By Mark Morris
As Northampton works through the various stages of the pandemic, one term best describes any discussion about looking ahead.
“I’ve used the phrase ‘cautiously optimistic’ hundreds of times in the last several weeks, never mind the last year and a half,” said Amy Cahillane, executive director of Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) — cautious because the city reimposed mask mandates before many other communities did, and optimistic because, despite all the challenges, Northampton can point to many successes.
Janet Egelston, owner of Northampton Brewery, said the last 18 months have been an ongoing process of pivoting, adapting, and learning, adding that “we call what we’re going through ‘pandemic university.’”
Northampton enjoys a long tradition as a dining destination. With more than 100 places to eat in the city, restaurants are a key sector to Northampton’s economy. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said economic studies have shown that, when restaurants are thriving, other business sectors do, too.
“Every job a restaurant creates results in another job in the community,” he explained. “Think about a typical date night — go out for dinner, go see a show, and then maybe a drink at the end of the evening.”
That’s why the pandemic, and the business restrictions that have accompanied it, have been so disruptive to the city’s economy. And the disruptions have come in waves; earlier this spring, when vaccines became widely available and COVID-19 infection numbers began to decrease, Northampton, like many communities, was able to relax masking requirements. Once vaccination levels began to plateau and the Delta variant of the virus kicked in, infections began to trend back up.
And when the city’s Health Department found several breakthrough cases that forced a couple restaurants to close for testing and quarantine, Mayor David Narkewicz made the decision to bring back indoor mask mandates.
“We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors.”
“It’s never easy to be out front and be the first, but since we brought back masking, the communities around us have followed suit,” he said, adding that the city’s priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. “We need businesses open for customers. Otherwise, the engine that drives Northampton isn’t going to run.”
The return to wearing masks was an easy change for Egelston’s staff at Northampton Brewery.
“In the restaurant business, we often make quick adjustments,” she said. “We also have a box of masks at our entrance for customers who arrive without one.”
In 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic closed all kinds of businesses for several months, Egelston delayed her reopening until Aug. 10, the 33rd anniversary of the brewery. Even though outdoor dining has always been a part of the restaurant, with two levels of rooftop decks, she still had to retrofit the space for the times.
“We installed plexiglass barriers and socially distanced our tables outside as if we were inside. We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors,” she said, adding that all employees are vaccinated. “It’s our policy.”
Since reopening last August, the brewery has operated at a lower capacity, not due to mandates, but because of trouble finding enough staff.
“The core staff who work here are great,” Egelston said, adding that, while there is always some amount of turnover, she hasn’t received many applications in the last several months. “That’s starting to improve, but we’re not yet ready to go to full capacity.”
While the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, Cahillane said, staffing remains a challenge for most businesses.
“When everyone is hiring, it perpetuates the issue further because employers are all looking for the same people,” she noted. “They are also filling positions at every conceivable level, from dishwasher to front of house to store manager.”
Despite the staffing challenges, Jackson said most businesses in Northampton had a great summer. In talking with business owners in the restaurant, retail, and construction sectors, he said many reported success at pre-pandemic levels.
“A caterer I spoke with has 200 events booked through the end of the year,” he said. “One restaurant owner said her numbers are better than they’ve been in a long time.”
Northampton at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1883
Area: 35.8 square miles
Residential tax rate: $17.37
Commercial tax rate: $17.37
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available
‘Summer on Strong’ was a successful effort to close an entire section of Strong Avenue to traffic and turn it into an outdoor dining pavilion shared by a few different eateries. Narkewicz credited local restaurants for suggesting and leading the effort. When ideas like this were proposed, the mayor said the city would “move mountains” to streamline the permitting process to make them happen.
“Northampton is a regional magnet for people who want to come here for entertainment, arts, dining, and the vibe of a walkable city where people like to hang out,” he noted.
The city lost businesses during the pandemic, including Silverscape Designs, which closed at the end of 2020. Despite the optics of that vacancy in the middle of downtown, Cahillane said a mix of new businesses have been opening at an encouraging pace.
“Between Northampton and Florence, we had roughly 18 businesses that left,” she noted. “And nearly 17 new places opened.”
The return of students to Smith College and campuses in the surrounding towns marked a sign of life before the pandemic. Cahillane said the students brought a needed emotional lift. “There has been a noticeable lightening and brightening downtown since the students have come back. Their return is what Northampton usually feels like in the fall.”
The return of events this summer has also provided a boost to Northampton. Cahillane said it’s satisfying to look at a calendar and see events scheduled once again. “The Arts Council held several concerts this summer, we recently started Arts Night Out, and the Jazz Festival is coming back the first weekend in October.”
Jackson is “cautiously optimistic” that momentum from the summer will continue into fall leaf-peeping season. In this area, Indigenous Peoples Weekend marks prime time for leaf peepers.
“One hotelier told me if you don’t book early for that weekend, you won’t find a place to stay,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful activities in November and December will also bring people to the city and surrounding towns.
This fall will be different for Narkewicz, as he will not seek re-election as Northampton’s mayor. Looking back on his 10 years in office, he discussed several areas in which he’s proud of his administration’s achievements, such as improving the fiscal health of the city and being one of the first communities to stand up for the important role immigration plays in the U.S.
“We stand up for equality for all our residents,” he said. “We’ve received high marks for our commitment to LGBTQ folks and have been doing more work around racial equality.”
For the next few months, he hopes to develop a blueprint for the next mayor. “My goal is to provide a map of the immediate needs and available resources, so the next administration can work with stakeholders in the community to make sure we see a strong, equitable recovery to COVID.”
Keep Moving Forward
Among many in Northampton, the consensus is to keep moving forward, but also stay safe.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I am eternally optimistic,” Egelston said. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to be in the restaurant business for so many years.”
Jackson said having events return to the city, sometimes in different forms, went a long way to giving people reasons to come to Northampton. “I won’t say this is a new normal, but it feels right for this moment.”