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On Sept. 1, multiple complaints came in to the University of Illinois citing a party hosted by members of a fraternity. It allegedly had more than 200 attendees, including multiple people who knew they were positive for COVID-19.
A week later, university police officers pulled over a vehicle of residents of another fraternity. Two of them had tested positive for COVID-19 and were supposed to be in quarantine.
When universities across the U.S. reopened and welcomed tens of thousands of students back to campus this fall, students partied in apartments, at pools and on the lawns of Greek houses — celebrating as if COVID-19 did not exist.
Local public health departments and universities alike received thousands of reports about students at over-packed parties and bars where they could be seen maskless, violating social distancing and gathering size limits. Some schools created ways for complaints to be filed.
An analysis of the reopening efforts at four major midwestern universities shows that the different approaches to testing and mitigation strategies did not prevent surges of student cases and spillover into the surrounding communities.
Bringing young adults back to small college towns was bound to increase cases, and universities made efforts to prevent transmission in classrooms with measures like socially distant desks. But that’s not the only place students interact.
Going to house parties, bars and Greek life ragers are all a part of college social life, and they proved hard to control, becoming the perfect superspreader events for college students and the larger community.
Not conducive to safety
A hallmark of the college experience for many students is participating in Greek life, and Greek housing across midwestern campuses became breeding grounds for COVID-19. And since most Greek housing is not campus controlled, universities lacked the authority to take action.
Just a few weeks into the semester, Indiana University’s Greek houses emerged as hotspots with a positivity rate of 24.56% for students as compared to 3.64% for those living on campus. Positivity rates within individual houses peaked as high 80% in the first week of September.
Mitchell Tiedman was one of the first members of his house to test positive in early September. The next day, more positive results began rolling in and the house was soon placed on quarantine. In the span of a week, the positivity rate within the house went from 0% to 56.25%, according to the school’s Greek dashboard.
Of Indiana’s 40 Greek houses, 31 were in quarantine as of Sept. 5, according to the last update of the Greek dashboard. Around 2,600 of the University’s roughly 40,000 students live in such communal arrangements (including two non-Greek houses), according to the university.
“Everybody knew it was definitely a possibility,” said Tiedman. “When you’re around 49 other dudes every day, if someone gets it, obviously it’s gonna spread pretty quickly in the house.”
The Thursday after Tiedman tested positive, Indiana recommended that all communal living houses shut down, citing “alarming” positivity rates. But it lacked the authority to close the independently operated houses. The school’s Interfraternity Council responded with a press release that said the university was “telling a story of half-truths to demonize the Greek community.”
Two Greek houses were ultimately shut down by the Monroe County Health Department following incidents that violated local restrictions intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.
By Sept. 23, the positivity rate in Greek housing had dropped to 3.3%, bringing it more in line with the 2.2% positivity rate reported for residence halls.
Aaron Carroll, who oversaw the asymptomatic testing program at IU, noted that Greek housing is “not conducive to COVID” safety measures, with dense sleeping arrangements and common spaces. Still Carroll believes they were able to get the situation under control through targeted testing and active contact tracing measures designed to “stamp out any embers,” as an IU official put it in a July 30 webinar.
At the University of Illinois, the party that drew the complaints for drawing a big crowd, which was hosted by Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, resulted in multiple reports that attendees tested positive afterward. One complaint said “DSP threw a party, and now a lot of us are dealing with the aftermath of choice people attending.”
Delta Sigma Phi members disputed the size of the crowd.
A member of another fraternity, which saw its number of positive cases jump from a handful to more than 30 in a week, shared how he could trace the outbreak back to the source: parties held at several sorority members’ apartments over the first weekends back on campus.
“When there’s these apartment parties going on, it’s people coming from all different directions,” the member said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from the fraternity system. “So your network goes from 20 to 30 people to 250 people that they’ve been exposed to in the last three days, or more.”
It got to the point where more than a quarter of the house had tested positive before the spread began to level off, but that came after the initial week — which had lax enforcement — when many of the fraternity members had attended parties or gone to bars.
Ultimately, the fraternity was able to trace almost all of its cases back to one party that many members had attended the weekend of Aug. 29.
A review of more than 400 university complaints about the behavior of students, faculty and businesses near campus, as well as campus disciplinary actions, show that violations of campus conduct and public health directives went far beyond “a small number of students,” as Chancellor Robert Jones had characterized them..
