This December, colorful lights will reflect across the walkways of The Commons in Ithaca once again as part of the Winter Lights & Bites Festival. Although holiday festivities this year will look different — masks will be worn and crowds will be limited — festivalgoers will still be treated to food and art.
This year, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) combined the Winter Light Festival with the Bite of Ithaca restaurant promotion to create the Winter Lights & Bites Festival. Taking place on The Commons and at participating restaurants from Dec. 4 to 12, attendees will be able to enjoy new and old art installations and $5 mini food items, or “bites.”
The Winter Light Festival was held downtown for the first time in 2019 in celebration of the winter season, replacing Ithaca Ice Fest because of concerns about cost, vandalism and increasingly warming winter temperatures.
This is not the first event the DIA has put on during the pandemic. In September, the DIA organized the COVID-19–friendly celebration Apple Festive. Many of DIA’s other large annual events, including Ithaca Fashion Week and the Chowder Cook-Off, were canceled in July.
Allison Graffin, marketing director for the DIA, organized the “bites” part of this year’s festival. Graffin said that, because of the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new restrictions on restaurant and bar capacity, effective Nov. 13. Bars and restaurants in the state are required to close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., with the exception of delivery and curbside pickup without alcohol. As a result, some restaurants will only be doing takeout dining. Other restaurants will be doing in-person dining as well as curbside pickup and takeout.
“The changes that recently came down the pipe were not as drastic,” Gaffin said. “They shifted some of the end-of-the-night behavior, and I think for bars that was a lot harder–hitting. … I think the ability to adjust to the new orders was not as significant as going from 100% capacity to no capacity and going up to 25 and 50%, so the scale-back was not as crazy.”
Tompkins County is seeing its highest number of active COVID-19 cases. As of Dec. 3, there were 233 active cases in the county. The Tompkins County Health Department released a statement Dec. 2 about a rise in COVID-19 cases after the Thanksgiving holiday. Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County public health director, said in the statement that more than half of the 34 cases reported Dec. 1 were the result of gatherings on Thanksgiving. The department is encouraging county residents to isolate and avoid nonessential gatherings and travel.
Nineteen restaurants are participating in the festival, including Cayuga Lake Creamery, Thai Basil and Northstar Public House. Breweries and bars like Lucky Hare Brewing Company and Nowhere Special Libations Parlor will also be participating with $5 sips. For each visit, diners can receive a stamp to enter to win a $100 gift certificate to one of the participating restaurants.
Shortstop Deli, a longtime Ithaca favorite, will also be taking part in the festival. On the menu are items like Tater Tots and chili mac — a dish that unites the deli’s macaroni and cheese with its Shortstop chili.
Chuck Dong, owner of Shortstop Deli, said Shortstop has been navigating the economic and public safety measures that the pandemic has thrown its way. Because college students and workers are now doing everything virtually, there has been a significant decrease in foot traffic. Dong, as well as owners of other small restaurants, hopes that the festival will increase sales.
“One of the great things about Ithaca and Tompkins County, and I’m sure that there are several communities that are similar, is people do have good intent,” said Dong. “They want to rally around their local businesses. It’s easier said than done though. … Our Downtown Ithaca Alliance has been extremely active and diligent in trying to help all of us small businesses. We are hoping that it can bring people out … and then find ways to participate.”
The public safety problems the pandemic has created have required restaurants to build new infrastructure and reduce restaurant capacity, a change that has decreased the number of customers. Restaurants in the U.S. have lost $120 billion in revenue from March through May, according to the National Restaurant Association. As of June, the association was projecting a loss of $240 billion in the industry by the year’s end.
Olivia Pastella, assistant special events director for the DIA, was one of the organizers of the “lights” part of the festival, which will include a combination of physical and contactless light installations. Local artists Laurence Clarkberg and Doug Shire, whose work, “Sparky the Unicorn,” was featured at 2019’s Burning Man event and last year’s festival, will be bringing the installation back.
“We’ve also worked … to make custom light installations so we’ll have … a wicked cool — I can’t tell you exactly what it is yet — projection that will be featured every night of the event,” Pastella said.
Ithaca College senior Sam Ives said he will likely not attend the festival this year because of increased precautions due to the pandemic. However, he said he thinks other students may attend.
“I know that a lot of people are looking for any distractions that they can get,” Ives said. “My perception is that you’d go and walk around The Commons. You’d see some cool wintry things, maybe get some food.”
Junior Mariana Batista said that she feels safe attending the festival this year with the precautions that have been put in place and that she is planning to attend.
“I love the food in downtown Ithaca,” Batista said. “All the restaurants are so good, and hearing that they are having $5 small portions of the food sounds really good. It’s cheap and accessible, which is always nice.”