Partying students would be dismissed without tuition refunds. Northeastern University had made that clear Friday, kicking out 11 first-year students who broke COVID-19 rules to gather in a Boston hotel room.
Yet by that night, a few dozen students from Northeastern and Boston University found their way to the Charles River, their legs lit by the Esplanade lights, their faces by reflections of skyscrapers off the water. Bottles of Tito’s vodka, Gatorade, Coca-Cola and soda water were laid out on a park bench, a convenient bar for students seeking a way to party.
Any doubts that students would find a way to party, even during a pandemic, have been quickly dispelled as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed at colleges around the country. Some colleges promptly canceled in-person instruction, and social media videos and images of partying students helped feed a narrative of irresponsible behavior putting everyone in the university community at risk.
But the images can be misleading. Some students who wear masks out in public may relax in private with roommates or close friends they know are taking COVID-19 precautions seriously, no differently than they might at home with extended family members. And mental health professionals say expecting students to stop socializing is unrealistic and harmful to their developmental needs at that age.
Over Labor Day weekend, starting with the “Thirsty Thursday” kickoff, USA TODAY dispatched college journalists in seven university towns across the country to witness firsthand the campus social scene.
They found a boat party in Indiana that had observers fearing another outbreak in town; a college president shooting selfies with students lined up outside a Maryland dance bar; scores of students seeking ways to balance safety with an impulse for fun; and an impromptu chopsticks lesson that couldn’t have happened in a Zoom meeting.
Boston’s universities have some of the strictest coronavirus mandates governing behavior, but the lines are blurrier miles from campus, and students are adept at finding loopholes.
And they’re far from stupid.
Massachusetts has a 50-person limit on gatherings held outdoors in defined spaces. But there’s no cap on open spaces like the Charles River Esplanade. The student body from both universities could gather unmasked under a cluster of sweet cherry trees – with enough room for distancing, in theory – and still be on the right side of the law.
More importantly, they know how frequently every student has been tested for COVID-19. If anyone had tested positive, they’d have been set up in an isolation room and unable to leave.
One student, who didn’t give his name for fear of disciplinary action, said that’s why they check to make sure everyone at the party is a student. They’re wary of outsiders who haven’t undergone the same degree of testing, but the ones out here? They’re COVID-free on a warm September night, the students reason. So why not take the party down to the river?
Longing for ‘big adventure’: Boston universities
For 24 hours after they arrived on campus, Harvard first-year students Ava Bandel and Julia Wilkinson quarantined in their rooms. For the next six days, or until three negative tests pronounced them COVID-free, they remained on campus – mostly in their rooms, sometimes darting to the dining hall to pick up meals. It was hard to be in one place with so much newness beyond a closed gate.
So on Thursday, they headed into the city for the first time, celebrating their freedom in a 12-foot diameter social-distancing circle marked on a grassy corner a few blocks from Fenway Park. Their masks lay by their sides for the final bites of long-overdue Chipotle. The rich scent of overwatered grass, the clink of glasses from an outdoor brewery, the curt horns and chirpy sirens, the gentle lull of a late summer breeze – they had so much to explore, to “do a big adventure” walking from their Cambridge dorms to downtown Boston, Wilkinson said.
Pockets of Boston felt abandoned after months of shutdown and half a year without students. But tonight, this little “enclave,” as Wilkinson called the circle, was full of hope: of new friendships, new adventures and dreams.
That same feeling permeated the air near Nickerson Field on the Boston University campus where students gathered in small groups in a common area beneath a trio of high-rise dorms.
The university announced strict regulations before students came to campus, threatening suspension for anyone who attends or hosts an indoor gathering with more than 25 people. The dorms are spotted with hand sanitizer and “Don’t Go Viral” signs, with no visitors allowed past the lobby and any gathering with more than a few people quickly broken up. In one of the nearby windows, 38 multicolored sticky notes spelled out “HELP.” The rules may be warranted, but they still stifle the expectations of freshman-year freedom.
It’s hard to meet people inside, first-year student Alexa Marberger said. Encounters are fleeting – or virtual. So each day and night, students gather outside, trickling into the different clusters with a wave or a squint of the eyes that hints at a masked smile.
With two required tests each week, Ava Robertson said she feels safer here than at home in Seattle. There she worried about giving COVID-19 to her parents, but now she can breathe easy knowing that everyone around her has tested negative.
‘Where’s your mask?’: Indiana University
At Indiana University in Bloomington, more than 40 fraternity, sorority and communal living houses have had to suspend organizational activity because of positive COVID-19 tests and most of the Greek chapter houses were ordered to quarantine. Officials asked privately owned and operated Greek houses to close for the semester, but the governing organizations resisted.
