Despite numerous warnings from University of Michigan officials and public health authorities, some students still attended parties and went out to bars in the nights following the University’s decision to move classes online on Wednesday and in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday.
In response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency Friday morning. The United States currently has more than 1,600 positive cases of the virus, including 33 in Michigan as of Sunday morning — with four in Washtenaw County, one of which was confirmed in the student apartment building Vic Village on Friday afternoon.
The official University Twitter account emphasized the importance of minimizing social gatherings in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday night.
“Gathering socially in dense groups is not safe,” the tweet reads. “Please avoid large groups and confined spaces this weekend and in celebrating #StPatricksDay. We can lead by being responsible. #GoBlue!”
On Wednesday night, the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Council, two groups overseeing many fraternities and sororities on-campus, suspended all social events, including those meant for St. Patrick’s Day, in light of the coronavirus outbreak. According to a statement shared with The Daily, these cancellations are due to the size of social events and the concern of disease transmission.
LSA sophomore Sameer Matta, a member of the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega, said he agrees with the councils’ decision to cancel social events for the semester.
“Sure, it’s a letdown at first, because (St. Patrick’s Day) is an event we all look forward to, especially people in Greek life,” Matta said. “But at the end of the day, it’s definitely much more important that we take initiative so the virus doesn’t spread anymore. And having a party would be a very prominent social gathering, so I think shutting it down was definitely the right thing to do.”
On his Twitter, Regent Jordan Acker (D) also encouraged students to avoid going to bars. In an interview with The Daily, Acker said he understands the disappointment students may feel regarding the cancellation of festivities. However, he emphasized the seriousness of the coronavirus situation.
“As someone who not that long ago would’ve longed to spend St. Patrick’s Day at Skeeps or Rick’s, I know that’s what students want to do right now,” Acker said. “But the reality is, even if students themselves may not get really sick, some will, and even more could be carriers of this disease … and pass it along to people who are immunocompromised, their parents, their grandparents. So even if they don’t feel the effects, gathering in these spaces, we’ve seen is one of the biggest ways this disease is spread.”
On Saturday night, Engineering student Adam Scott went to Rick’s American Cafe to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Scott said he thinks the low risk of serious illness for young people who contract COVID-19 contributes to students coming to bars against public health recommendations.
“Clearly this is probably a bad idea, but I think most people don’t care because it’s a very selfish attitude,” Scott said. “They don’t think they’re going to get sick and they really don’t care how it affects others.”
Rick’s management did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment in time for publication.
COVID-19 is considered highly contagious and thought to be spread via infected respiratory droplets. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control recommends keeping at least six feet of distance between individuals.
The CDC also encourages social distancing, in which people avoid large social gatherings. By implementing these preventative techniques, national, state and local governments hope to avoid an influx of patients at health care facilities, a phenomenon that has crippled other countries, such as Italy, in their ability to contain and treat the disease.
On Sunday evening, the CDC also recommended the cancellation or postponement of events bringing crowds of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks.
Faye Mendelson, Michigan Medicine employee and University alum, also went out to Rick’s Saturday night to reunite with old classmates. Mendolson told The Daily she thought her personal health risk of going to a bar was low.
“I feel like people should take it seriously and they should be safe,” Mendelson said. “They should take it as if it’s not just going to affect them, but it’s going to affect the people around them and the people that they’re close to, either family, friends of family or so forth. But at the same time, I don’t feel like we should completely close ourselves off from the world. Just be smart about it.”
To prevent the spread of the virus, the University and other colleges in the state and across the nation have transitioned to online classes for the remainder of the semester. Multiple emails Friday and Saturday from University President Mark Schlissel, other administrators and University offices have urged students to leave campus if they are able to do so. All University spring and study abroad programs have been canceled and the University is recalling students currently abroad.
All University events expecting more than 100 people have been banned, leading to the cancellation of Spring Commencement, the NCAA tournament and all spring and winter sporting competitions, among other events. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has banned all events larger than 250, while the City of Ann Arbor has canceled all events expecting more than 50.
