A locally based tech firm is offering businesses a secure way to arm themselves against ever growing cybersecurity threats, putting the power of such protection in — and on — employees’ hands.
Token is gearing up for its first full-scale production run in the next couple of weeks.
The West Henrietta-based identity technology company manufactures a biometric, encrypted ring with a fingerprint sensor with multi-factor authentication.
CEO John Gunn spoke of the growing number of cyberbreaches globally, which are becoming more sophisticated.
As many as 60 percent of small- to mid-sized businesses have failed because of such a breach, he noted.
“It’s often a death sentence for these businesses,” Gunn said.
He is betting that Token can help with the problem, adding that authentication doesn’t have to be the top vulnerability in cybersecurity.
Token has a beta version of the product in the field now. The firm has taken the feedback it has received from users of that version, made changes based on that feedback, and is readying for its initial full-scale production run, Gunn said.
Once that is running, he expects orders for the product to follow.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to ramp up revenue quickly,” Gunn said.
The firm is on a growth path.
Token employs roughly 20 people now, including some based in Rochester and others who work remotely from outside the region.
The business is also hiring, looking for employees across the board, including research and development, engineering and sales and marketing.
Gunn — who was hired to lead Token earlier this year — is no stranger to startups. He has led and grown five such companies in his 30-plus years in the field.
He is bullish on Token’s technology, noting some of the cybersecurity measures available now are outdated and others are cumbersome and have multiple places where compromises can occur.
The rings protect against ransomware and data breaches, locking down the most common place of entry for hackers, he explained.
“When we’re feeling really bold, we say our product is un-hackable,” Gunn said.
What allows Gunn and his team to have such confidence is that fact that the ring must be on the user’s finger for the authentication to work.
It is also easy to use and can be set up in three steps.
“It’s the ultimate in user convenience,” he said, adding the rings are one piece of a company’s cybersecurity strategy.
Such technology may have a higher price tag than other options, he noted. The rings are subscription based and cost $15 per user per month.
However, it is less than a business would likely pay in ransom from a hacker, Gunn noted.
The company plans to sell to other businesses directly or through resellers. He expects initial interest to come from firms who would be main targets of a cyberattack, such as those in banking and finance, retail, energy, health care, construction and government.
Sourcing components – there are nearly 90 used in each ring and many come from Asia – has been among the company’s biggest challenges of late, due to global supply chain issues.
But staying on top of the supply chain problem and looking at all possible solutions has helped, Gunn noted.
Funding, on the other hand, has been less challenging.
The business got an infusion of capital last year — $13 million — from Grand Oaks Capital, the local investment firm backed by billionaire businessman Tom Golisano.
Members of the investment firm were impressed with Token’s potential.
“We have great faith in the Token team and are confident in their ability to be a leading provider of authentication and cybersecurity solutions that have incredibly great return on investment,” said David Bovenzi, Grand Oaks’ chief investment officer. “Token has a short path to revenue and then rapidly scaling the business, and cybersecurity has always been a recession-proof business.”
Token’s initial production run will be at another Grand Oaks-backed business – Viridi Parente, which makes lithium-ion battery systems in Buffalo. Full-scale production will ultimately be done at a facility in California, Gunn said.
Token’s headquarters, however, will remain in the Rochester area, he said, noting the firm has deep connections here, especially to Rochester Institute of Technology.
The firm’s technology was developed by RIT graduates Steve and Melanie Shapiro.
In addition, Gunn added that the business also looks to RIT for recruiting – for both hires and co-op opportunities – and plans to explore opportunities with , RIT’s ESL Global Cybersecurity Institute.
“We’re very lucky to have – and be able to draw from – such a distinguished major university here,” he said.
ConServe founding CEO Mark Davitt has been named the 2021 recipient of the Herbert W. Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award from Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.
The award was created in 1984 and is given annually to a successful individual or individuals who have developed a business that improved the Rochester economy or whose innovative management skills have changed the course of an existing business.
Davitt founded ConServe in 1985 and has served as president and CEO for more than three decades. ConServe, or Continental Service Group Inc., provides accounts receivable management and collection services specializing in customized recovery solutions for its clients.
This year, the business was recognized with a 2021 Workplace Wellness Award by Rochester Business Journal, a 2021 Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Ethics and was named one of the best places to work in collections in 2021 by insideARM and Best Companies Group.
“The Vanden Brul award is one of Rochester’s best traditions of celebrating top business leaders,” said Saunders College Dean Jacqueline Mozrall. “This year we are excited to honor Mark Davitt, who demonstrates the ideals of successful entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, and a commitment to the Rochester community.”
Prior to founding ConServe, Davitt worked at RIT for several years as associate bursar before leaving to start his entrepreneurial journey. He and his wife established the Mark and Maureen Davitt Graduate Education Endowed Scholarship in 2019 with a $500,000 gift to the university. The scholarship helps graduates from the Rochester City School District pursue advanced degrees.
Davitt was honored at the Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award Luncheon at Locust Hill Country Club on Sept. 8.
Saunders College also honored RIT students with the Hebert W. Vanden Brul Student Entrepreneurial Award, which recognizes outstanding RIT undergraduate or graduate students who have demonstrated the potential to become successful entrepreneurs.
Three student finalists were honored this year: Hunaina Abid, a fourth-year mechatronics engineering technology major from Kashmir; Ben Garvey, a 2021 graduate from RIT’s School of Individualized Study from Derby, N.Y.; and Nikolas Kelly, a 2020 graduate of RIT’s supply chain management program from Raytown, Mo.
Due to the pandemic, last year’s Vanden Brul Award recipients also were honored at this year’s luncheon. Sue Butler, retired board chair and co-founder and former co-CEO of Butler/Till, and Tracy Till, president of T4 Verge Inc., and board chair and former co-CEO of Butler/Till, were named co-recipients of the award in 2020.
Also honored were the 2020 student recipients: Hansel Leal, a computing and information technologies major from Miami Gardens, Fla.; Elise King, a 2020 graduate of RIT’s mechanical engineering program from Pittsburgh; and Andrea Gonzalez Esteche, a 2020 graduate of RIT’s industrial design master’s degree program from Paraguay.
Past Vanden Brul recipients include Dutch Sommers, CEO of Graywood Cos., Jasco Heat Treating and Jasco Pharmaceuticals LLC; Joseph Lobozzo, former CEO of JML Optical; John Smith, IT serial entrepreneur; Ronald Ricotta and Michael Nuccitelli, co-owners of Century Mold Inc. and Parlec Inc.; the late Ernest J. Del Monte Sr., E. J. Del Monte Corp.; William K. Pollock, Optimation Technology; Kitty Van Bortel, Van Bortel Group; Thomas Bonadio, founder and chief executive of The Bonadio Group; the late Robert Wegman, Wegmans Food Markets Inc.; and E. Philip Saunders, Saunders Management Co. Inc.
