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VICE News examines pandemic's impact on EWU and Cheney businesses

In a documentary-style video, VICE News speaks with a freshman at EWU, the university's interim president and owner of The Mason Jar in Cheney.

CHENEY, Wash. — The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on college towns in the Inland Northwest has received national attention.

Reporting from the Wall Street Journal in August focused on the economic blow to Pullman after the cancellation of in-person classes at Washington State University. 

Eastern Washington University and its home of Cheney, a small town in Spokane County, are now in the spotlight due to reporting from VICE News.

EWU recently announced that it would continue to offer most courses online for the winter 2021 quarter, with in-person instruction allowed for certain classes. Spring semester classes will follow the fall format, which included a mix of online and in-person instruction. 

In a documentary-style video posted to YouTube on Oct. 19, VICE focuses on how the pandemic is affecting EWU students and faculty, along with local businesses. It is titled "COVID Is Emptying College Towns That Desperately Need Students" and has already garnered more than 190,000 views. 

Mobile users, tap here to watch the video

VICE follows a freshman named Rylee Carlon, who was one of a few hundred of 12,000 EWU students who moved into the dorms at the beginning of the school year. 

"I really thought about staying home. But in the end, I really wanted that university experience, so this way my way to get it," she said. 

At the end of the video, Carlon expresses her frustrations with online learning and fears about the unknown. She also said earlier that the experience of living in a dorm room by herself is "disappointing."  

EWU students and faculty double Cheney's population when school is in session, according to reporting from Meena Duerson with VICE. Cheney estimates it is losing one-third of its revenue without them.

One of the business owners impacted by the pandemic is Douglas LaBar, a Cheney native who opened The Mason Jar eight years ago. His business serves soups, salads, sandwiches, breakfast and coffee. 

In the VICE video, LaBar and Duerson walk down a four-block radius of Cheney that is host to nearly two dozen vacant storefronts. 

LaBar also shares his struggles with profits during the pandemic, telling Duerson that his sales were down 45 to 80% depending on the day.

“You can barely pay your employees, let alone pay for any of the supplies we went through," LaBar tells Duerson in the video. 

EWU has also lost staff members during the coronavirus crisis. Dr. David May, who serves as interim university president, tells Duerson in the video that about 400 people have been impacted by personnel actions. In about 108 cases, the impact was a layoff, he said. 

“We’ve made cuts in staffing in academic affairs, we’ve removed phones from faculty offices. We’ve been looking for everything that we can possibly look for to reduce the impacts on people," May said in the video. 

May was appointed interim president for the next two years after Dr. Mary Cullinan stepped down from this position in August 2020. This came after EWU's faculty senate gave a vote of no confidence in Cullinan. 

RELATED: Dr. Mary Cullinan steps down as president of Eastern Washington University

In the video, VICE also speaks to Michael Reid, a former EWU faculty member of 14 years who graduated from the university in 1996. He said he was laid off in June with several days' notice. 

Reid's wife, who also worked at the university, also lost her job. 

Many students at EWU are eligible for Pell Grants, according to May, which means their entire family income is below $50,000. May said he takes great pride in Eastern's ability to offer an education for these students.  

“If we lose a place like Eastern, we lose that point of access. We lost that opportunity for the social mobility that a college education brings. We lose a generation," May said in the video.

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