C/O McMaster University

The ongoing and potential impacts of returning students on the city of Hamilton

September, a bustling month typically reserved for McMaster students to flock to Hamilton as they brace themselves for the school year, has already looked completely different from previous years. Despite most courses being completely online, many students are moving back close to campus for many reasons, including mandatory labs and wanting to live independently. However, they are moving back in smaller numbers than in previous years and the residential areas surrounding McMaster are much quieter than what is typically expected at the start of a school year.

With that said, the returning upperclassmen are still leaving a footprint on Hamilton. While some community members are welcoming students and the business they bring with them, others are fearful of a potential spike in COVID-19 cases in Hamilton as students gather around the McMaster area. 

Undergraduate students are surely predictable creatures. Where there are students present, there is money being spent on their favourite products and food items. The economic impact of McMaster students moving back to Hamilton for the fall semester cannot be ignored or understated. Many businesses have already experienced increased traffic and revenue, ultimately boosting the city of Hamilton’s economy. One such example is CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice on Main Street West, the iconic bubble tea shop that draws in students as soon as they catch a faint smell of tapioca. 

“We thought that pretty much all the university’s courses are online right now and so we thought we would not get that many customers,” explained Jason, a supervisor at CoCo’s. “But actually, some of the students still have labs and they still have to go to school. So, people are coming back and business has started getting better.”

This is especially important given that many businesses were deemed as non-essential during the earlier months of the pandemic and many suffered losses in revenue or even staff. Hence, the returning McMaster student body is welcomed by many across Hamilton as a way to recover from said losses. 

“I think pretty much all the local restaurants beside McMaster get more business because the students are coming back,” said Jason. 

However, it is obviously not only local businesses that are excited about the return of many McMaster students, but also the students themselves. For many, the start of the school year is an escape from the long months of self-isolation and social distancing, which began in March when students were forced to move back to their homes. Months of boredom and frustration have culminated in an exciting new start for students who are settling into their new student homes, seeing old friends and starting a new chapter in their lives. Although this has looked different from previous years, many students are still happy about this change in scenery. 

“It’s definitely been different being back in Hamilton with everything that’s been going on,” said Isabelle Cavanagh, a second-year biology and psychology, neuroscience and behaviour student. “But it’s nice to be back because it’s just nice to see everybody again. I’m mostly looking forward to seeing some of my friends again and being a little independent and having something to do with my time in regards to school.”

Despite the joys of starting a new school year, many students are still fearful of the implications of returning to Hamilton alongside so many of their peers as the pandemic still rages on. Where there are gatherings, there is a looming risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“I would mostly be worried about not every student taking it as seriously as [they] should be, with other students deciding to party and hang out in large groups and not respect social distancing and how big your social circle should be . . . it only takes a couple students to ruin it for everybody,” said Cavanagh.

For many, this fear is made all the more real by the testimonies of students online witnessing large parties across the McMaster area that challenge public health recommendations and guidelines. 

“To the students not abiding by COVID-19 regulations, I would just remind them that even though it’s very frustrating to have to abide by some of the regulations, if we don’t abide now, it’s only going to set us back even further into stage two or even stage one,” Cavanagh went on to say. “And then it’s going to be even more frustrating because we’ll have to work our way back up to where we are now.”

The return of students and potential lack of respect for COVID-19 regulations has been acknowledged by many professionals as a very real threat. From the perspective of public health authorities and health care professionals, it appears younger generations are starting to cease abiding by COVID-19 regulations and ultimately bearing some of the responsibility for increases in active cases. 

“The majority of cases at least within Ontario, but I think it’s pretty much true across the western hemisphere currently . . . are among those less than 40 years old,” explained Dr. Dominik Mertz, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at McMaster. “In Hamilton, the largest proportion [of COVID-19 cases] we see is among the 20-to-29-year-olds, so that’s definitely the population that has the highest load of COVID these days.” 

“In Hamilton, the largest proportion [of COVID-19 cases] we see is among the 20-to-29-year-olds, so that’s definitely the population that has the highest load of COVID these days.” 

Although it may appear inevitable that there will be exposure to COVID-19 among returning students with gatherings, parties and growing social bubbles, there are important recommendations that authorities have for students to ensure they remain safe. It is important that students remain informed, vigilant and listen to recommendations from professionals. 

“I think it would be an illusion to say “don’t form any new bubbles”,” said Mertz. “Now that people are moving somewhere new, I think the recommendation that may be . . . palatable for people . . . will be: try to establish your new circle . . . as quickly as possible and then have a more stable crew of people you interact with on a regular basis.” 

“Now that people are moving somewhere new, I think the recommendation that may be . . . palatable for people . . . will be: try to establish your new circle . . . as quickly as possible and then have a more stable crew of people you interact with on a regular basis.”

Although it is important that everyone obeys public health guidelines, it is inevitable that certain rules will not be obeyed by all; humans are social creatures after all. For students who are gathering with others or even attending parties, there is advice for them as well to ensure they do so as safely as possible. 

“I think the most pragmatic recommendation other than “stay within that stable group of friends or household members as much as you can” is to avoid indoors for large gatherings,” emphasized Mertz. “Do it outdoors whenever you can; that reduces the risk significantly.”

“I think the most pragmatic recommendation other than “stay within that stable group of friends or household members as much as you can” is to avoid indoors for large gatherings.”

Despite the fears that many students share with respect to COVID-19 exposures as they move back to Hamilton, it is important students embrace this new chapter in their life as fully as they can. The best way to do this is to live day by day, to the best of their ability, in accordance with public health regulations and ensure they keep themselves and their peers safe. 

When reached for an interview about the impact McMaster students will have on Hamilton, Mayor Fred Eisenberger was unavailable for an interview.

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