A company founded by Rochester Institute of Technology alumnus Michael Oshetski has donated its groundbreaking technology to the school for a new campus learning lab.
Micatu Inc.’s Gridview optical sensors will allow faculty and students to monitor renewable integration and manage the addition of distributed energy resources onto the campus microgrid. The donation of the equipment for an outdoor learning laboratory also includes $150,000 in funding for research projects related to assessing power quality, big data analytics and infrastructure.
“The utility industry is often considered old and slow to move and therefore not considered innovative for new college engineering grads. As an industry, we are not attracting the talent we need to drive the next generation of grid modernization,” said Oshetski, a 2003 electrical engineering program graduate and founder and CEO of Micatu. “Micatu is helping the industry bridge the gap to modernization with a revolutionary power quality measurement technology platform that provides unprecedented visibility into what’s happening on the electric grid. I hope the use of our optical sensors at this microlevel demonstrates that the industry is open to innovation and that students will get excited about potential opportunities to be part of creating the modern grid.”
Micatu and electricians from Rochester’s O’Connell Electric installed the optical sensors onto RIT electrical facilities. The sensors will provide vital information about voltage and current on the grid needed to measure and predict system fluctuations and patterns. The data can be used to mitigate outages and failures before they occur, officials explained.
Microgrids today consist of alternative energy sources — hydropower and solar power, for example — and although they may be smaller than some traditional utility grids, they can provide needed supplemental energy resources. The key aspect of Micatu’s system is its use of more cost-effective optical technology, as well as its ability to provide timely analytics to regional providers.
“Micatu’s donation adds tremendous value to the College of Engineering Technology’s strength and focus in the area of fiber optics and optoelectronics research and education,” said Manian Ramkumar, dean of RIT’s College of Engineering Technology. “The optical sensors will serve as hardware training tools at the undergraduate and graduate level and will enhance our ability to teach power distribution grids and the effective measurement of power quality on transmission lines. This donation also highlights the power of collaboration between our engineering schools and utilizes our individual strengths for the benefit of the donor.”
Course development will include topics related to use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, data analysis and microgrid management. Tomorrow’s engineers will not only need to understand the electrical engineering aspects of the grid but will also require a background in the data sciences to collect and analyze a wide range of information that will be critical to managing the grid’s changing topography, officials noted.
“Michael Oshetski is a perfect example of an RIT alumnus who is making a difference and improving the world,” said Doreen Edwards, dean of RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “Mike co-founded a company that developed optical sensor technology to improve the electric grid’s efficiency and resiliency. Through his gift, we are able to build a real-world lab where our students can learn about the complexities of designing a smart grid that will continue to incorporate more renewable energy sources.”
IBM Corp. plans to make a more than $3.3 million in-kind donation to Rochester Institute of Technology to help enhance the cybersecurity capabilities in the university’s new Global Cybersecurity Institute.
The gift will enable RIT to enhance cybersecurity workforce development in the GCI’s Cyber Range and Training Center. The Cyber Range will offer immersive cyberattack training scenarios to help prepare professionals to respond more effectively to real-world cyberattacks.
The collaboration makes RIT the first university to license the IBM Security Command Cyber Range design and one of the first spaces to offer immersive cybersecurity simulations. RIT experts were inspired to go this route after visiting the IBM Cyber Range in Cambridge, Mass.
“IBM is an industry leader in cybersecurity and so we definitely appreciate the support that IBM has shown and are incredibly excited to collaborate with industry experts to lead effective change in cybersecurity,” said Steve Hoover, the Katherine Johnson executive director of GCI. “Our mission at the GCI is to make our digital world and digital selves safer, and this donation really speaks to IBM’s shared commitment to that vision.”
As part of the donation, IBM will contribute state-of-the-art software, IBM consulting services and access to curriculum and licenses to the GCI. IBM also will continue its commitment to the Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition, the top ethical hacking competition for college students, which is run by RIT. IBM will be the competition’s exclusive premier sponsor for the next five years, officials said.
“The work RIT is doing to equip future generations of cybersecurity talent is a critical facet of meeting growing demand in our field,” said Heather Ricciuto, academic and talent program manager for IBM Security. “This contribution and the ongoing collaboration between IBM and RIT can prepare learners with resources to gain experience, while also helping IBM connect with future skilled professions.”
The GCI Cyber Range will be equipped with IBM Security QRadar technology, which helps security teams accurately detect and prioritize threats across the enterprise. By consolidating data from thousands of devices, endpoints and applications distributed throughout the network, QRadar Security Information and Event Management correlates information and aggregates related events into single alerts, helping accelerate analysis and remediation.
“I’m excited because of how IBM QRadar technology connects with Watson artificial intelligence, allowing us to do a much deeper analysis of cyberattacks,” said Cyber Range Director Justin Pelletier. “Plus, we’ll get to use IBM/i2 Analyst’s Notebook tool, which lets us graphically map cybersecurity data and perform network calculations that can uncover hidden connections. Their donation to help train the next generation of cybersecurity professionals can have a long-term benefit to society as a whole.”
GCI organizers are creating different scenarios for organizations to come in and face-off against advanced persistent threats seeking to steal valuable information. For example, participants might have to defend the network of a medical center during a natural disaster or discover a malware attack that could impact millions of retail customers.
“These experiences will be varied and customized, so participants will never know exactly what to expect – just like real life,” Pelletier said.
To enhance the mood in the room, LED lights can be used during a training scenario as a welcoming blue to a stress-inducing flashing red. Rumbling speakers can be used to mimic disaster scenarios, while temperature controls can turn up the heat of the situation, officials noted.
The Cyber Range infrastructure already is being used for RIT’s Cybersecurity Bootcamp, a 15-week immersive training course that is helping people switch careers and join the cybersecurity workforce. The infrastructure also was used during the most recent Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition international finals in January. Student teams from 15 of the best cybersecurity colleges faced-off to see who was best at finding the vulnerable spots in complex computer networks. RIT’s student team placed first in the competition.
“We’ve been lucky enough to partner with RIT for the past six years to help up and coming professionals build their cyber skills through the CPTC event,” said Bob Kalka, global vice president for technical sales at IBM Security. “Our investment will help us to continue that partnership, while also providing quality technology and resources that will be instrumental in further developing the cybersecurity talent that is urgently needed across all industries.”
The IBM gift is part of the university’s largest fundraising effort in history, Transforming RIT: The Campaign for Greatness. The $1 billion campaign recently surpassed the $750 million mark.
The CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival has been put back on the calendar this year, festival producers said Thursday.
Producers Marc Iacona and John Nugent have slated the popular event for July 30 to Aug. 7 at Rochester Institute of Technology. Plans are dependent on New York’s public health guidelines being favorable for both travel and large gatherings.
The decision to move forward will be made in the spring, officials said.