For LSA senior Caelen Caspers, Rick’s and other bars hold emotional significance as places where friends have always met and enjoyed themselves. However, she stayed away from what she described as huge crowds at Rick’s, especially earlier in the week, when she said many students saw canceled classes as an opportunity to party.
“There’s a person at Vic Village who has (COVID-19), and I didn’t go to Rick’s on Thursday, but I guarantee they did,” Caspers said. “I hope they didn’t, but if they did, how do you not infect people in that proximity?”
The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office has also prohibited all events larger than 250 and discouraged events larger than 100. It recommends canceling gatherings larger than 10 if there is someone with higher risk of severe illness involved. Failure to follow the order could be subject to a misdemeanor, resulting in up to 90 days in jail and/or a $200 fine.
At a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Attorney General Dana Nessel said bars and restaurants could face a state-mandated shutdown or lose their liquor license if they do not comply with Whitmer’s order. She particularly referred to businesses having St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
“We’re hoping that no one has to be cited,” Nessel said. “Most proprietors in the industry are good actors and want to ensure the safety of their patrons and employees. But in the event there are some bad apples, we are prepared to enforce the law.”
Along with going to popular local bars, many students held their own large gatherings. Several houses near Central Campus hosted parties during the day on Saturday.
Faye, an LSA sophomore, did not go to any parties or bars herself, but said she saw numerous house parties while driving down Hill Street during the day on Saturday.
“I passed tons of people in St. Patrick’s Day gear — like the whole darty getup,” Faye said. “At basically every corner, people were walking places along the strip of Hill from Packard to South Forest. And then on my street where I live on South Forest, I saw multiple large house parties of people on the porches and the lawns, making me think there’s probably lots of people in the house as well. Same thing — all green for St Patrick’s Day.”
Polasek also noted she saw people visit other local bars such as Good Time Charley’s and The Brown Jug over the past week.
However, other students are emphasizing the importance of adhering to public health recommendations. On Friday, LSA junior Carolyn Chen posted one of several memes in the UMich Memes for Wolverteens Facebook group directed at students who were partying. Her post, with a picture of “hard to swallow pills” and a caption saying “your social life and (fear of missing out) is not worth risking the lives of other people,” has almost 1000 likes.
Chen said she made the post because she was disappointed seeing many of her friends and others on social media go to bars and host large parties.
“A few days ago, I’ve just been seeing a lot of my friends and all over social media, people going out to clubs, parties, hanging out with their friends, selfies of everyone being really close together, not the six feet apart of social distancing,” Chen said.
Chen said she finds it frustrating that even students who are aware of the public health rationale of affecting vulnerable populations choose to go out.
“It’s such a privilege to be young and to not have to care whether or not you get impacted by the virus because you think you’re going to be fine,” Chen said. “It’s funny to me, I see people post ‘Flatten the curve’ on their story, and then they’ll literally be at Rick’s that night, and I’m just like ‘what?’”
Chen said she sympathizes with senior students, who have had their time left in college with their friends cut short. However, Chen said the coronavirus pandemic is too serious to ignore.
“I sympathize with the seniors, I’m not invalidating how sad it must be,” Chen said. “But I’m saying it’s even sadder to lose a loved one or lose your own life, and that is what is at stake here.”
Chen hypothesized that students may not be taking public health guidelines seriously because Michigan’s COVID-19 cases were so recent. However, she still said she thinks large social gatherings, such as big house parties and crowded bars, are unacceptable.
“To me, I think it’s a really, really selfish thing to do,” Chen said. “I get that it’s scary and that people don’t want to change the way they live, but sometimes you need to change the way you live in order to protect or help the rights of other people. And the right to live is definitely a right.”
The Centers for Disease Control recommends people wash their hands often and avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth.
Symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Anyone who believes they have been exposed to COVID-19 should call their health care providers or the nearest hospital.