downtown

City council member Chris Jones said COVID-19 led to the closure of five local restaurants. 

The Harrisonburg community was hit hard by COVID-19 — Harrisonburg City Council member Christopher Jones said COVID-19 prompted the closure five restaurants in the area. With the community trying to get life back to normal, many local businesses are looking for employees. 

With the past two classes of incoming students being the largest JMU has ever had, there’s been an increase not only in the student population but also in family members of those students who come to Harrisonburg to visit. 

With last year being mostly online due to COVID-19, many students didn’t return to campus. Now that everyone is back, local restaurants and shops have to adjust to handle the sudden and massive number of students attending their businesses. 

Senior marketing major Drew Dewenter is an employee at Billy Jack’s in downtown Harrisonburg. He said the sudden change the restaurant has experienced going into the new semester caught the restaurant staff off guard.  He said this was especially apparent during FROG Week, or JMU’s 1787 Weeks of Welcome, which is when freshmen move in to campus and participate in several activities.

“Move-in weekend was insane,” Dewenter said. “Yeah, we were busy this summer, but we really were not prepared for the amount of people that came out during FROG Week.” 

Dewenter said Billy Jack’s has a “pretty decent sized” staff, but it was still a “huge change” that the restaurant employees had to adapt to as quickly as possible. 

“We were lucky and got a ton of support from students and townies during the pandemic,” Dewenter said. “Although it is exhausting at times, it is great to see everyone coming back out to eat inside again.” 

Jones said there are businesses that are still struggling due to the effects of COVID-19. 

“Some of our restaurants, businesses and nonprofits are not able to supply their goods and services because of a lack of help,” Jones said.

Jones said there are different locations in and around Harrisonburg that are seeking student employment. He also said most of the retail stores and restaurants in Harrisonburg are hiring. This includes Rocktown Kitchen, Local Chop & Grill House, Capital Ale House, Billy Jack’s, Jack Brown’s, Jimmy Madison’s, Cuban Burger and Bella Luna. One specific location Jones mentioned was On the Road Collaborative.

On the Road Collaborative is a nonprofit, after-school organization with a mission “to empower youth by providing equal access to educational opportunities and hands-on career experiences,” according to its website.

Brent Holsinger, the founder of On the Road Collaborative, said the nonprofit is looking for student employment. 

“We rely on student employees to work as youth leaders for our after-school programs in several Harrisonburg City schools,” Holsinger said. “The youth leader position is a great opportunity for college students to gain leadership experience, create connections with their community and make a difference in the lives of local middle and high school youth.” 

Holsinger said the organization is looking for “passionate leaders who have experience working with middle or high school youth.” He also emphasized that the collaborative’s employees get to enjoy a supportive and dynamic team environment. 

Jones said there are three main ways students can help keep local businesses afloat. First, he said students should fill the employment vacancies. If students were employed at the small and local businesses, Jones said, then the businesses would be able to handle the increased demand of customers.

Jones said the second way students can help support the Harrisonburg economy is by having relatives take advantage of all of the dining, shopping and tourism experiences in Harrisonburg. Jones emphasized the importance of supporting the local restaurants and shops when families come to town.

The last way Jones gave was for students who have disposable income to shop and buy local.

“Get your car serviced here,” Jones said. “All those little things that you sometimes make your way to go back home and do, you can do it here and keep your local economy going.” 

Senior business major Ben Goodson said it’s been difficult for many of his peers to find jobs due to a lack of advertising. 

“I feel like it’s been hard to find a job because not a lot of the local businesses advertise that they are hiring,” Goodson said. “Unless you go around downtown and ask every place if they’re hiring, you don’t really know if they are.” 

Goodson said COVID-19 has influenced his decisions when it comes to making plans to go out with friends downtown. 

“My friends and I hardly go to the chain restaurants around Harrisonburg,” Goodson said. “If we’re going to spend money, it’ll be on locations where we know need support and where we know we’ll have a quality experience.” 

With the Delta variant on the rise, Jones gave his outlook on what he thinks that means for the Harrisonburg community. He emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated and that those who are already vaccinated aren’t at as high of a risk for contracting the Delta variant. 

Jones encouraged everyone in the Harrisonburg community to continue to support local businesses and to help in any way that they can. 

“[If] more folks are resilient with handwashing, social distancing and shopping and buying locally, I think we’ll come out of this health pandemic and economic scare,” Jones said. 

Contact Mackenzie Munn at munnmc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.