The move from downtown Rochester to RIT will allow organizers more flexible space to accommodate health guidelines that likely will dictate increased audience spacing. The move from June to July and August will enable more people to be vaccinated and give the festival optimal use of RIT’s space because it will be between semesters.
“With COVID-19 and health consequences squarely on the minds of all event-goers around the world, we again find ourselves at a crossroads,” said Iacona and Nugent in a statement. “We are deeply grateful to our loyal patrons and sponsors and for countless messages of support as uncertainty prevails. Early February now brings us to a critical junction as we explore how to potentially present a festival, secure programming, and put together the plethora of logistics.”
The festival’s 19th edition was postponed twice because of the pandemic. It originally was scheduled for June 19 through 27, 2020, then rescheduled for Oct. 2 through 10, 2020, and eventually postponed to June 18 through 26, 2021. More than 208,000 people attend the nine-day annual event, coming from more than half of the states nationwide and 20 countries to see more than 325 shows, and 1,750 artists perform.
“Planning is a challenge when we don’t know what the future will bring. We do know that this year’s festival cannot go on as usual. The way we work and how we live has changed,” Iacona said. “We are very encouraged that vaccines are becoming more available. And if public health guidelines allow us to proceed this summer, we must adapt to this new environment, which will require a more flexible and spacious festival footprint. The RIT campus meets that criteria.”
Officials said Club Pass holders will be able to use their passes at this year’s festival or in 2022 or 2023. The two headliner shows, Spyro Gyra and Puss N Boots, which were scheduled for June, will be canceled and refunds will be provided to all ticketholders. An email is being sent to every ticketholder with refund information.
“The essence of our festival has always been to bring our community together, drawn by the majesty of creative improvised music and celebrating as one entity. While this new location will be a change for us all, and the first time we are not downtown, we will still shine the musical spotlight on greater Rochester,” Nugent said. “We are committed to making every effort to include the city of Rochester and many of our downtown-based partners at this new location. We will create a festive atmosphere including a Jazz Street, assure the ability to walk between venues and offer a shuttle service.”
As plans evolve over the next few months the producers will assess RIT’s many venue options. If public health officials give the green light to proceed, the lineup will be finalized and announced in the spring. As previously announced, producers are committed to honoring agreements with as many artists as possible who were originally booked for the original 19th edition in June 2020.
“RIT embodies community pride and involvement. When asked to serve as the host venue for the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival in 2021, we were happy to comply by offering an expansive setting where COVID safety precautions can be observed,” said RIT President David Munson. “The Jazz Fest aligns well with our mission as a university that works at the intersection of technology, the arts and design. We have almost unlimited space for outdoor performance venues and ample adjacent parking. We’ve also invested more than $8 million in COVID-related infrastructure upgrades, including 3,000 new air purification systems and a variety of touchless technologies. This should provide for a safe and welcoming environment as we plan within public health guidelines. We look forward to doing our part to bring Greater Rochester together for a world-class event.”
Rochester Institute of Technology’s Venture Creations business incubator plans to relocate its headquarters to Rochester’s Downtown Innovation Zone.
The organization has been located on John Street in Henrietta, but in December will relocate to 40 Franklin St. downtown, within sight of the Liberty Pole. The move will allow the incubators’ client companies to work in space designed for positive member “collisions” resulting in close and fruitful collaborations, officials said. Additionally, the move further advances the commitment from university leadership to have a presence in downtown Rochester.
Eleven client companies and three graduate companies will relocate, along with incubator coaches and staff members. The incubator space will be on the second, third and fourth floors of the building, which also houses RIT’s Center for Urban Entrepreneurship on the first floor.
“Rochester has always been synonymous with innovative new companies,” said Ryne Raffaelle, RIT’s vice president for research. “It makes perfect sense to place RIT’s incubator right in the middle of the Rochester Downtown Innovation Zone.”
Venture Creations was created in 2003 to provide services to incubating companies, facilitating the development and operation of the companies to advance the educational and research missions of RIT through the enhancement of faculty, student and staff involvement in high technology. It also was created to promote economic development and competitiveness in Monroe County and New York state by encouraging and facilitating the transfer of technology resources to the marketplace.
The total number of launched companies now stands at 42, with 559 jobs created.
“The Venture Creations team and incubator members are excited to move downtown in further support of the technology and innovation that Rochester is known for,” said Peter Parts, incubator interim director. “We are proud to be able to offer our member companies the very best of both worlds — the opportunity to network and work closely with other startups. It is here where they can establish companies and have access to all the other services in this great city, along with the invaluable support that comes with our connection to RIT. This is the building where innovation and cool things happen.”
Client companies receive advice on growth, marketing, business planning, human resources, legal affairs and finance and investment strategies. Graduate companies continue to thrive in the marketplace and often return to the incubator to provide advice to current incubator clients, officials noted.
n addition, Venture Creations offers its client companies quality coaching, professional consulting, and connections with industry professionals, creating an environment where cutting-edge businesses can develop and thrive.
“We have vendors and partners downtown and this will make interactions with them easier,” said Paula Doyle, chief medical officer of EndoGlow. “I love the way the floor plan has open spaces, hard offices and soft offices. And I’m really looking forward to collaborating with more of the start-up companies. It’s a great building.”
EndoGlow, which designs and distributes medical devices that fluoresce under near-infrared imaging to improve patient safety, enhance surgical efficiency and reduce medical costs, joined Venture Creations in 2017.
FuzeHub, a nonprofit organization that provides manufacturers with programs and resources, has awarded eight collaborative projects through the Jeff Lawrence Innovation Fund, including two in the Rochester area.
The innovation fund, consisting of $1 million annually, supports a set of activities designed to spur technology development and commercialization across New York state. As part of the fund, FuzeHub offers manufacturing grants to nonprofit organizations in New York, including higher education institutions that are proposing innovative projects to be undertaken in partnership with a small- to medium-sized manufacturer.
Project categories include the adoption of a new technology to enhance a process or product; prototype development; design for manufacturing; proof-of-concept manufacturing; certain equipment purchases; manufacturing scale-up; among other things. The fund also is used to provide assistance to early-stage companies through an annual commercialization competition and an innovation challenge.
Locally, Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability and Falcon Fuel Cells Inc. were awarded roughly $50,000 for a project that aims to capitalize on the existing commercial demand for improved power sources for unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by advancing fuel cell design and manufacturing.
The second grant in Rochester went to the University of Rochester’s Biomedical Engineering department and SiMPore. The roughly $50,000 grant will be used by SiMPore to adopt manufacturing methods of the PI James McGrath laboratory at UR to create “tissue chips” called the μSiM. The chips are used in biomedicine as miniature models of human tissues.
