Ethan Recinto could hear the laughter and faint thrum of music from his second-floor apartment near the University of Southern California.
It was midnight and he was trying to sleep. Restless and annoyed, he stepped outside and saw packs of students roving the hallways, following the alluring siren of collegiate revelry. On the eighth floor of the privately owned University Gateway complex, Recinto caught a glimpse inside a small apartment — dozens of students packed shoulder to shoulder.
“I’m trying to stay safe, and these people kind of just gave up,” said Recinto, a junior studying international relations. He left, but the scene stirred fear. “We use the same elevators, washing machines, hallways. … There’s probably going to be an outbreak here, which sucks. And I’ll be exposed to it.”
USC is among the first universities in California to begin the fall semester amid the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a look into the new order of campus life under strictly enforced safety rules: online classes, limited access to campus, dorms all but shut down.
But like other major universities — including most of the University of California’s 10 campuses — USC is ringed by thousands of off-campus, privately owned and operated apartments where student gatherings could quickly emerge as a catalyst for COVID-19 outbreaks.
Although universities have urged students to stay home for online learning, many signed apartment leases months ago that management refused to allow them to break. Many yearned to be out of childhood bedrooms and back with friends near campus. Others’ home circumstances were not conducive to studies.
It’s a “recipe for disaster,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re dealing with a population that’s unlikely to follow prudent guidelines, and we’re putting them in a situation that is far too tempting,” he said. “So I don’t know what people expect.”
USC officials have sternly warned students that parties and gatherings are barred, and hosting or attending one could lead to disciplinary action, including probation, suspension or expulsion. And the university has taken substantial precautions in response to the pandemic. Students are required to wear face masks, complete a “daily symptom check” through an app, make reservations before stepping foot on campus, and are randomly selected for temperature screenings once they arrive.
“Now, more than ever, it is essential that we all take responsibility for our behavior,” university leaders said in a Wednesday letter to students. “Our individual actions can have a profound effect on our entire community, and the choices we make carry very real consequences.”
But the primal urge to congregate has been irresistible for some, although big, loud bashes are markedly down this year. The USC Department of Public Safety’s incident log shows that officers have shut down five off-campus parties since Aug. 10 because of noise complaints. In 2019, DPS shut down 21 parties in the same time frame, said USC Deputy Chief David Carlisle.
Dr. Sarah Van Orman, USC’s chief student health officer, acknowledged that the university doesn’t have much control over activity at private off-campus housing. But she is confident in USC’s ability to respond to outbreaks through its robust testing and contact-tracing program.
Still, Van Orman said, “We are concerned about outbreaks. I don’t think there’s a college health director that’s not concerned about outbreaks right now.”
COVID-19 surges have proliferated at universities throughout the country.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill announced it would pivot to online learning after COVID-19 cases spiked following the first week of classes. Notre Dame also ceased in-person instruction for two weeks after 147 students tested positive within a 14-day period. A viral video of a massive party held at an off-campus apartment complex near the University of North Georgia set off alarm bells. And at UC Berkeley, 47 confirmed cases of COVID-19 stemmed from a series of fraternity parties in July.
A coronavirus outbreak was reported at USC’s fraternity row in July, with at least 45 students testing positive. As of Aug. 19, at least 208 USC students and 73 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. One student was briefly hospitalized.
The level of social interaction among USC students varies widely. Some students said they and a good number of their peers have limited their quarantine pods to roommates and a few trusted friends. Others are comfortable attending small gatherings, while some are hitting up multiple parties a week.
But even hanging out in small groups outside their newly configured households still holds peril. USC has traced many COVID-19 clusters to gatherings of five to 10 people, Van Orman said.
There is no such thing as a “trusted friend” at a time when everybody is drawing their boundary lines differently, Swartzberg said.
Although parties are more scarce, USC students still fear outbreaks — especially after a photo shared on Reddit depicting a large USC party in the courtyard of the large University Gateway complex went viral this week.
In an email to residents Wednesday morning, Gateway staff wrote that gatherings of 10 or more people are not allowed and that masks are mandatory in all common areas. “The office staff and security will be closely monitoring this,” the email said.
Gateway’s building manager and its parent company, Peak Campus, did not respond to requests for comment.
Private landlords should make clear to students that even a 10-person gathering could lead to spread, Van Orman said.
Some students are disturbed by what they view as the careless behavior of their peers and described a hush-hush culture around parties; those who party tend to not talk about it unless they’re around others who they know have also been partying.
Ashley Abadeer, a junior from Riverside, lives in a duplex with five other people. Over the past few weeks, Abadeer has observed a change in the previously quiet summer environment. Small parties have cropped up near her duplex, and she saw several people at the nearby Trader Joe’s not wearing masks.
“It makes me feel quite upset, to be honest,” she said.
Still, Abadeer is grateful to live with people who have no qualms about social distancing. Some of her friends aren’t so lucky, dealing with roommates who take risks that could compromise the whole household.
“We really have to empathize with how challenging this is for young adults,” Van Orman said. Their roommates aren’t necessarily their friends or support system, and “that makes following the public health guidance — to stay with your household — very difficult.”
Alexis Timko, a junior studying journalism and history, said she and her six housemates only allow significant others to visit. When they do see other friends, it’s outside.
Although these restrictions are imperative to Timko, they are far from easy.
“You can always put classes and work on Zoom, but you can never re-create the social interactions and memories that come from the party-hopping and drunkenly ordering nachos and having weird bonding sessions with random girls you meet in the bathroom of some bar,” she said. “Even just being sprawled out on the couch with a group of friends after a rough week. I miss it.”
In an Aug. 15 letter, USC officials directed Greek organizations to abide by the campus safety guidelines. Fraternities and sororities, whose houses flank 28th Street, will be held responsible for the acts of individual members that flout the rules, the letter said, potentially leading to the organization’s suspension or “multi-year derecognition.”
Jordan Al-Rawi, vice president of administrative affairs for USC’s Interfraternity Council, said that the recruitment process and all other social offerings will be completely virtual.
“IFC is a dedicated partner of local and university health officials, and we will continue to do our part until it is safe to resume physical operations,” he said.
One 20-year-old junior living in a fraternity house, who requested anonymity to speak about his and other organizations, noted that some fraternities are taking the pandemic very seriously. Others are more laid-back.
Mask-wearing is mandatory in the house when residents are not in their rooms, he said, and residents must also get tested for COVID-19 every two weeks. Visitors are limited to significant others and members of the fraternity.
He went to one indoor gathering of about 10 people, but he didn’t feel comfortable afterward. He said he regrets the decision and doesn’t plan to attend any more parties — and most of his fraternity brothers are of the same mind.
“It’s definitely a whole different experience,” he said. “We’re used to hundreds of people coming through the house every weekend. Now we’re seeing the same faces day after day.
“I guess I’m lucky that all the faces I see are faces I like.”
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