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On Jan. 27, the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a two week long stay-in-place recommendation urging University of Michigan students living on or near the Ann Arbor campus to stay in their residences and avoid group contact. The recommendation came after numerous cases of the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant were discovered among University students, prompting Michigan Athletics to cease all activity for two weeks.
The Daily spoke with students about their thoughts on the recent recommendation and whether they believed it would successfully curb the spread of the virus.
Is it a recommendation or an order?
The guidelines of the current stay-in-place recommendation for all undergraduate, graduate and professional students are very similar to the stay-at-home order directed solely at undergraduate students in October 2020. Other than the expanded range, the most notable difference is that the county refers to the current guidelines as recommendations rather than orders, so there are no enforcement mechanisms.
The difference between an “order” and a “recommendation” has caused some students to question what the change will achieve. LSA junior Alyssa Frizzo said very few of the new recommendations are actually enforced.
“I mean, the only truly enforced thing is that gyms are closed,” Frizzo said. “Nothing else is actually, definitively changed.”
When asked about the difference between the fall’s order and the current recommendation, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the county health department has had time to understand what other health departments and campus communities have done over the course of the pandemic.
“I think the advice, collectively, is to handle these as recommendations, not as local health orders,” Fitzgerald said.
LSA freshman Alexander Manthous said while the order in the fall semester helped reduce cases among students, several students got away with violating those guidelines. According to Manthous, evading these recommendations will be even easier this semester.
“I know cases did go down last semester when they put that order in place, but it just seems like the University hasn't been good at enforcing these rules,” Manthous said.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, public information officer for WCHD, said the measure is proactive and focuses on urging compliance.
“The recommendation is a recommendation, and we're hoping for good compliance, but there's not necessarily the same enforcement mechanism that there is with an order,” Ringler-Cerniglia said.
Engineering freshman Sam Sugarman said the issue of compliance has plagued the University community throughout the pandemic.
“To some extent, people just aren't going to follow these guidelines,” Sugarman said. “I feel like people are following what they deem is safe, not what the county deems is safe. Kids are kids. They're gonna do what they want. I think (the recommendation) is pretty ineffective, to be honest.”
LSA junior Sam Burnstein said he was disappointed in the decision to make the measure a recommendation rather than an order. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ban on indoor dining expires on Feb. 1, and Burnstein said he expects local bars and restaurants to see an influx of University students despite the recommendation.
“I think we'll probably see hundreds of Michigan students out and about on the fourth, fifth and sixth, that Thursday, Friday and Saturday, hitting the bars and flaunting this order,” Burstein said. “I think that's why we need more strict enforcement mechanisms.”
Several students said they doubt the new measure will prevent students from partying off-campus. Frizzo said freshmen in off-campus housing might not be fazed by the county’s public health guidelines.
“I don't think it's going to stop off-campus partying,” said Frizzo. “Especially so soon into the semester when a lot of people who were in the dorms last semester, especially freshmen, just moved off campus, and they're kind of reveling in their new freedom.”
LSA senior Chayton Fivecoat worked as a resident adviser during the fall semester and recalled the lack of adherence to the stay-at-home order issued in October. Fivecoat anticipates a similar reaction to the current recommendation.
“The first day the order went in place, I think four or five of the people on my floor went out to a house party,” Fivecoat said. “I saw people pushing Rick’s before it closed.”
Burnstein said he expects public shaming on social media of students who go out will increase, for better or for worse.
“The culture and awareness and the extent to which students would hold each other accountable and kind of shame people for publicly violating the order — I think that is going to be dramatically increased as a result of the order,” Burnstein said.
Manthous said he thinks this recommendation hurts people who have been adhering to social distancing guidelines.
“A lot of people who are adjusted to that partying lifestyle won't take this seriously and will just continue with their regular routine,” Manthous said. “This recommendation hurts the people who have been cautious, which is obviously the opposite of what the University and what the county should be doing.”
Sugarman agreed, saying he was disappointed in some students’ cavalier attitude toward public health guidelines.
“We all know someone who's gotten COVID, and has been fine … (but) I know a kid from my high school back at home who is our age and got COVID and died,” Sugarman said. “So it's not something to mess around with.”
Proactive vs. Reactive
During the fall semester, University President Mark Schlissel and members of the administration faced criticism for waiting too long to enact stricter pandemic protocols. The Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike for two weeks in the fall to demand a more comprehensive plan for containing the virus on campus, among other demands. In the winter semester, the University implemented required weekly testing for on-campus students, which many had hoped would help this semester go more smoothly.
After this most recent stay in place recommendation, some students wondered whether the University was implementing this measure to make up for a lack of action in the fall.
Ringler-Cerniglia said while the fall stay-at-home order was necessary to reduce demands on county and University public health systems, the current recommendation was initiated ahead of strained resources in anticipation of the increased transmissibility of the B.1.1.7. COVID-19 strain.
“Part of the goal and urgency at that time (the fall) was around reducing that strain on the public health system,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “So that's not really the same right now. It's more concern about the variant, and of course, what is part of the unknown right now is whether the variant cases that have been identified in the U-M community are really the only variant cases or are there also other variants circulating.”
On Jan. 23, the University’s Athletic Department implemented a two-week pause on all activities after student-athletes tested positive for the B.1.1.7 COVID variant. Both the pause and the stay-at-home recommendation expire Feb. 7.
Fivecoat questioned the motivations behind releasing the stay-at-home recommendations just a few days after athletic programs shut down.
“This was almost just a complete reaction to the quarantine for athletics,” Fivecoat said. “I feel like it looks bad on the University if it was just athletics and not the whole University at large.”
Sugarman, an employee at the Central Campus Recreation Building, said he agrees with the precautionary nature of this recommendation but is frustrated that the only enforced closures are of campus gyms.
“I understand the caution — like the preemptive strike, because we all don't want it to blow up again,” Sugarman said. “I hope this is dealt with pretty quickly. I work at the CCRB, I just got a job there and was signing up for my first round of shifts and all those shifts were canceled, obviously because the gyms are closed and the Union's closed. So it just sucks."
Fivecoat said he feels the administration is finally “catching up” with measures that other universities took in the fall to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“Michigan is seeing, ‘Oh this is probably what I should have done,’” Fivecoat said. “I feel like they are playing catch-up to the rest of their peer institutions.”
Daily Staff Reporters Christian Juliano and Jared Dougall can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.