“In the current climate, the Jeff Lawrence Innovation Fund Manufacturing Grant awards are a vital resource to the companies that are supported in these projects,” said Julianne Clouthier, industry engagement manager for FuzeHub. “These awards are allowing the applicant organizations, where possible, to continue to stimulate the economy through the purchase of raw materials, supplies and equipment along with funding engineering and design-for-manufacturing service costs.
“From medical device innovations and novel antimicrobial treatment technology to development of advanced materials for manufacturing and fuel cell design, these grant awardees have the potential to provide opportunities to many small New York manufacturers that may be experiencing disruption in their businesses,” she added.
FuzeHub also is preparing for its fourth Commercialization Competition, a two-day event that will be held in November in Albany. The event features a pitch competition showcasing innovative early-stage companies, panelist discussions and networking opportunities. Finalists will compete to demonstrate the commercialization potential of their technology or product.
Normally, April would be the month when high school seniors are making last-minute visits to Rochester-area colleges, trying to decide which school that accepted them they will attend in the fall. Juniors might use their April break to start their college search.
But not this year. Not with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools are instead inviting accepted students to visit their web pages, take virtual campus tours, meet current students and officials on Zoom, and make a decision without setting foot on campus. In fact, chartered buses that normally bring students from the New York City area to visit Nazareth College and Finger Lakes Community College have been canceled, potentially resulting in fewer students from the Big Apple attending those schools in the fall.
And many colleges are sharing their uncertainty about whether the incoming class will attend classes in person in the fall, as that’s still up in the air depending on the path of the pandemic. Colleges in the State University of New York system are waiting for direction from Albany.
From community colleges to research universities, local institutions of higher education are juggling student decisions, extra costs of operating remotely, families hesitant to start or complete the college choice process because of their economic uncertainty, and what seems like daily news and changes on the pandemic scene.
Several local schools, including the region’s largest employer, the University of Rochester, have frozen hiring to some extent, and instituted pay freezes because of the economic impacts of the pandemic.
After moving spring semester classes online in the middle of the semester, most colleges have also announced summer sessions will be online, too. Schools report they are planning for multiple scenarios for the fall semester.
To try to reduce stress for prospective families, some colleges have delayed the traditional May 1 deadline for students to commit to June 1.
“Essentially, we want to give families the opportunity to think through their decisions and make sure they’re the best fit for them. In some cases, people need more time to make that decision because of the uncertainty that exists,” said John Mordaci, assistant vice president of admissions at Nazareth College.
The uncertainty may not lay with the college, but with the family’s circumstances. Suddenly without a job, some parents are having to rewrite their children’s financial documents, and are appealing financial aid offers made just a few weeks ago when their income looked very different. Hobart and William Smith Colleges said about 15 percent more financial appeals have been filed this year than in a typical year.
While Monroe Community College is more affordable than most schools, the college is trying to let students know that even if they apply at the last minute — common with rolling admissions at community colleges — and even if they don’t have internet access at home, college staff are available to help them negotiate the financial aid process.
Christine Casalinuovo-Adams, MCC’s associate vice president for enrollment management, said there may be an uptick in enrollment for the fall because of changing financial circumstances for families who didn’t have MCC at the top of their lists until now.
“Their number one choice is still alive and the pathway to get there is through MCC,” she said, noting MCC students have gone on to Yale and Cornell universities, as well as prestigious state schools.
Some other schools say it’s too early to predict whether their enrollment will differ in the coming year from the previous year.
“Colleges and universities are a really important part of our economy, particularly here in Rochester, and so we’re all doing the best we can to make sure we reach our enrollment goals,” said Nazareth’s Mordaci.
Finger Lakes Community College moved all registration for classes online for the first time this spring. “We’re seeing the same volume of activity in our new space,” said Matthew Stever, director of admissions.
Nazareth enlisted a company to survey prospective students about how their decision-making process might have changed because of the pandemic.
“What we’ve found is that most students who have already made their decision to attend a certain school are sticking with that decision,” Mordaci said. On the other hand, students who haven’t set foot on a particular school’s campus yet are unlikely to commit to that college.
John Young, vice president and dean of admissions at Hobart and William Smith (HWS), said that school is running about 10 percent ahead in deposits from accepted students, but is lagging in rejections. He and other counselors agreed that undecided students are taking longer to make a decision.
April is the month where most schools roll out the red carpet to either welcome those who’ve already committed or to woo those who are still on the fence. Accepted students days can be lavish affairs with catered meals, chances to meet college presidents and deans, tours of dorms and other facilities, meetups with current students and student groups, parent information sessions, swag, and perhaps even a chance to sit in on a class.
“Without those events, it’s been a bigger challenge this year,” Mordaci said.
Many schools report taking unusual steps in hopes of a full house in August or September, from calling every accepted student, to creating new virtual campus tours, webinars and special-topic zoom seminars that will help them make up their minds.
“We had to pivot pretty quickly,” said HWS’ Young. In some cases, colleges repackaged digital information they already had in an easier-to-find format online. In other cases, they created new features online. HWS created new videos using some of the 125 students still on campus.
University of Rochester has several videos for prospective students, but one is clearly dated because it includes an interview with a dean who passed away in 2018. Current-day deans, though, are featured in weekly videos made available to the university community in which they read favorite works.
Rochester Institute of Technology has a virtual tour with the feel of a video game featuring a real student tour guide who comes and goes, something like an avatar. It’s not surprising from a university with state-of-the-art video game design facilities. RIT also announced on Wednesday freezes on hiring and pay, some pay cuts and furloughs, as well as halting construction projects through the summer.
Prospective students at Nazareth College usually meet the college president at accepted students day events. This year they will virtually meet President Daan Braveman, who will step down in June, and incoming President Elizabeth Paul during an online event.
Even with these online tools, college admission counselors say there’s no substitute for an in-person visit. Many of today’s college applicants have come to expect they’ll visit nearly every college they apply to before they apply, and make second visits after they receive acceptance notifications.
Young said when he started his career, about 25 percent of students arrived for classes each fall without having visited previously. Now attending the college without a prior visit is rare, except for one group: foreign students.
So Young invited Gizem Hussain from Pakistan, a member of HWS’s Class of 2021, to share with accepted students how she settled on a college from abroad.
In her letter to prospective students, Hussain wrote that she searched the college’s website, but also connected with social media accounts and searched out videos that could give her more of a feel for the campus. She checked out course listings to see what classes would be offered in her major.
“If there is a silver lining to this virtual, rather than in-person, experience, I can promise you that the moment you do step foot on the campus of your choice, you will experience something magical. There is an unmatched, indescribable excitement of physically seeing a world that you had only associated with images and videos on a screen for the first time,” she wrote.
While MCC is patting itself on the back for being an early adopter of online instruction and processes — it has had paperless registration and course selection for 15 years — others are getting into that game for the very first time.
“This is going to force a lot of schools to do things a lot differently and some of these methods are going to stick,” Stever said.
