Most University of Michigan students have yet to move back to Ann Arbor, but some were already partying Sunday through Tuesday as the pandemic rages on.
These parties do not bode well for Friday and Saturday night, the two busiest going-out nights on campus and when most students who plan on returning will have moved in.
The Daily’s reporters saw multiple parties near campus and many maskless groups walking around dressed for a night out Sunday and Monday. With classes set to begin in less than a week, the issue of off-campus parties has turned students against one another, prompting heated debates on social media and in group chats of University students.
Out of almost 1,800 incoming freshmen surveyed anonymously by The Daily mid-August, 31.7 percent said they’d be very comfortable to somewhat comfortable going to a house party despite COVID-19.
Even if the vast majority of students refrained from partying, unsafe gatherings can account for a significant chunk of the student body. Out of the University’s roughly 30,000 undergraduates, even if only 1 percent chose to party, that would still total 300 students.
Viral party photograph
A photo of an outdoor party Sunday night with the banner “You can’t eat ASS with a mask on” sparked much conversation on social media. Many said in replies to the original tweet that they were disappointed but not surprised.
Information graduate student Daniella Raz captured the viral photograph while she was walking home. She said she saw the party at about 9:30 p.m. Sunday night.
She said the banner proves some students don’t plan on following public health guidelines.
“The big banner (makes) light of a pandemic that has killed so many Americans,” Raz said. “This behavior was inevitable after the University’s decision to bring students back to campus, and the administration should reconsider their course of action.”
Another banner in the photo referenced Phi Kappa Psi, prompting speculation that the party was fraternity-affiliated. University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said Phi Kappa Psi was not involved in the gathering.
In an email to The Daily, Broekhuizen said the gathering “was of individuals who are believed to be members of the same household. Their socializing behavior would be in alignment with public health guidance as well as within the 25 person limit for outdoor gatherings.”
She wrote that Michigan Ambassadors have “provided education” to students gathered at the home.
“While the content of the banners does not reflect positively on the residents, the university or our public-health efforts, it is speech that is protected by the first amendment,” Broekhuizen wrote. “The banner was removed immediately by the house occupants. The university is in the process of doing additional followup and education with the students involved.”
Broekhuizen wrote that the University “thoroughly condemns” those who are harassing and threatening the students at this party.
Rackham student Joe Meadows said the photo of a party happening on campus represents a lack of empathy overall.
“If people haven’t been personally affected by this, then they don’t seem to take it too seriously,” Meadows said. “And for me personally, as someone who’s lost a couple friends to this since March, that just smacks of apathy of other people’s experiences.”
Regulation of off-campus behavior
In its efforts to regulate student behavior, the University has rolled out a program in which teams of students, faculty, staff and police officers walk around campus daily from noon to midnight to remind students to adhere to public health guidelines and to break up unsafe gatherings.
The program, known as Michigan Ambassadors, has drawn backlash for its perceived lack of enforcement mechanisms and for working with local police, though Broekhuizen and University President Mark Schlissel have said it is designed to reduce reliance on law enforcement.
The University also updated its Statement of Students Rights and Responsibilities, which Schlissel said could be used to give students a citation and a fine after multiple warnings.
AAPD has instructed community members to call 734-647-3000 to “report non-emergency issues in off-campus student housing areas.” Michigan Ambassadors will respond initially via call or text to the responsible parties, and DPSS will respond after midnight when the ambassador shifts end.
The University “also has a system in place for holding students accountable for their actions, which depending on severity could result in sanctions, such as restorative actions, removal from housing, removal from specific courses or activities, suspension from the University or expulsion,” Broekhuizen wrote.
Broekhuizen said she would follow up on how many gatherings ambassadors were called upon to address Sunday and Monday night and how many calls the hotline received over that period of time.
But Meadows said they believe the ambassadors program is the University’s attempt to blame students for a situation that can be avoided if instructions were to move fully remote.
“It feels like an afterthought,” Meadows said. “Rather than the society of the University taking care of its students, it’s asking the students to make adult decisions in a situation that’s bigger than all of us as individuals.”
The coming weeks
When the University first shifted online in March at the onset of the outbreak, some students went to house parties and bars with their days off school and to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Crowds turned out again when restaurants and bars opened up in Michigan in June.
Off-campus parties have forced several universities, most notably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame, to halt their reopening plans. For much of the summer, university administrations across the country have cited student behavior as the wild card for whether or not an in-person semester is possible.
Michigan State University moved online after outbreaks at these other campuses, and many University students say they do not expect the hybrid, in-person semester to last.
But University President Mark Schlissel has said he believes students can stay safe. In an interview with The Daily last week, he said he is “a little insulted when everybody says … there’s no way that (students are) not going to party in dangerous fashions.”
Schlissel shifted his tone in an email to students Monday afternoon, urging students to avoid dangerous gatherings.
“Preparations to prevent spread of infection have worked well in classrooms, residence halls and elsewhere on campus, but it’s behavior off campus that is the major risk,” Schlissel continued. “It just takes one unsafe gathering to upend all of the preparations we have made.”
Washtenaw County reduced the size of all outdoor gatherings from 100 people down to 25 in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti last week. Last night, City Council approved an emergency ordinance requiring face masks indoors and in all public spaces where it is not possible to keep distance.
Meadows said some students participating in fraternity and sorority life parties come from wealthy backgrounds, so they believe fines from partying would be of little deterrence.
“If people are just getting fined for parties, I have no doubt that people will see that as a minor inconvenience,” Meadow said.
Public Health junior Nithya Arun questioned the effectiveness of the Michigan Ambassadors program. She claimed that most student activities happen after midnight and thus, cannot be diffused by the ambassadors.
“You study past midnight, you get together with friends past midnight, you go to a party past midnight, right?” Arun said. “The events that are happening, if they are risky, are going to happen past midnight.”
Even if classes were to go completely online, Meadows said they think it is inevitable that students will keep partying.
“It wouldn’t shock me (if parties continued) because then you just have a bunch of bored college kids in a dead college town with nothing else better to do than be on Zoom all day,” Meadows said. “If that had been my college experience, you better believe I would have been at every party I could have been (at).”
Classes begin on Aug. 31.
Daily News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily Staff Reporter Jasmin Lee can be reached at email@example.com. Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi contributed to reporting.