But that wasn’t enough to kill the party at the Acacia Fraternity house, where the house sported an 87% positivity rate in the latest round of testing and shirtless students played beer pong Thursday afternoon in the sunshine.
It was a much different story next door at Phi Kappa Tau, one of only five houses without a single COVID-19 case. A few of the brothers sat outside on the porch, but all were 6 feet apart. Chapter President Max Williams said it’s no accident that all 53 members are COVID-free. Inside the house, beds are 6 feet apart, some urinals and sinks are covered with trash bags to separate people, and a professional cleaning crew comes seven days a week.
“We’re actually enforcing it,” Williams said of the mask, distancing and cleaning guidelines. “We have zero cases, so we don’t plan on leaving.”
But the day was young, and nighttime would turn the town into students’ playground.
On Kirkwood Avenue just a short walk from campus, a discarded mask lay on the sidewalk outside the Upstairs Pub, where bargoers on the balcony tossed popcorn at people walking underneath. A sign on a TV advertised: “Thursday Specials: Everything is $2!”
Farther down the street, students packed into tables in the middle of Kirkwood, munching on fries from Nick’s English Hut. Young women, clad in black, walked up the steep staircase into the bar, clutching their purses. The staff member who greeted them asked for two things, one of which was unheard of until 2020: their temperature.
On Thursday, it was John Winters, the manager, who whipped out the thermometer. The women held out their arms, waiting as the measurement registered. So long as they were below 100.4 degrees, they were good to go. It took longer for him to check their IDs before allowing them to move on to one of the wooden tables along the wall.
After Winters spotted a group of students without their face coverings, he called, “Masks! Masks! Masks! If you’re not at the table, you have to put on your masks!”
The students mumbled apologies as they replaced the masks. Winters bumped fists with the only guy who had his mask on. Five minutes later, it happened again with another group.
“Hey, boss, where’s your mask at?” he said. “Gotta get that on!”
As the night deepened, the line to get in and the number of people to babysit only grew.
For other students, the safest place to have a good time was outside. Dozens gathered in the darkness on campus around the Showalter Fountain to smoke and drink and mingle, often without masks. One woman jumped into the fountain and threw her hands in the air, shrieking gleefully. Campus police drove by at least twice, but took no action.
A first-year student taking in the scene said she tends to stick with a few friends when she goes out. Masks are on or off depending on who is around. Visiting the fountain represented a compromise: an attempt at normal college fun, with an outdoor venue that decreased transmission risks.
“I think a lot of students are just like, ‘OK, COVID is a thing, but we’re outside,’” she said. “You can’t really control people … because it’s a college campus and the first two weeks.”
Being outdoors doesn’t guarantee safety from the coronavirus – or the judgment of others.
On Friday afternoon at nearby Lake Monroe, some boaters were alarmed at the sight of students packed together, dancing and drinking in bikinis and swim trunks on four double-decker boats. Three of the boats were tied together so partiers could move freely between them.
One witness described seeing students throwing their bottles, cans and trash overboard into the lake as the party raged on.
“Their sense of entitlement was disillusioning,” Katharine Liell, a local attorney, told USA TODAY.
She said she worries students will bring coronavirus back to the campus, affecting vulnerable groups like elderly professors or service workers.
“They all signed an honor code upon returning to campus,” Liell said, referring to IU’s requirement that students promise to follow mask and social distancing guidelines.
“So much for honor.”
‘They took all the fun out’: Arizona State University
Sophomore Ali Dimas of Arizona State University walked briskly down Mill Avenue in Tempe with her friends late Friday, looking for someplace where the party wasn’t just a faint echo of what they’d come to expect. Lines had formed outside some of the popular bars, and bouncers struggled to keep the waiting patrons physically distanced. But the clubs and bars that are open have limited capacities and allow patrons only to sit at tables.
“We want to go dance. We want to have fun. … We’re looking for that dance spot, but we can’t find it,” Dimas said. “They took all the fun out of it.”
Amid the chattering voices of passersby and honking car horns, Dimas conceded she doesn’t always remember to wear her mask, but she supports the measures to halt the virus’ spread, even if her motivations aren’t strictly health driven.
“I do my best to keep the bars open because I want to have as much fun as possible,” she said. “As much as we hate it, we’re doing it.”
The scene was even quieter a night earlier when ASU senior Brooke Safely sat on a bench outside Slickables Ice Cream Sandwich. Though she usually prefers getting together with friends for game nights and potlucks to late nights out, she misses the energy of Mill Avenue from previous years.