Other lasting effects of this time might be the economic impact on campus workforces and in families rejiggering their comfort level with having their students go far away from home to attend college.
Locally, UR, St. John Fisher College, Roberts Wesleyan College have all announced hiring freezes of some sort. SUNY Brockport said it is reviewing every unfilled position to determine whether replacements should be hired at this time. RIT reported it is in meetings on the subject.
MCC was already reducing staff through a voluntary separation plan before the pandemic hit.
Colleges are also seeing signs similar to the period after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when families’ decided to send students to college closer to home rather than risk being separated by many miles during uncertain times.
“Last year our freshman class came from 29 states,” Mordaci said at Nazareth. “We don’t expect that will be the same this year, based on the circumstances. We had to cancel a bus trip we normally do from NYC. We feel that’s going to impact us.”
“Families might not be as willing to go as far” once again, Stever said.
But as with all things pandemic, predictions can be mercurial.
Stever said FLCC’s reach has expanded because more information is online now, making it more accessible now to non-traditional age prospective students who may want to retool.
HWS saw increased enrollment after 911 from urban areas.
“I wonder if we might see the same things here,” Young said. “It’s much easier to pay attention to social distancing on a campus like ours. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.”
With a full larder and few people on campus to serve, Rochester Institute of Technology started using up its food supplies this week by delivering regular meals to health care workers at Rochester Regional Health.
The university plans to deliver 100 meals at a time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until supplies run out. At the same time, RIT’s FoodShare, an on-campus food pantry, has started accepting appointments to provide donated groceries to students, faculty, staff and alumni who are in need. The program will be open until the end of the semester, May 7.
Monday’s meal delivery included individual portions of flank steak, mushrooms, roasted potatoes and broccoli as one meal. Other entrees included sweet and sour chicken with rice and black bean burritos and salads. Individual slices of cake were also sent to the RRH locations.
“We’re trying to best utilize the food we already have on campus that was planned for events and the students’ return after spring break,” said Autumn Geer, chef de cuisine for RIT Catering.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and colleges started moving to online instruction, RIT students were already on spring break.
“I have a lot of friends in the health care field who are risking their lives every day,” Geer said. “They don’t have a lot of food available to them when they need it and aren’t eating properly. They often don’t have time to pack a well-balanced meal. So we’re hoping to do some good, and to keep our staff engaged and inspired to know they are doing something good.”
Rochester Regional Health is RIT’s clinical partner for its health care related programs.
“What this means to our frontline staff is immeasurable,” said Michele Grazulis, president of RRH Foundations. “ For some, it will be the meal they eat during work since our cafeterias are closed. For others, it will be the meal they take home after a long day of taking care of our community. It will provide comfort and nourishment, and we are thankful to our partners at RIT for thinking of our employees in such a meaningful way during this time.”
The RIT food pantry, which normally serves 900 people a year, had closed in March when non-essential businesses were asked to close, but reopened this week on an appointment-only basis. Appointments are available on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with 24 slots available each day.
“If there is a greater need, we may expand that,” said Sharon Kompalla-Porter, associate director of residence life. “We’re trying to be as cautious as possible, designating this new model with both the health and safety of the FoodShare staff and visitors in mind.”
With the state closing of restaurants and bars Monday, as well as casinos, theaters and gyms, COVID-19-related restrictions grew more onerous for New Yorkers.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday announced a pact with adjoining states Connecticut and New Jersey to adopt similar restrictions, lacking federal guidance. Some local establishments — Genesee Brew House and Webster’s Proietti’s — had already made the decision to close. Proietti’s closed its dining room and moved to takeout over the weekend.
Del Lago Casino & Resort announced Monday it would close at 5 p.m., three hours earlier than the required closing.
Meanwhile, local colleges have shared more details on their moves, such as the cancellation of April 25’s Imagine RIT, the annual festival that brings tens of thousands of visitors to the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Under Cuomo’s new state rules, restaurants can remain open for takeout and delivery, providing some employees continued work as well as access to prepared foods for customers.
The pandemic is causing an unprecedented economic dislocation, officials say. “The economic impact nationally will be in the billions,” said Bob Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, in a phone news conference Monday morning.
As for the local scene, Duffy said, “Rochester, with a very large population living at or below poverty, will be heavily impacted.”
Duffy said he hoped employers would hold on as long as they can before laying off workers. Similarly, he said he hopes the state budget being prepared now will include some assistance for affected businesses, particularly in helping them manage increased demand for sick leave. He expects the hospitality industry and other jobs where people can’t work from home to be especially hurt.
If the rates of infection can be slowed quickly, the economic impact won’t be as bad, he said.
Duffy urged employers to make smart decisions, follow the recommended precautions and use common sense. And he provided this advice for consumers: “If you’re going shopping, shop for a week. Don’t buy toilet paper for the next three months,” as hoarding causes panic and shortages. “We’ve been assured the supply will not slow down,” he said.
One exception to the expected downturn are the businesses that supply food and household supplies. To deal with the crush of business, Wegmans late last week changed its schedule so stores normally open 24 hours would be closed at night for cleaning and restocking rapidly emptying shelves. Wegmans has posted a list of nearly 50 common items, including toilet paper, bulk packages of chicken breasts, pain relievers and sugar on which it now enforces a purchase limit.
Tops on Monday released a list of 14 limited products, and many retailers, including Target, have imposed at least some purchase restrictions to prevent hoarding and supply problems.
Some non-food retailers, including Lands’ End and Ethan Allen, have issued statements saying they remain open for now but in some cases with limited hours.
A just-released poll from MFour Mobile Research in California shows consumers spent up to 32 percent more in big box stores in March than in February. In-store purchases of home decor and clothing dropped about 31 percent, but online purchases increased 46 percent.
As for colleges, most are turning to online or other forms of distance learning. The University of Rochester was conducting classes for instructors Monday on how to use the technology, with some of those classes for professors also being taught remotely this week. UR’s daily newsletter, which typically features listings of events, now focuses on the virtual, such as Wednesday’s informational session on MBA programs offered by the Simon Business School.
Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School announced Monday afternoon that the college will delay the inauguration of President Angela D. Sims from its scheduled date of April 14 to Sept. 29. In a separate announcement, the school announced it is closing campus and will continue instruction online.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva remains fully open, but has moved instruction online, allowing students the choice of whether to remain on campus or go home. President Joyce P. Jacobsen shared an essay in which she predicted that the massive turn to online instruction will prove the continued need for in-person classes.
In Rochester Institute of Technology’s announcement over the weekend to parents, besides noting cancellation of the Imagine RIT festival, it said a decision about graduation ceremonies will be made by April 3. Colleges all over are having to decide how or whether to hold commencement exercises when campuses are mostly closed and large gatherings are either not recommended or prohibited outright.
