Earlier this month, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst kicked off its virtual graduation with images of marching band members isolated inside their homes, playing their instruments and wearing black and maroon t-shirts.
“Hello, class of 2020, and welcome to our virtual celebration!” shouted Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, staring into a web camera. In full cap-and-gown regalia, Subbaswamy addressed about 15,000 people watching the livestream, some — no doubt — in sweatpants. Subbaswamy acknowledged the weirdness of the moment.
“Like, super weird,” he said. “You’re going to love parts of it, and there may be parts where you zone out — you know, just like any other ceremony you’ve ever been to.”
Virtual graduation ceremonies being held across the Internet this month are good for public health — and maybe campus morale — but across the commonwealth, they’re bad for businesses.
Rose Therese, a cap and gown company founded 45 years ago in Brockton, has felt the sting.
“It’s really, really hurt us,” owner Terry McGillivray told WGBH News. “We were extremely worried back in the beginning of April that we were going to be completely out of business.”
McGillivray said his company's cap and gown sales and rentals are down about 50 percent compared to this time last year and he’s had to cut most part-time staff.
“Seventy percent of our business is from March to June, so this couldn’t come at a worse time for us,” he said. “Everything we had shipped out in mid-March, it all came back. It would say 'COVID-19' on them, and we had this big, huge stack of boxes and we had to go through everything.”
McGillivray says his business is managing to stay afloat, after shutting down for a month and qualifying for federal relief money. Some students are ordering caps and tassels as souvenirs, and colleges are calling him back now, asking for their orders to arrive in a few months when their ceremonies are rescheduled.
“We’re hoping that — praying — that the fall will look better,” he said.
So is Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of The Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“The whole COVID-19 crisis has hit this industry like nothing else before,” Sheridan said, refering to the hospitality business.
College graduations usually make May one of busiest months for hotels and restaurants in Boston, she said. Last year, for example, the hotel occupancy rate was nearly 90 percent. This spring? With more than half of all hotel rooms closed, that rate is in the single digits.
“Of course, when we're not collecting hotel room revenue, we're also not collecting hotel occupancy taxes,” Sheridan said. “So it's having a profound impact on general revenues for the city of Boston and the commonwealth as well.”
Sheridan points out Boston, Cambridge, Amherst and Wellesley are not the only cities and towns suffering because graduations have been canceled, postponed or shifted online. “Communities like Quincy, Braintree and Somerville, the north of Boston area, those communities all benefit from a month like May when Boston is in such high demand,” she said.
The longer the pandemic and economic downturn drag on and colleges remain closed, the harder it will be for many hotels and restaurants to reopen.
Despite colleges announcing their "intent" to hold classes on campus this fall, economist Robert Kelchen predicted most four-year residential schools will not reopen in the fall. He teaches higher education finance at Seton Hall University, a private college in New Jersey where 150 employees have been furloughed.
“And there may be more to come,” Kelchen said. “Every college is affected in its own way. Public colleges are going to get hit from losses of state funding. Private colleges are getting hit with drops in tuition revenue.”
Looking past graduation season, Kelchen says if students can’t or won’t come back to campus in the fall, he expects more layoffs as colleges see steep drops in their revenue.
“In an area like Boston, where there are so many colleges and universities, especially with a large number of international students who may not be coming back, it's a massive hit to even a broad metropolitan area,” he said.
Kelchen also worries about smaller, more rural towns in New England states like Vermont and Maine, where a college is often the only economic engine.
“If that college struggles or even closes, it can be especially devastating,” he said. “If there are fewer people on campus and the people on campus are making less money, they may not want to spend money anymore.”