Local hospitality businesses weren’t surprised by the University of Virginia’s Wednesday decision to cancel its typical May graduation ceremony due to COVID-19 concerns. Although expected, the call represents another hit to Charlottesville businesses buffeted by pandemic. 

A non-pandemic year sees thousands flood into Charlottesville to watch graduating university students walk the Lawn. Families book hotels and restaurant tables years in advance. 

Now, many are cancelling their long-held reservations. 

“Why wouldn’t they [cancel]? They now have no reason to come here,” Ryan Hubbard, owner of the Dinsmore Inn, Farmbell Kitchen and Red Hub Food Co., said. 

Public health regulations in Virginia limit outdoor gatherings to 25 people — far below the thousands that typically attend UVA’s graduation ceremony. With those regulations in place, the university nixed the “typical fanfare” of final exercises and is considering two alternatives: postponing the ceremony to a later and safer date or conducting it this spring with only graduating students in attendance. 

Nearby university Virginia Tech has similarly cancelled its graduation ceremony, opting to stream commencement virtually.

Jennifer Mayo, director of sales at the Omni Hotel, said the cancellation is a “loss” for local businesses, but it wasn’t unexpected. 

“We weren’t blindsided by it,” Mayo said. “Just with the current restrictions, it would be hard to accommodate that many people for graduation in two and a half months. I feel badly for the students who have waited so long and worked so hard, but safety of the community comes first.”

Although guests have begun to cancel their reservations at the Omni, the cancellations haven’t been the “flood” Mayo anticipated. 

While final plans for the Class of 2021’s graduation remain up in the air, UVA confirmed on Wednesday that the Class of 2020’s commencement will be again postponed until 2022. The university initially planned to hold in-person exercises for the Class of 2020 the weekend of May 28.

By the time Ben Sydnor — who graduated from UVA with an M.S. in Data Analytics in Fall 2019 — walks the Lawn next year, nearly three years will have passed since he finished his coursework. 

Even with the delays, he looks forward to a formal graduation ceremony in 2022.

“I went through all the effort of going through the master’s program. I am walking the Lawn,” Sydnor, who earned his bachelor’s degree from UVA in 2007, said.

Sydnor anticipates that he’ll be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the time May rolls around, so he still plans to visit Charlottesville during what would have been his graduation ceremony this year. 

“Now we’ll just get an extra trip down there, which is totally fine by me,” Sydnor said. 

Roughly 1.4 million Virginians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Virginia Department of Health

UVA’s Finals 2021 Advisory Committee plans to survey graduating students to determine which of the two options — either a postponed ceremony or one without guests — is preferred. 

Hubbard said Charlottesville businesses would be “better served” by postponement — an option that still poses some logistical difficulties. 

“By canceling the ceremonies after scheduling the ceremonies, they put local businesses in a position of having to make a bunch of reservations, collect a bunch of deposits, all of those things over again,” Hubbard said. 


Ali Sullivan is a graduate of the University of Virginia. She received a B.A. in Media Studies and Government in 2020.