A state agency for disabled people announced it has suspended its competition for college students to come up with inventions that help people with disabilities. UR, RIT and Alfred University were among the schools that already had submitted projects for the competition.
The national ACT test scheduled for April 4 has now been postponed to June 13. Students already registered for the April test will be notified by the nonprofit educational company about the new date.
In a press conference Monday morning, Cuomo said a national set of recommendations is needed, and states can’t anticipate every conflict in individual states’ coronavirus rules.
“I want federal guidance. You can’t have one state taking actions that are different from other states,” Cuomo said, noting it can cause some dangerous situations. “If I close down my bars and New Jersey doesn’t close down their bars, everybody drives to Jersey to drink and everybody drives home,” he said.
As associate provost and dean of graduate education at Rochester Institute of Technology, she’s tasked with changing the mindset of colleges at RIT so they can produce a lot more doctorate degrees.
In the next decade, Cummings aims to triple the number of doctoral students graduating from RIT. And within five years, RIT is aiming to roughly double its number of doctoral programs.
“In 10 years, we’d like to be conferring 100 (doctorates). That will put us on a par with several of our peers, locally and regionally,” Cummings said recently. “It’s a big move for us. We haven’t been growing our doctoral programs at a very fast pace. After 30 years we have eight programs.”
This isn’t just a numbers game, but a question of identity.
“We’re very focused on graduate education and research,” Cummings said. “If we’re going to grow in that space, we need more graduate students, and we need to provide more options for students who aren’t here to come here.”
Since the university established its first graduate degree program – in fine arts – in 1960 and its first doctoral program in 1991, it has created 78 master’s degree tracks, 17 graduate certificates and just eight doctoral programs. The last new doctorate program was created in 2014, she noted.
“We took a look at our peer institutions and we found that we really are lagging behind relative to doctoral degrees – the ones we offer and the number we confer each year,” Cummings said.
In order to reach the goal of adding six to 12 new doctoral programs by 2030, Cummings said, “we can’t do it the way we’ve always done it. We have to change our mindset. We have to have additional resources.” And the college can take years to put together a doctoral program proposal for state approval.
So she’s hired a combination project manager and senior technical writer to work with faculty departments to get them organized and on track in creating new doctoral programs for approval by the state.
“We’re putting together a strategy where we do it in one year per program to get it to New York State, and sometimes we’ll do this concurrently,” Cummings said.
Previously the process took three or four years to create a program, partly because it always came last among faculty juggling various commitments, she said.
“The main thing is there’s been no one that’s tasked to do that. It’s a faculty role, and faculty have to teach, they have research, they have service, they supervise students and then on top of that, you’re going to ask them to shepherd and manage the whole process behind a Ph.D. proposal?”
She spent the last year getting buy-in on this accelerated schedule. That amounted to “getting the RIT community excited about this and not looking at this as work, as drudgery. This is a good thing. This is good for RIT,” she said.
Cummings said deans of the various RIT colleges have committed to increasing doctoral programs and graduates, and she has committed to getting funding for the increased number of students they’re seeking.
“They’ve made that commitment, which we didn’t really have before. It wasn’t time sensitive in the way it is now,” she said.
Colleagues who’ve worked with Cummings say she’s the person who can get this all to work – coordinating a single goal across different disciplinary departments, even without having a direct connection to their purse strings. She has only a handful of direct reports, yet is trying to coordinate graduate policies, new programs, curricula and fundraising across an institution with more than 4,000 employees and 19,000 students.
“She seems very good at building bridges between departments and people,” said Anthony Piazza, a Rochester attorney who she recruited to be on her advisory council. “It’s a big challenge for her. But I got the sense that she looked at it as an opportunity.”
Piazza said to Cummings after working with her at a day-long committee, “You could run a small city.”
Lorraine Justice, a professor in RIT’s College of Art and Design, used to be graduate dean for that college, and Cummings was her assistant dean initially.
“She was very honest but diplomatic and those are two qualities that are very hard to find sometimes, especially when things get complex or …difficult. Twyla would be very calm. She would think things through. She would ask people’s opinions and help to resolve just about any issue that came up. She was just fabulous – still is,” Justice said.
Cummings, who worked in industry for nearly 20 years before coming to RIT, said higher education is one of the toughest jobs around.
“I work more evenings or weekends than I ever did in corporate America. During the day you’re teaching and don’t have time to grade papers and put together assignments, and answer email,” she said. “In addition to teaching, all faculty have commitments to do research” and end up doing that in the summer. “We’re all on too many committees at the university and in our field on industry associations, outside of RIT to support our discipline.”
Nevertheless, Cummings says of her second career: “It’s rewarding; I have to say it’s very fulfilling.”
Born on Long Island to a teen-age mother, Cummings spent her childhood and young adulthood in Ohio. After completing a degree in chemistry at Wright State University, she got a job as an ink scientist for Mead Corp. in Dayton, Ohio. (She earned her other degrees while working.) The company was renamed and became a division of Kodak, then was sold and recently was bought back again as ink-jet printing became a primary business line for Kodak.
When Kodak transferred her husband, Thomas, to Rochester not long after the couple married, they spent four years in a commuter marriage. Eventually, Cummings followed her spouse to Rochester, expecting to take a year to find her next job. But before that year was up, she was teaching project management at RIT as an adjunct professor. She expected to find a full-time job in industry in the day, while teaching at night.
But not too long after that, RIT offered Cummings a tenure-track, full-time job, recognizing her practical expertise in the field.
“Surprisingly, I liked it a lot. It was definitely a career change. And 22 years later I’m still here,” she said.
Though the teaching offer got her through the door, she says she still had to earn tenure the way any other academic does, and if she hadn’t, she would have been gone.
About halfway through those years at RIT, Cummings started easing into administration while still teaching.
“When I had the opportunity to — in addition to teaching responsibilities — become a graduate program director, which was an administrative role, I liked it. I was supposed to do it for 18 months, and I ended up doing it for eight years,” Cummings said. The graduate program director job led to becoming assistant dean and then associate graduate dean in the College of Art and Design before the university-level equivalent opened up.
“I always know when it’s time for me to do something different,” she said. Justice said she also encouraged Cummings to apply for the university-level job, noting her aptitude for administration.
“She’s a great decision maker,” Justice said. “She earns a lot of respect. She’s inclusive. She’s very analytical. She can calmly deliberate through anything.” That includes curriculum issues and tricky personnel squabbles, Justice said.
In Cummings’ current role, she has worked diligently to create greater engagement with RIT for graduates of its alumni programs. Many of the people who get graduate degrees at RIT are not from the area and did not attend undergraduate school here, she noted, so they don’t have as strong a tie to the university as undergrads do.
Part of her strategy was developing an advisory council, including graduate alumni, and establishing a place to share research at campus events. She also oversaw a two-year study on advising and support for graduate students at RIT.
