academic year, about 32 percent lived on campus or in the eight ZIP codes near Main Campus — 19121, 19122, 19123, 19125, 19130, 19132, 19133 and 19140.
As students return to campus, it can be challenging to resist the sense of normalcy that attending large gatherings and reuniting with friends after months apart provides, said Carlie Michaels, a junior communications and political science major.
“At times I want to hang out in large crowds to be able to go out with my friends, and it might not be the best idea,” Michaels said. “I just need to keep that in mind more when I’m walking around the neighborhood and try to make good decisions.”
Temple students who are reported for violating the Student Conduct Code’s policies about large gatherings or illegal activities will be subject to university discipline, wrote Stephanie Ives, the associate vice president and dean of students, in an email to The Temple News.
On Aug. 10, Temple required students and faculty to wear masks while inside any Temple building and encouraged them to wear masks outdoors in crowded areas, The Temple News reported.
“Even though I’m not exactly the biggest fan of wearing the masks, if that’s what people are comfortable with and can get me to have in-person classes, that’s what I’ll do,” said Michael McGill, a junior management information systems and accounting major.
On Aug. 13, Temple required students, faculty and staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15 in accordance with the City of Philadelphia’s vaccine mandate for all local colleges and universities, The Temple News reported.
“Of course the most important thing is to get vaccinated, and all of our Temple community is required to get vaccinated,” wrote Laura Siminoff, the dean of the College of Public Health, in an email to The Temple News.
More than 883,000 Philadelphia residents are fully vaccinated as of Aug. 30, according to the City of Philadelphia’s vaccine dashboard.
Even though thousands of residents are vaccinated, Philadelphia’s vaccination rate plateaued significantly during the summer because of a lack of trust in the vaccines and few opportunities for certain residents to get their vaccine, Billy Penn reported.
The College of Public Health, the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and Temple Health Systems offer vaccines to the North Philadelphia community and throughout the city, Siminoff wrote.
Mandating masks and vaccines promotes the rest of the community’s health and safety, said David Choi, the manager of his family’s Korean restaurant called Crunchik’n on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near Broad Street.
“I think everybody should be educated on the facts,” Choi said. “There are a lot of anti-vaccine believers, if you will, but ultimately, you can’t beat science. And it definitely prevents the spread of the disease, so I totally agree with Temple for mandating both.”
Social media misinformation theories about the COVID-19 vaccine is a big reason why some are hesitant to get vaccinated, as many people are concerned about how quickly vaccines were developed, BBC reported.
The United States Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine as safe on Aug. 23, which means there is more than enough scientific evidence to back up the benefits of the vaccine. The National Institute of Health concluded that vaccinations have decreased the likelihood of being hospitalized and dying of COVID-19 by more than 63 percent.
Even with evidence to support the effectiveness of the vaccine, Small believes mandating vaccines is an unnecessary burden for students and is not in favor of Temple’s mandate.
“If I were a student I wouldn’t go back, I would just have to do online or something,” Small said.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and minority-owned businesses, and many business owners have permanently closed their doors while others are still recovering from city-mandated lockdowns and the economic hardships they brought last year, The Temple News reported.
“I’m excited to see Temple back, I think it’s like a test to see if things will be able to go back to normal with COVID-19, and the Temple kids don’t realize how much they influence our economy and businesses,” Leake said.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that was passed in March 2020 helped small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. Despite the aid it promised, the program failed to reach many Black and minority business owners, The Temple News reported.
“We opened here about a month ago, and we didn’t really have like a grand opening because of the pandemic,” Choi said.
Crunchik’n is open for carry-out only, having to close their dine-in option due to COVID-19.
Nearly 63 percent of small businesses in Philadelphia were negatively affected during the pandemic, especially during the first few months of the pandemic in the summer of 2020. This is the highest rate out of the 25 largest counties in the country, according to a June 2020 report from the Office of the City Controller.
Students’ return to North Philadelphia has already begun to revitalize the local economy, and Choi has already noticed a large increase in business over the past week, he said.
“We are really grateful for students and for the business they bring,” Choi said. “We definitely notice the pickup when students return, so it’s exciting for you guys to be back in the community.”
With the challenges of the last year and a half, Newkirk and Leake are excited to see students return because their absence last year hurt their business, they said.
“That’s another positive, you guys really bring the economy back up and that’s a big part of our lives,” Newkirk said. “We need you guys in our neighborhoods to generate money so the businesses keep growing.”
As the 2021-22 school year begins, students and residents alike are hoping to return to a more normal life, for the sake of local businesses and the North Philadelphia community as a whole.
“COVID is gonna be here, we just gotta climb that mountain and move forward,” Newkirk said.