“It’s just kind of strange and entertaining,” Safely said about the iconic road. “I think the option to go out is also super fun, and now that it’s taken away. … It adds a little gloomy air into the vibrant community that’s here.”
Molly Joy Lode, a senior who was one of the few students barhopping Thursday night, said she’d been hoping things would just “go back to normal” for her senior year.
“A year ago there would be hordes of people just walking down the street in their nightclub gear,” she added. “It was almost overwhelming. I almost couldn’t handle it.”
“It’s kind of sad,” added her brother, Caleb, a junior.
Visit from the president: University of Maryland
At the University of Maryland, the line at Terrapin’s Turf, a dance bar perpendicular to College Park’s main drag, was loud and long Friday night. A cluster of about 40 bargoers crowded the sidewalk, easing in and out of hugs and chatting. Clouds of cigarette smoke ballooned over conversations, as a student smoked a cigarette with a mask at his chin.
A tall man in black approached, a “Terrapin Strong” mask strapped to his face. He snapped a photo on his phone before he entered the crowd. It was University of Maryland President Darryll Pines.
Pines infiltrated the group. His voice muffled under the triple-layer mask, he asked students, “Do you want to go home?” The implied threat of a semester online sank in.
“Put on your masks,” a student in a navy T-shirt yelled to others on the sidewalk. Pines urged students to wear masks, greeted some with an elbow bump and snapped a selfie.
The president departed from the crowd and headed to the bar’s front patio. He crossed his arms near a neon-shirted bouncer as he took in the scene. Pines said he felt things were “very orderly.”
Over on campus at the fountain in McKeldin Mall, students swam and splashed knee-deep, with varying degrees of sobriety, social distance and mask-wearing. The crowds grew larger as the sky got darker.
A masked group of six freshman women climbed out of the fountain, most in Maryland gear and dripping with water.
“I feel like I need to wash my legs when I get back,” one said to her new friends.
They felt isolated as first-year students. Without an existing collection of friends on campus, a single dorm room could seem like a prison cell, so getting outside was a chance to connect with others with similar comfort levels in coping with the coronavirus.
While it wasn’t perfect, they agreed the fountain was safer than other late-night alternatives. “There are, like, not a lot of places because of COVID where you can go,” said Jolie Sherman of Montgomery County, Maryland. “Here is very open.”
‘Too many people’: Fairfield University
Near Fairfield University, a private Jesuit school in Connecticut, seven friends enjoyed a pasta dinner Thursday night to celebrate the return to campus and the end of the first week of classes.
Jillian Casey, a junior, broke the news that she had found a beach house not far from campus for her housing next year, just a few hundred feet away from the Seagrape Café, a popular college bar. The guys in the group were impressed.
“Next year, we’ll have to pregame at your house and then head to the Grape,” Kevin Parsons said.
“Well,” he added, “you know, if COVID is gone and everything.”
The smiles around the table faltered for a moment.
Over at the Seagrape the following night, a line of students waited to get inside. Two women, both in masks that they removed only to take a swig of their drinks, spoke about the “be careful” texts one of their parents used to send. Now, the parents trusted she would do the right thing.
“We have one year left of college, so we’re gonna live it the best we can and be as safe as we can,” the student said. “We’ll wear our masks and be protected, but we’re not just gonna sit in our houses all semester.”
The scene inside reflected her attitude. Six months earlier, the bar would have been packed with students from Fairfield or Sacred Heart University drinking, vaping or making out at the bar. Now, the dance floor stood empty while students sat outdoors at tables covered with bright blue umbrellas and string lights. The music played just as loud, but the mood was more solemn, closer to an actual café than a dive bar.
Out on Reef Road leading toward the beach, the scene was more subdued, even at a house with a pong table covered with red Solo cups. A half dozen people stood in the yard listening to music audible only within a few feet.
“The vibe’s kind of down,” said Hannah Futo, a graduate student.
“This year it’s all small groups of people that know each other,” a friend added.
While none of the students wore masks, they know they all tested negative for COVID before returning to school, and they make sure to take precautions outside of their close-knit group.
“It is something that you have to think about, and it doesn’t go unnoticed,” Futo said. “It’s a new norm that we are all going to have to get used to.”
Over on campus at Meditz Hall, some students tried to amp up the mood, a throbbing, pulsating bass coming from a speaker inside a first-floor room. Whoops and laughter were heard in the neighboring apartments until a knock came at the door.
From inside, someone called out, “Shhh! Be quiet!”
A second knock. “RA, open up.”
