A spook-tacular scene

Dorrie Masten, owner of The Pour House in Keene, works on her Halloween display on Central Square in 2015. Masten says the bump the bar usually gets when Keene State students return in the fall has been smaller this pandemic-tainted year.

When Keene State College students return to campus each fall, Dorrie Masten typically sees a boost in business at The Pour House, the bar and restaurant she owns on Central Square.

But this year, as the school has reopened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and businesses like Masten’s are subject to a variety of health and safety measures to help limit the spread of the viral respiratory illness, that bump just hasn’t been as big, she said.

“As with any year before, when the kids come back, all of the downtown merchants see a spike in our sales,” Masten said. “... It’s just not as significant. It’s not like years before.”

The city’s mask mandate and the state’s physical distancing requirements have changed the way bars and restaurants operate, Masten added, including limiting capacities to allow for at least 6 feet of distance between parties. Overall, though, she said The Pour House hasn’t had any issues with its patrons, including college students, following these guidelines designed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

“It’s a whole new world,” she said. “Everyone, the bars and restaurants, are trying hard to follow the rules and keep everyone safe. But it’s difficult, and it’s awkward. Socializing isn’t the same anymore.”

And as Keene State approaches the halfway point of its in-person semester, The Pour House isn’t alone. Darren Humphrey — who owns Trax Club on Main Street and the Thirsty Owl bar and restaurant and My Campus Convenience store on Winchester Street, near the college campus — said his businesses have seen a decrease in the boost that students typically provide the local economy.

“Business is up a little bit with the kids, but it’s not like it usually is,” Humphrey said.

In a normal year, Keene State contributes an estimated $165 million a year to the city and surrounding area, according to data provided by the college. The college also says it attracts approximately 20,000 visitors, who spend an estimated $1.5 million in the region in a typical year.

Masten said she’s still seen a good number of college students at The Pour House, but added “there’s no way to pinpoint” how much business they generate.

“But I know, personally from being in business for years, that sales certainly improve for us when the kids are back,” she said.

Businesses also are bracing for another hit as cooler weather moves into region, and both Masten and Humphrey said they’re concerned about what will happen when outdoor dining becomes less of an option throughout the fall and into the winter, which will coincide with students returning home until the spring semester.

“I would not be the least bit surprised if we see, in Keene alone, I bet we see three or four restaurants close or sell or change hands,” Masten said. “It’s a tough business, and with all the new rules, it’s just hard.

“And even though the college kids are back, it’s not making up for all the business we’re losing because of the new rules,” she continued. “So when the kids leave, [and] the patios go in, it’s going to be pretty quiet.”

Keene State students are scheduled to return home just before Thanksgiving, and complete the fall semester remotely. College President Melinda Treadwell said in a video update this week that Keene State plans to reopen campus in the spring semester, with many of the same COVID-19 guidelines, like mandatory weekly testing for all students and staff, still in place.

For businesses, though, Humphrey said it’s difficult to know what to expect when students do return.

“So who knows what’s going to happen,” he said. “I wish I had a crystal ball.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com.