The future may contain uncertainties, but it will be faced with the assurance that Virginia Tech and the communities of the New River Valley are working in tandem.

Leaders from the university, Blacksburg, and Montgomery County discussed the joint effort to handle the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak during an hour-long community conversation held over Zoom on Friday, May 1. Responding to questions generated by local businesses, the group talked about possibilities for the fall semester, fall sports, and the economic impact expected in the region, as well as ways that Virginia Tech and the localities are working to ease financial burdens and mitigate the health crisis.

“We know that this has really changed the nature of our community,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “And we certainly expected this to be temporary, but nevertheless it’s certainly been quite a difficult thing to deal with both at the university level and in the community. We recognize that.”

Much of the day’s conversation focused on matters tied to Virginia Tech, the region's largest economic driver — such as the return of students to campus, the potential for in-person classes, and possibilities for people to attend Virginia Tech football games. Football, in particular, has an estimated annual economic impact of $69 million, according to a Virginia Tech study from several years ago.

Sponsored by Downtown Blacksburg Inc., the event was held in coordination with Virginia Tech, the Town of Blacksburg, Montgomery County, The Blacksburg Partnership, the Town of Christiansburg, and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. Along with Sands, the event included Whit Babcock, Virginia Tech director of athletics; Kevin Byrd, executive director of the New River Regional Commission, Leslie Hager-Smith, mayor of Blacksburg; Steve Fijalkowski, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors; and Dwayne Pinkney, Virginia Tech’s senior vice president and chief business officer.

“Listening to Kevin and Steve and Mayor Hager-Smith just reinforces the thinking around our greatest strength in this region, and in the New River Valley: the strength of our community,” said Sands during the conversation. “Virginia Tech has a motto of Ut Prosim that I think the rest of community shares. It’s such a strong compelling force both on campus and in our communities.”

The following are some key takeaways from the conversation. Watch the full video below.

Plans for the fall semester will come into focus in the coming weeks

“The fall is an opportunity for us to bring the campus back to life to some degree,” Sands said. “We’re really hoping and planning that will be an in-person fall, but with caveats — and there are still some major decisions to be made.”

Some of those caveats could include social distancing, increased hygiene, and remote courses. There are currently several work groups exploring the details of both the financial and economic plans for the fall. These are being made with strong considerations for the health guidelines and how the most vulnerable populations can be protected at the university and throughout the community.

Because Virginia Tech has offices in every county and many cities throughout Virginia, some details in the reopening process could vary, but Sands expects the overall process to be aligned university-wide, as well as with state, national, and global efforts.

He said the target date for a decision is June 8, but the public can expect to hear about a progression of decisions narrowing the options leading up to that announcement.

“We will have signaled and made smaller decisions along the way, and will have been public about that, so when we get to that first week of June don’t expect to be shocked,” Sands said.

Fall sports are expected, but the timing and details are still unknown

“We’re going to do it responsibly, but we’re going to do anything we can to play football at Virginia Tech,” Babcock said.

Babcock anticipates a six-week return-to-play model for football. The model would begin in late July if the season was to start on time. There are still options to push the season back to later into the fall, into the winter, or even into the spring.

About a third of Virginia Tech’s sports are played in the fall, with many having varying degrees of physical contact and spectator levels. Those could be factors in determining the start of individual sports.

For football, which he estimated provides an influx of about 400,000 to Blacksburg each year, many possibilities are still being considered for fan attendance. Those include limiting stadium capacity and providing some level of health screening outside of stadiums, similar to what’s being done at airports.

Economic impacts across the business community vary

Byrd said it’s difficult to predict exact impacts for the region, but indicators can provide an idea of ranges in terms of job loss. He broke down the available data into categories of low, moderate, and severe impact, saying the most severe mirror the types of businesses hurt across the country – hospitals, entertainment and retail venues, and personal services.

He added that real estate rental and leasing could stand out for the New River Valley, and would likely be heavily influenced by the decisions made by the area’s higher education institutions.

In total, the business sector labeled severe could experience job loss totals between 7,500 to 12,800, Byrd said. He added that it was important to point out that many businesses within that sector operate with fewer than 50 employees.

There are efforts across the board to help businesses and individuals  

“Something our businesses do really well is that they pivot to meet the authentic needs of the community,” said Hager-Smith.

She said she’d witnessed restaurants throughout Blacksburg modify schedules and services, as well as provide moral support to each other, including helping each other identify available grants and corporate lending partners. There have also been various food drives and opportunities for giving, such as a virtual tip jar for service workers, that have sprung up in recent weeks.

The Town of Blacksburg is currently providing free parking and has created dedicated parking spots for curbside pickups.

Fijalkowski said the county is providing a 90-day grace period for real estate tax payments and has also coordinated with local town officials for a unified closing of government offices to avoid confusion.

Research will play a role in helping the region recover

Sands said the faculty, staff, and students at Virginia Tech immediately recognized that the university had assets that could help during the outbreak.

One example is personnel in the research labs at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke and the Fralin Life Sciences Institute in Blacksburg realizing that they had the tools and the expertise to create COVID-19 tests. They then put other projects on hold to help stand up testing in the region.

Sands said the group is currently processing about 100 tests per day with a 24-hour turnaround time and hopes state assistance will allow that to be scaled up to 1,000 tests a day in the near future.

“If there’s anything that’s going to help open up our campus and the community, it’s testing,” he said.

Other efforts, including multiple university efforts to provide personal protective equipment, are numerous across the university landscape, as well as efforts within the Pamplin College of Business to help local merchants. Pamplikns welcomes ideas and inquiries from the business community.

 “We’re looking for ideas from the business community to ensure the regional community comes back as well as possible,” Sands said.

The university will lean on its past strengths to face current shortfalls

Pinkney stressed it was important to remember the financial position the state and the university were in when the crisis began.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia was certainly well positioned with adequate reserves, healthy reserves. Virginia Tech, going into the pandemic, certainly benefited from that and also from its financial management and prudence over the years,” Pinkney said.

He said this was greatly aided by the recent increase in student support, research sponsors, and some of the university’s historic levels of philanthropy.

“We entered into the pandemic from a position of strength. We will obviously leverage that strength, as well as build our plans to navigate through these impacts that are very real and that we certainly have to account for,” he said.

Virginia Tech is projected to lose between $50 million and $67 million in revenue throughout the spring and summer. Pinkney said the many cancellations during those months, including summer camps, provided opportunities to help manage expenses to help balance the revenue loss.

“I don’t mean to suggest the impacts are insignificant, or that we don’t have our work cut out for us. We do, and we are working and planning through various scenarios that get us through where we are today, through a fall that we hope to be a much more robust fall,” Pinkney said. “There are a lot of unknowns, but our planning is certainly very focused and sharp.”

-- Written by Travis Williams