A young woman peeked out from the room to ask what was wrong. The resident assistant reminded her about limits on room capacity and told her they were being too loud. The woman apologized, kicked out a few guys and nervously retreated into her apartment.
On Saturday night, nine close friends sat together in a townhouse living room, catching up and watching a Boston Celtics game. The door opened and three masked women entered and headed to the bathroom.
The others exchanged nervous glances. “We’ve got way too many people in here now,” one of the guys who lives in the house said.
A brunette in a daisy-patterned mask stood up, feeling the pull of social pressure. Wearing a mask in the house had felt strange enough; this was an entirely new dilemma. She didn’t want to spoil her friends’ fun or for the new arrivals to misread her reasons for leaving. But she also didn’t want to put anyone’s health at risk or get their hosts in trouble for having too many people at their house.
“We’ll leave,” announced one of the two women with her.
“No, you don’t have to,” one of the guys said.
Another chimed in – awkwardly but firmly: “Well, there are too many people here.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of people in this house,” another roommate said.
The three women said their farewells and left.
‘Swamp’ is quieter: University of Florida
At the University of Florida in Gainesville, the humidity was living up to the football field’s “Swamp” nickname as the bars in the Midtown area just off campus began to fill up Friday night. Students lined up outside popular hangouts like Fat Daddy’s and the Rowdy Reptile, creating a cocktail scent of body odor, liquor and grilled hamburgers.
A group of six women dressed in low-cut crop tops, jeans and platform sandals – masks draped down to their chins – discussed whether their fake IDs could pass for real.
“I mean, I don’t see why not,” one said. “Maybe COVID is making it stricter.”
But the crowds weren’t as big as in years past. And with about two-thirds of classes online, campus fell largely quiet after dark. On Fraternity Row, only the chirping of cicadas could be heard.
Kaitlin Applegate, a 22-year-old senior, planned an outing to a local campground with her church for a day or two. While she’s avoiding off-campus parties and large gatherings, she thinks the university is in a tough spot.
“You can only force students to be as safe as they want to be because they’re adults,” she said.
Learning to use chopsticks: University of Texas
Three first-year students at the University of Texas headed out for an early dinner Thursday on streets wet from an afternoon thunderstorm. The skies were still gray, but at least the Austin temperature had dropped from triple digits.
At K-Bop, a small Korean restaurant just off campus, Gaby Montenegro helped her friends Bianca Busogi and Teo Jakobsen navigate the menu. They’d never eaten Korean before. Jakobsen, wearing a pink T-shirt and black mask, confessed he had never tried boba tea.
“You should try it,” Montenegro said.
After placing their orders, Montenegro checked the time. It was 6:05 p.m., and she needed to join a Zoom call for a nursing organization. She dialed in from her phone but continued to pay attention to the conversation.
After getting their food, the trio returned to campus, settling at a picnic table in front of Gregory Gym. By then, they had learned they’d all come from towns near each other in North Texas. Jakobsen told the story of how his parents met in Norway; Montenegro’s parents had met in Venezuela.
They removed their masks to eat. Before they dug in to orders of chicken teriyaki and bulgogi bowls, Montenegro offered a chopsticks lesson.
“You need to grip the bottom one on tightly between your middle finger and your thumb,” she said. “When you add the top one in, you’re using your index finger to move it up and down so that you can grab pieces of rice or chicken.”
While Busogi felt like she wasn’t getting the hang of it, Jakobsen proved more adept.
“Teo, you’re learning quickly,” Montenegro said.
In the debate over whether to reopen universities this fall, one argument in favor of bringing students back to campus are the opportunities for building social connections. What students learn in college isn’t limited to what they can glean from an online lecture.
After finishing their meal, the new friends continued talking until Montenegro and Busogi had to leave. Each had a Zoom call to attend.
The party continues: Harvard University
Back in Boston, another party along the banks of the Charles River continued well into a second night. It was still going late Saturday when a new group approached.
“Gotta show your HU-ID,” a student shouted at them, wanting proof they were from Harvard.
The party had grown louder and larger, drifting over the adjacent bike lane and taking advantage of the streetlights to see the faces of the 40 students who still remained. Half of them shouted along with “Wagon Wheel.” A couple made out 20 feet away, rolling on the ground until one realized he’d lost his wallet. Their phones lit up the grass while they searched for it. A police car sped by, lights flashing, and the crowd cheered when it didn’t stop to interrupt their fun.
Another day remained in the holiday weekend, another night to come together before the full weight of the semester fell upon them like autumn’s leaves.
“You wanna come out tomorrow night?” one guy asked his friends.
They nodded as one as they left the party.
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