Since the University of Michigan welcomed its students back to campus for the 2020 fall semester, many students have felt torn between risking exposure to COVID-19 and remaining isolated. Even when people make the choice to stay in, some still risk exposure if those they live with attend large indoor gatherings with no masks or distancing. The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated social pressures from friends, tensions with roommates and the natural desire to socialize. Amid these complications, Fraternity & Sorority Life’s life’s tight-knit, socially competitive community intensifies groupthink and places undue social pressure on members.
In order to better understand the experience and decision-making of FSL members, I interviewed three members whose approaches to socialization vary greatly: one sorority member, whom I will call Rachel, who is not going to fraternity parties; one sorority member, whom I will call Julia, who is going to parties at different fraternities; and one fraternity member, whom I will call Zach, who is attending his own fraternity’s parties.
All three FSL members told me that one of the greatest factors driving their social decisions is a fear of missing out. They said fellow members often talk about the parties and social events they attend, and not attending parties can make members feel they are missing out on important chapter bonding.
“It seems like everyone I live with has accepted that getting COVID-19 is inevitable and are just partying while they can,” Rachel said. “Everyone I talk to says that since other people in the house are, there is no point in not going. It’s hard because I feel like everyone is getting closer and making these memories together, but I have to remind myself that close, real friendships are rarely formed at parties.”
The members I interviewed seem to count the risk of catching COVID-19 as analogous to other risks that young people take, like drinking or smoking. However, the disease’s high transmission rate means that if one person in a living community adopts the risk, they raise the risk factor for their entire community. Members of FSL who entered the school year planning on social distancing said they now feel burdened by the risk of COVID-19 exposure but without the upside of getting to socialize. However, this creates a dangerous feedback loop wherein people put themselves at risk based on the notion that they are missing out. They go out, making more people feel like the odd one out for not doing so, and then they contribute to the culture of partying with little regard for the greater implications on the University community.
Julia, who regularly attends indoor parties at fraternities, explains that while she does not believe fraternities are safe to visit, her “frat guy friends are getting tested regularly and being super open and honest, so I feel safe in those specific situations.”
Fraternity party attendees may feel relatively unconcerned about transmitting COVID-19, as testing and symptom checking provide a sense of security. However, there is still high inaccuracy in testing, especially the rapid testing that many in FSL are opting to take, and the average incubation period for an infected person with COVID-19 is 4-5 days. This means that an infected individual could test negative, continue to socialize with multiple circles of friends and spread the disease.
Infected individuals are most contagious in the 24-48 hour period before they start showing symptoms. This means that frequent testing and symptom-checking are not effective measures for preventing an outbreak in indoor settings. According to those interviewed, many fraternities are currently holding under-the-radar mixers with multiple different sororities weekly. It only takes one person at one party to spark the spread of COVID-19 into multiple houses in just one week.
Elle Jimenez, President of the University of Michigan’s Panhellenic Association, commented that “The Panhellenic and IFC Executive boards … decided together that it would be in the best interest of our immediate Panhellenic and IFC communities, as well as the University of Michigan community, and the surrounding community of Ann Arbor to keep our social moratorium in place from March 11, 2020,” and that “The Panhellenic Association at the University of Michigan actively discourages attending gatherings that violate the current Washtenaw County Health Department public health order.”
With a similar script-like tone, Ian Ross, President of the University of Michigan’s Interfraternity council, described multiple ways that Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) is attempting to remain in control of fraternity social events: “The social responsibility committee (SRC) is carrying out community checks on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights while remaining in vehicles and documenting and/or reporting and inappropriate gatherings … We have maintained a line of communication with the Ann Arbor Police Department and University of Michigan Police Department to discuss our goals for a public health informed semester, including effective reporting and enforcement strategies for off-campus facilities.”
While the Presidents of both IFC and Panhel claim to be actively enforcing compliance with public health guidelines in their chapters, the measures they are taking are ineffective with no serious consequences for members that choose to attend unsafe social gatherings. When questioned about possible underground mixers that may be occurring, Jimenez did not comment on the subject. Additionally, Ross, while acknowledging that attending these large gatherings is “unnecessary and harmful,” chose to note that it is “unfortunate that individuals, regardless of involvement in FSL organizations, chose to attend social gatherings that are not in alignment with public health guidance,” framing the issue as one that the larger U-M community is responsible for, not just IFC.
For Zach, there is no guilt or worry of contributing to the spread of the virus. He places much of the blame on the University for imposing unrealistic rules and regulations and on those who attempt to photograph and expose partiers. “Things have been pushed inside out of fear of mob retaliation here, which I understand, but it is not conducive to making things better. People are not going to stop partying. They will just do it more secretly, and therefore more dangerously,” Zach said.
Further, Zach explains that what he and his fraternity brothers fear most when hosting parties is not spreading the coronavirus among attendees, but “ending up on covidiots Instagram, getting photographed by The Michigan Daily, retaliation from other students and the administration and being publicly shamed.”
There is a safe way to socialize while abiding by the rules and regulations set to keep students and staff safe. While allowing parties outside potentially means fewer indoor gatherings and less COVID-19 transmission, the University endorsing large parties would give many students the impression that large outdoor parties are safe to attend without taking other precautions.
Another reason interviewees used to defend going out was their mental health. Julia explained, “Quarantine really affected my mental health, and I felt very depressed. Being back at college and going out and seeing friends has helped to make me happy. Mental health is just as important as physical health.”
Many adolescents have experienced intensified depression, anxiety and loneliness due to social isolation during quarantine. It is important that mental health is prioritized, and yes, socialization is a manner of improving mental health. However, as stated previously, risking COVID-19 exposure is putting not only yourself, but also your entire community at risk.
“While I miss dancing and partying, I have found that in small get-togethers, I form deeper and realer connections that make me feel much better and secure than how I would feel after going to a fraternity party with strangers or more superficial relationships with people that I only spend time with under the influence,” Rachel shared.
As college students, it is natural to crave social interaction for mental well-being. However, the mental gratification of partying is much more short-term than the relationships that can form in more intimate settings with fewer people.
All students are struggling with comparing the risk to the reward of socializing. However, the culture in FSL to “party while it’s possible” normalizes attending fraternity parties. While small, safe gatherings offer an alternative that still allows students to socialize, members feel they might as well attend big parties if everyone else around them is.
“I think that many members would rather not take on the risk of going to frat parties, but if everyone else is, they think there is no point in not going. However, if more people chose not to go, others would then feel more comfortable about not going and feel less left out,” Rachel said.
One member deciding to forego a fraternity party may be the deciding factor for another member deciding whether or not to go. Normalizing the idea that large fraternity parties are not a necessary environment for socialization is a necessary culture shift within FSL to avoid a massive outbreak. However, this is only possible if individual members reject the idea that contracting COVID-19 is inevitable and embrace the shared responsibility to protect the University community.
Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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