On Sept. 5, there were at least six complaints of a pool party at the Seven07 apartment complex, with one saying that there are “a bunch of students partying in the pool area, although the building managers sent out an email” forbidding it.
While the university police report indicated that management said they warned residents not to use the pool or gather outside of allowed circumstances, one of the complaints alleged that the parties occurred there “every Friday.”
There were at least six complaints alleging parties and forbidden gatherings at Acacia Fraternity in late August and during September. The organization already had its recognition revoked until May of 2024 due to hazing and dangerous conduct, but it has nonetheless been operating without university recognition.
To date, Illinois has disciplined four fraternities and one sorority for COVID-19 violations, though it is likely there are other cases still pending. All were sanctioned for COVID-19 conduct violations ranging from ignoring social distancing and mask wearing rules to hosting large parties.
As of mid-November, the university had come to resolutions in 1,895 cases against students. Illinois dismissed 34 students, holding six additional dismissals in abeyance, while putting 487 students on conduct probation.
The university censured an additional 139 students, reprimanded 91 and sent warning letters to 694. It dropped charges against 60 students and found 285 not in violation.
At the University of Missouri, there was no part of the university’s dashboard or the rest of its COVID-19 website that included information about Greek housing cases.
In its Show Me Renewal plan, which outlines the university’s COVID-19 strategies, Missouri left it to Greek houses themselves to develop their own quarantining protocols. It also stated that all recruitment activities would be online, a change from the original plan to have events be both in-person and virtual.
Missouri’s Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association were not transparent with the public about COVID-19 cases in the houses. But prior to classes starting, cases began popping up.
The Interfraternity Council moved rush completely online and banned all fraternities from hosting gatherings at the houses — a stricter rule than the university’s 20-person gathering limit.
In September, Missouri temporarily suspended seven fraternities and three sororities while investigating the organizations for violating university COVID-19 policies. As of the end of the semester, none of the organizations were sanctioned or disciplined, according to the Community Conduct History page on the Fraternity & Sorority Life website where all disciplinary actions against Greek houses are posted.
Last Call for COVID
Another hot spot for students socializing are local bars and at many of those that were allowed to remain open business was booming.
Jeffrey Harris, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a practicing physician, conducted a study where he found that a cluster of 20 bars contributed to cases at the University of Wisconsin-Madison once students returned.
By using smartphone mobility data and census-based reports of positive case counts, Harris was able to determine that students living at Sellery and Witte residence halls, and other off-campus residences in that area, were 2.95 times more likely to visit this cluster of bars than students from other residence halls.
Sellery and Witte happened to be the two most hard-hit residence halls in terms of cases, per Harris’ analysis. The university dashboard does not distinguish cases by residence hall.
In Columbia, once the health department restricted bar hours and began issuing violations for gatherings that ignored the city’s restrictions, cases began to decline, according to Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Assistant Director Scott Clardy.
Even with city ordinances and business mitigation plans, iconic Missouri student hangouts were shut down due to COVID-19 violations.
Several bars had their operating permits suspended, including one cited for having over 100 people inside. And a downtown apartment complex popular among students had its pool shutdown for having over 100 people poolside.
Of the over 15,700 total COVID-19 cases in Boone County, about 21% are in the 18 to 22 age range as of Jan. 20.
“Clearly, their presence in the community had an impact as far as disease spread,” Clardy said.
Missouri, like many schools, disciplined students for hosting parties and ignoring COVID-19 policies. People could report students, faculty and staff violations to the university.
By the end of the semester, Missouri had a total of 936 COVID-19 incidents that resulted in sanctions such as a warning, writing a COVID reflection paper and even expulsion, according to spokesperson Liz McCune.
At Illinois, like Missouri, bars were a frequent reason for complaints and possible exposure. One bar near campus received more than 23 complaints in the first several weeks of the semester alone.
The most egregious allegations include 100-plus, mostly maskless patrons waiting for entry in a non-socially distanced line Sept. 17.
“They’ll be the reason we get sent home, because they’re so selfish, and the school doesn’t do anything about the bars or the people who go there,” one complainant wrote, noting that officials then “punish the entire campus for the actions of selfish people.”
Reporters Gavin Good and Julia Morrison from the University of Illinois, Hali Tauxe from the Indiana University and Danielle DuClos and Chris Martucci from the University of Missouri contributed to this story. Photo editing for this story was done by Tristen Rouse.