“Graduate students don’t need the same type of advising as undergraduate students. They all need faculty advisors and they all have that. If they have a research component to their degree, they need a research advisor,” Cummings said. But some colleges are lacking logistical and administrative support for their programs, she said, so her office is working to improve that.
Cummings has been working to secure funding for more graduate students. She asked a sponsor of a graduate showcase event to sponsor a scholarship. He provided 10 times what she requested, allowing low-income students from Rochester to reach graduate school.
But she also walks the walk. Cummings and her husband donated $50,000 to create a scholarship for students of African, Asian, Latino or Native American heritage who want to obtain a graduate degree.
“Graduate education did not have (fundraising) goals and they did not have anyone assigned to them until I got in this role,” Cummings said.
She has at least one other goal that she’s already shared with RIT’s leadership: “I am putting together a proposal for the office of graduate education to become either the school or the college of graduate education.” Why? “I think that is the future. It allows us to be more supportive to the university. It aligns us more with our peer institutions. We look more like other universities.”
Position: Associate provost and dean of graduate education at Rochester Institute of Technology
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Wright State University, Dayton, 1979; master’s degree in business and industrial counseling management, Wright State, 1987; doctorate in business management, Union Institute & University, Cincinnati
Family: husband Thomas Cummings; two grown stepchildren, Patrick Cummings and Andrea Moore; one granddaughter
Hobbies: reading, golf, interior design, travel
Quote: “We’re very focused on graduate education and research. If we’re going to grow in that space, we need more graduate students, and we need to provide more options for students who aren’t here to come here.”
State University of New York colleges and the University of Rochester will close down most in-person classes and teach the rest of the semester online in an effort to reduce the possibility of spreading the COVID-19 virus, it was announced Wednesday afternoon.
In the evening, Rochester Institute of Technology also announced it would extend this week’s spring break by another week and then begin teaching classes March 23 online or through course redesign.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday afternoon that he has also asked companies in the New York City area, where the state’s population is densest and closest to the biggest cluster of confirmed coronavirus cases, to consider having employees work at home, or in shifts to reduce densities and risk of exposure. He also urged means of public transportation to double their cleaning schedules, noting information on how long the virus remains active on surfaces has been conflicting.
University of Rochester President Sarah Mangelsdorf, in a letter to the campus community Wednesday afternoon, asked that non-essential visitors postpone visits for the rest of the semester, including to the Memorial Art Gallery, owned by the university. Requests for visiting researchers would be postponed for six months.
The letter also said that the University of Rochester Medical Center is talking with state health officials about whether visitations there need to be curtailed.
The number of cases in New York as of Wednesday afternoon was 212, with 121 of them in the New Rochelle area, just north of New York City. No cases have been detected on any of the local campuses nor in Monroe County.
The SUNY system also includes City College of New York campuses. In the Rochester area, it includes the College at Geneseo, College at Brockport, Monroe Community College, Finger Lakes Community College and Genesee Community College.
As for other local colleges:
St. John Fisher is taking travel and food-serving precautions, a spokeswoman reported. In addition, it has announced webinars Friday and Monday for faculty on how to use available technology for creating online lectures.
Similarly, Roberts Wesleyan College said it was preparing to continue classes remotely if necessary, but mostly operating as usual.
Nazareth College is on break until Monday, but the college’s coronavirus task force is meeting daily to consider whether other steps are needed, a spokeswoman said.
The shift to online learning would begin March 19 for the SUNY schools and March 18 for the University of Rochester. The announcement came during spring break or right before the break for some schools. UR announced that it was adding two days to the break for Eastman School of Music students so they don’t have to return before online instruction starts.
For the public schools, UR and RIT, students were being urged to return to their permanent addresses to complete their studies online. However, if the students are unable to go home, especially because of health-related restrictions in their home communities, their dorms will remain open. UR and RIT said food service would continue for those students on campus.
RIT added that students with on-campus jobs will still have work jobs available. Faculty were expected to report to work, but non-essential meetings were prohibited.
Cuomo said of state dormitories, “They’re not evicting anyone. They’re not closing the dorm and kicking you out.”
Most campuses had already been under some self-imposed restrictions limiting the size of gatherings. In Wednesday’s written announcement to the UR community, Mangelsdorf and other academic leaders listed this change: “essential meetings specifically related to the administrative, academic, or performance obligations of the University are limited to 100 participants until the end of the semester. Everyone is expected to cancel, postpone, or ‘virtualize’ all other meetings.” Some small seminars for graduate students and researchers may continue but are limited to 25 people, the notice said.
Cuomo said decisions had not been made about scheduled SUNY sports competitions and graduations.
Authorities were also discussing whether the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade would be canceled, he said, adding that such as step may not be necessary in smaller cities where the number of cases is smaller or non-existent. Boston and Chicago have canceled their parades.
Two Rochester-area astronomers – one retired, one still active in the field – have been named to the first class of fellows of the American Astronomical Society, a new honor recognizing extraordinary achievement in the field.
Joel Kastner, astronomy professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Imaging Science, and Judith Pipher, an emerita faculty member after 31 years at the University of Rochester, are among 200 astronomers to receive the AAS honor.
The designation of Fellow of the AAS, recognizes members for their “original research and publication, innovative contributions to astronomical techniques or instrumentation, significant contributions to education and public outreach, and noteworthy service to astronomy and to the society itself.”
Pipher, who also directed UR’s Mees Observatory in South Bristol, Ontario County, for 15 years, did her primary research in infrared astronomy and development of infrared detector arrays. Kastner specializes in astronomical spectronomy and imaging as well as planet formation and star evolution.
According to the AAS, the new fellows program was created to align with the way “other scientific societies acknowledge their members’ scientific accomplishments and service to the field.” AAS President Megan Donahue of Michigan State University, said, “Our members were missing out on the opportunity to not only celebrate the accomplishments of individual astronomers, but also the success of the field more generally.”
If there’s any doubt that Rochester Institute of Technology is still career-oriented, that doubt would evaporate quickly at one of the university’s job fairs.
The second of two career fairs for all majors this year was held last week, drawing some 5,000 students looking for co-op jobs or internships now or full-time employment once they graduate. Approximately 800 recruiters were on hand, representing 240 companies.
The undertaking is so massive, students have to consult an app to find their way to the booths for company representatives they’re seeking out.
The flip side of this massive fair, however, took place the day before at the much smaller Affinity Reception. Here, in a reverse image of the larger job fair, students from diverse backgrounds staffed the information tables, and it was the recruiters who milled about and called upon them. The reception was set up on a balcony overlooking the Gordon Field House’s arena that would house the big fair the next day.
Numbers were much smaller at this reception. Just 43 students formally registered (organizers assumed others just walked in) to participate, and 52 recruiters, representing 30 companies, showed up to talk to them, often singling out students for an impromptu interview.
