Iowa City Businesses prepare for students’ extended break, impact on holiday season

As students begin virtual instruction followed by winter break, the Iowa City local business community is preparing for the holiday season without a vital group of customers.


Raquele Decker

The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City is seen on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

As University of Iowa students and staff work from home during the holiday season until next semester, local Iowa City businesses are adapting their plans for winter in a multitude of ways.

The UI announced in June that all classes would move online after Thanksgiving break to diminish the spread of COVID-19. However, campus remains open, including University Housing and Dining.

There are fewer students who decided to come back to campus following the holiday break, though. Out of 1,800 on-campus students who responded to a UI survey, half planned to stay in Iowa City and half planned to go elsewhere.

In a city that relies heavily on the university to power its local economy, that’s something businesses are already being impacted by, said, Artifacts owner Todd Thelen.

Artifacts reopened its doors to customers in July. The vintage and consignment store also expanded its space into the former Banditos restaurant in the summer. Thelen said the expansion has allowed more customers to be in the store and safely social distance.

Thelen said Artifacts has been seeing an increase in business because of its expansion. Regardless of the increase in space, he said Artifacts also decided to change its Black Friday and Small Business Saturday plans.

“Traditionally, Black Friday is when we bring all the Christmas [products] and we fill the store’s windows,” he said. “We usually have a line of people waiting to come in, but we quashed that, and we just have been gradually putting Christmas out all of November. But because of our new addition, a lot of people want to check it out, so we just kind of limit the number of people coming in.”

Artifacts is something of an outlier. While the store was able to reopen its doors safely, many other local businesses have yet to let customers in their physical space.

The Haunted Bookshop decided to move completely online in March and has since kept its doors closed. Owner Nialle Sylvan said it has been rough, but the business is embracing new products to increase its patronage while students remain at home.

“We usually see a few extra holiday shoppers, so we’re hoping that will continue this year,” they said. “We’re hoping people will take advantage of the surprise bag, which is a new edition to our store, and place an order with instructions for us to find books for someone. It’s pretty inexpensive and hopefully, that’s something we can do for students that will replace the experience of gift shopping here.”

RELATED: Local businesses feeling the effect of no University of Iowa football games 

The Hamburg Inn No. 2 is another business that has remained somewhat closed to the public. General Manager Seth Dudley said the restaurant is only doing carryout orders. Since students leave every year, Dudley said he was hopeful that permanent residents will fill the gap in patronage.

The hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City is seen on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Raquele Decker)

“The extended layover in between Thanksgiving and the start of the spring semester is just one more thing to get used to, but we’ll roll with it as usual,” he said. “When school goes out of session every year, the gap is filled by the residents here in town, they make up for it. We’ll see if that’s still the case, as it has been in years past. That’s how it usually is, but nothing really makes sense this year, so we’ll just wait and see.”

Students also make up half of the restaurant’s staff, and Dudley said some of the UI students who work at the restaurant decided against returning to campus.

In September, the UI decided to add a week to winter break and cancel spring break. The extension of break means students will not return to spring semester classes until Jan. 25.

The other big change for the restaurant is the extended break coinciding with the end of football season on Dec. 19 and the beginning of basketball season on Nov. 25. Dudley said the business has seen a bump in customers now that sports are back, and is unsure of how that increase will be impacted without students.

“You can definitely tell the difference when they were playing – even between home games and away games – because even though there were very few fans in attendance of home games, there were still some and we would see business from some of those fans,” he said. “Even if it was a small amount, we’d definitely see a bump in business from them, which was nice. We’ll see with basketball if that continues, especially with students gone.”

Sylvan said The Haunted Bookshop, and several other local businesses they’ve heard from, want to reopen their doors, but it isn’t easy.

“We really need, from the university and the state, some serious buckle down,” the owner said. “We need to close up for a couple of weeks and it needs to be everybody, including students. Everyone needs to wear masks properly…we could reopen if the numbers were under control, and they aren’t, even with students at home.”

When students come back in January, Thelen said he hopes they continue to be cautious and courteous, especially when it comes to interacting with the local business community.

“We do get a little worried when students come into our store in large numbers, and there have been times when that happens,” the antiquer said. “I remember being young and feeling indestructible, and with students, they could be positive and not show it, and it’s a little disconcerting for us older people when we see them come into the store when they didn’t have masks on outside.”