Several community members expressed frustration with University students after many continued to congregate in large groups in Madison Bowl, on the Corner and at fraternity houses Tuesday evening despite the University’s calls for social distancing.
Charlottesville resident Karen Marsh, who lives on University Circle, said students and fraternity members near her home were blaring music and playing beer pong Tuesday afternoon. Her concerns stem largely from the fact that many of her neighbors are older individuals and are therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“We have all these very sensitive people here, within yards of the fraternities,” Marsh said. “To see this behavior, seems to be risking the health of our own older and more vulnerable residents.”
Marsh and other residents of University Circle sent an email to University officials Tuesday evening to express their frustrations with the parties.
“We are literally in the middle of a fraternity and sorority neighborhood and yet we are a community of neighbors and residents who live here — many who are older and vulnerable,” Marsh said.
Students were instructed Tuesday to vacate their on-Grounds housing by Friday unless they are international students who are unable to secure travel to return home, students who do not have other homes or students who would be severely risking their health or safety by traveling to their homes. Students living off-Grounds were advised to follow the same guidelines.
A few blocks from University Circle, students were also spotted Tuesday lounging on picnic blankets in Madison Bowl and drinking outside bars on University Avenue — many in crowds greater than the state government’s 10-person limit for restaurants, an executive order that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam enacted Tuesday evening.
Trinity Irish Pub and Boylan Heights — two popular social bars on the Corner — declined to comment on the topic. However, Boylan Heights had reportedly closed around the time that Northam’s executive order was enacted.
Marsh was not the only Charlottesville resident to express disappointment with students socializing en masse — Kirt von Daacke, assistant dean and history professor, and Chad Wellmon, associate professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, posted on Twitter regarding their concerns as well.
“The entirety of UVA’s student life staff has been working non-stop to get students out of dorms [and] home, [and] provide financial support for those who can’t afford to,” Wellmon wrote, referring to Student Financial Services’ commitment to assist in paying for travel expenses for students on financial aid. “And so it boggles my mind to drive back home on campus [and] pass several fraternities in full beer pong mode.”
Dean of Students Allen Groves said the University administration was aware of these community concerns, adding that he spoke with students at Madison Bowl before driving to University Circle, where he found many of the gatherings to have dissipated. Before Groves talked with the students, a staff member from the Office of Student Affairs as well as the University Police Department spoke with students at Madison Bowl.
“I spoke to students at two different fraternities that had what appeared to be gatherings in their front yards which, again, is not objectively illegal,” Groves said. “It's more from a public health and safety standpoint — with what we know about social distancing and the spread of this virus — was an unsafe practice.”
Social distancing has been found to be one of the best ways to slow viral spread of COVID-19. By avoiding crowds and maintaining personal space, community members can “flatten the curve” — or, help delay the spread of disease and reduce the number of individuals infected, which eases the burden on healthcare facilities.
The Inter Fraternity Council is aware of the importance of social distancing, according to IFC President Kyle Riopelle — a third-year College student, who sent an email Sunday imploring members to return home and avoid social gatherings.
“If you contract COVID-19, you will almost certainly be okay, and you might not even show symptoms,” Riopelle wrote in the email. “But just as certainly, you will pass it on to others, and for many such as the elderly or immunocompromised, the danger is life-threatening. Now is the time to think of others more than ourselves.”
To further ensure social distancing among its members, the IFC has prohibited all events indefinitely.
However, because fraternity houses are private property, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life cannot mandate that students leave their fraternity or sorority housing. Marsh remains unsatisfied with this, saying that she views closing the fraternities as a matter of health and safety — especially in her neighborhood.
“As a parent myself, I have made the sacrifice of telling my own child, ‘Hey, you've got to come home,’” Marsh said. “Where are all the parents of fraternity members? Why are they not calling their sons home?”
Although the University cannot mandate that any students living off-Grounds return home, Groves said that he continues to hope that University students will place community welfare above social enjoyment.
“We have a lot of older people in the community that would be particularly at risk, as well as young people with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions, including many of the peers of our students,” Groves said. “Our hope has been through this fairly consistent and firm messaging that we could appeal to students’ – to be blunt – better instincts, to actually have strong care for their fellow members of the community, and to do what we believe to be the right thing.”