“It’s a lot more intimate,” said Isabella Totino, a second-year computer science student from Boston. She was one of the students at the Women in Computing table.
At each of a handful of stations was a student group or university program. They included the Women in Engineering group, RIT chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and the local chapter of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers.
As companies realize diversity is a good thing, a job fair like this one allows them a chance to improve their labor pool.
“I don’t think you can ever have enough diversity, no matter how good your metrics are,” said Diana Solt, an RIT alumna who was on campus to recruit for her employer, L3Harris.
“Though Totino had already secured summer employment, she said the fairs and working with the Women in Computing club give her a chance to make connections. Recruiters seemed genuinely interested in hiring diverse candidates.
“I feel they do feel a need in the computer industry,” Totino said. “They know they’re not reaching their full potential.”
Solt, in strategy development at L3Harris, was hoping to secure perhaps 40 interns and 50 new graduates for permanent jobs.
“We’re coming for perspectives — different thoughts on how to solve the world’s biggest problems, she said.
At the big job fair the next day, Solt expected to talk to more than 300 students. But at the decidedly more chill Affinity Reception, she was able to have in-depth conversations with job candidates without the din of thousands of others talking around them.
Since the merger of Harris and L3 in 2019, L3Harris has been growing, said Chandler Kozyra, who handles university relations for communication systems at the company. The merger has opened up opportunities for new contracts, causing the company to need to bring on people quickly who can grow with the new demands. The defense contractor employs approximately 55,000 worldwide, he said, and about 3,800 in Rochester.
RIT students and graduates make excellent hires, Solt said, because of their background in STEM fields, the applied skills they gain through their education there, and their co-op experiences.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said. RIT students are “so talented, so smart, so ambitious.”
Maria Richart, director of career services and cooperative education at RIT, said the university offers seven job fairs each year, with some tailored to specific disciplines. Fairs are organized specifically for packaging, civil engineering, creative arts and academic and job opportunities abroad. The university also hosts talks, presentations and other special events aimed at connecting students with employers or preparing the student to start looking for a job.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Proctor & Gamble were scheduled to make presentations. Tesla was looking to interview students in three specific majors for potential work, and a fair aimed at preparing creative arts students to seek employment were all scheduled.
Last summer Wegmans conducted a pilot study at two stores to see how customers would react if single-use plastic grocery bags were removed even before a statewide ban goes into effect March 1 in New York. The pilot introduced Wegmans’ new paper bag policy – they now cost 5 cents each with the fee going to charity.
The pilot results showed that most shoppers – 80 percent in the Corning and Ithaca stores – will go to some lengths to avoid paying a few pennies for something they’ve received free for many, many years.
Then late last month, the Rochester-based grocery store chain stopped using disposable, plastic grocery bags in all of its New York stores, basically starting the plastic bag ban a month early.
“We knew we had a lot to figure out. We wanted to get ahead of it,” said Jason Wadsworth, manager of packaging and sustainability at Wegmans.
Some other organizations in the state also went the early route, including Goodwill stores and the stores and eateries on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology.
RIT’s new ban on single-use plastic went into effect in late January, too, with organizers hoping to divert not just filmy plastic bags (325,000 a year) but also plastic straws (413,500 a year) and coffee stirrers (140,000 a year) from local landfills. Paper and wooden alternatives are available upon request.
“This is something we’re definitely excited about to make a bigger impact environmentally,” said Kory Samuels, executive director of RIT Dining.
Some large retailers, though, are showing no such initiative.
A spokesman for New York Walmart stores responded to questions about the ban by saying the company would follow all local laws, but provided no particulars about how it will do that.
Target had some details about what it will be doing in New York stores: paper bags will be available after the ban starts, and it will continue giving a 5-cent-per-bag rebate to customers who bring in reusable bags for their purchases, as it has done for years.
In the Albany and New York City areas, Target’s paper bags will come with a small fee, in compliance with local rules on disposable bags, a spokeswoman said.
Anticipating the ban, Tops Friendly Markets has offered coupons providing a discount on its reusable bags and introduced Totes for Change, a line of durable grocery bags with original art, which provides a portion of profits to benefit charities. A Tops spokeswoman, Kathy Sautter, said Totes for Change resulted in $30,000 being donated to charity in 2019.
Tops is waiting for March 1, however, before rolling out other changes, such as charging 5 cents for a paper bag (partial proceeds will go to charity) and abandoning single-use plastic grocery bags, Sautter said.
After the ban starts, the state will still allow some exceptions, such as bags for takeout food. So technically, Wegmans and Tops could continue offering plastic bags in their prepared-food areas, but both companies said they won’t do that.
“We removed plastic bags from our store on (Jan. 27) because we didn’t want there to be that confusion” for customers or employees, Wegmans’ Wadsworth said. “We’ll just get them out of the store and use paper for the Instacart orders and our Meals to Go.”
Both grocery stores said they will continue to accept clean plastic bags for recycling after the ban begins.
Interestingly, when Wegmans did its pilot study in New York, it also looked at the issue in Richmond, Va.
“Just about every state that we’ve been in has talked about plastic bags at one point or another,” Wadsworth said. Wegmans picked Richmond stores for the test because “We wanted to get feedback from a store that didn’t have a ban proposed.” Wadsworth said.
In Virginia, a plastic bag ban has not been a frequent topic of news, discussions and even social media posts like it has in New York during most of 2019. But reusable bag use still shot up there when Wegmans conducted its pilot, though not as high as in New York stores. Reusable/no bag reactions went from 20 percent in Richmond before the pilot to the mid- and high-60s during the pilot.
That might have been predicted. According to Wadsworth, a municipal ban in Germantown, Md., resulted in Wegmans shoppers at the store there relying on reusable bags in the high 60s.
When Wegmans stopped using plastic bags in New York stores late January, the event spurred some social media discussions that seemed to be under the assumption that the ban was Wegmans’ idea, rather than Wegmans reacting to a state ban. Some commenters also charged that Wegmans makes money off the sale of paper bags.
“Our communication obviously wasn’t a hundred percent,” Wadsworth said. “This comes with added expense that we are just making part of the cost of doing business. The 5 cents is clearly just a way to get folks to use reusable bags.”
Since before the end of January, Wegmans has expanded and increased the number of reusable bag displays in its stores. The bags start at 99 cents for a basic bag and rising to several dollars for special bags with thermal linings or interior support. Other retailers charge similar amounts.
Wadsworth said the stores are continuing to offer disposable plastic for bulk purchases, loose vegetables and raw meats and seafood, basically to shield foods and reusable bags from cross contamination, and to prevent food waste.
The store must consider whether the plastic is for convenience or “integral in protecting the product,” Wadsworth said. “If we were to change the package or use no package at all – that will increase food waste as a result of no packaging. That’s one of those things where we have to take a sustainability life-cycle approach,” he said.
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