Even though most on-campus housing remains shuttered, many Penn students moved back to off-campus housing in West Philadelphia ahead of the first day of classes. Though large gatherings are prohibited – by both the University and the city – parties without social distancing have been spotted around Penn in the past week.
Penn currently reports at least 42 active coronavirus cases in the community, but many students fear potential virus clusters in the next fews weeks and are taking to social media to share their concerns and call out partygoers. Colleges around the country are struggling to reopen amid the pandemic, and many are experiencing virus clusters thought to be caused by students who flout social distancing guidelines and gather for super-spreader events like parties in dormitories and Greek housing.
Last Tuesday, when members of Penn's track and field team organized a party in the backyard of a house occupied by sophomores on the team, several students took pictures from nearby houses and shared them on social media to expose their behavior during the pandemic.
One Instagram account, @irresponsibleatPenn, was created last Wednesday to document and condemn students hosting parties around campus. The account amassed over 1,000 followers in less than a week, and posts photos along with addresses of the prohibited gatherings, including the track and field party. According to the account’s bio, it was created with the intent to “hold people accountable for public health in our community," and accepts photo submissions from students who spot parties and other unsafe gatherings around campus. When the Daily Pennsylvanian contacted the page creator, they declined to comment to the DP.
Comments under the account’s posts are decidedly mixed, revealing the charged nature of the social distancing debate on college campuses. While some criticize the account for invading the privacy of those involved in the parties, others support the public callouts.
College senior Ben Wasman commented on a post on the account urging students to be mindful of how their actions impact the greater West Philadelphia community.
"It's not anything that is worth risking a public health crisis over," Wasman told the DP about the parties. "I think at Penn, especially, it's extra silly. This is not our space. With the massive move off campus, we're all now in the West Philly community, whether we like it or not, and our neighbors are members of the community. Our decision to get together and party, even not during a pandemic, would be potentially disruptive to the neighborhood."
In Philadelphia, outdoor events and gatherings may not exceed 50 guests, while indoor gatherings with over 25 guests are prohibited. City guidelines also advise to stay six feet apart from individuals outside one's household and wear masks when that is not possible. In response to new outbreaks on college campuses, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health now recommends that students avoid "all social gatherings" with people outside their household. The Penn Student Campus Compact asks students to refrain from organizing and attending off-campus events that may cause safety risks to members of the community, as well as act in accordance with public health guidelines.
"The campus compact recommends that students should follow local public health guidance. Local public health guidance got updated and states that college and university students, in particular, should really only be hanging out with their household," Campus Health Director Ashlee Halbritter said.
Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said Penn Police has observed low party activity compared to most years, and that most of the complaints to the department have been noise related.
"There have been some instances where people who are in the house are hanging out outside and being very cautious, and there are some instances where it's 25-30 people – and that's a party," Rush said.
Rush said if officers find a large gathering where it seems many attendees are not residents of the house, they will take students' names and refer them to Penn's Compact Review Board, which would review the situation and decide on any disciplinary action.
"All it takes is one party," Rush said of a possible super-spreader event.
Other large gatherings are linked to fraternities' off-campus houses, according to some students living nearby.
One College senior sees frequent parties from her bedroom window across the street from an off-campus area known as "backlot," a collection of houses filled by fraternity members that share a backyard behind 41st St. between Locust and Spruce Streets. According to the student, the parties occurred regularly over the summer, but have increased recently. The student requested anonymity because she is afraid of retribution from peers and those in the Greek community.
“It used to be every Friday night, and this week it’s been like every night," the senior said. "The smallest might have been like 15 people, and the biggest might have been over 30 people, but they’re not taking advantage of how much space they have to actually distance."
The anonymous senior said partygoers she has seen do not practice social distancing or wear masks, and she suspects that the attendees are not all roommates from the fraternity houses given the “crowds of girls that come.” She saw Penn Police visit on one occasion, and since then the parties have continued, but with quieter music.
“They’re not the kind of parties you’d see during a normal school year, but it’s still a larger party than I expected people to be doing, especially with no masks. It doesn’t seem like they’re trying to distance at all. You really can’t distance to play slap cup,” she said.
A College sophomore living near the residence of off-campus fraternity Phi recently saw a large bonfire gathering at the house’s backyard from her window. The sophomore also requested anonymity because she fears social consequences of speaking publicly about off-campus parties.
“There were a bunch of people congregating outside, and there was a bonfire and music playing. It looked like way over 15 people,” she said. “Not a single person we saw was wearing a mask.”
College senior and Interfraternity Council President Louis Galarowicz maintains that the Greek-related parties have all been hosted by off-campus fraternities. There have not been any sanctions placed against on-campus fraternities at this time, he continued.
"I haven't seen anything on the @irresponsibleatPenn page that would allow me to make an allegation against a fraternity and try to sanction them," Galarowicz said. "Off-campus fraternities are not affiliated with the IFC at all. And I've heard things, myself, that they're still pretty active."
Galarowicz declined to name any specific off-campus fraternities.
Penn's Campus Health Team became aware of these gatherings and the @irresponsibleatPenn account late last week. According to Halbritter, most of the gatherings they have heard of have been relatively small.
"By and large, people have really bought into the public health recommendations, and even Department of Public Safety has told us, they're not seeing large parties," she said. "We're seeing groups of four or five people hanging out on porches. We're seeing 10 people hanging out in a backyard. The parties, by and large, that we're seeing or hearing about or that are coming up in contact investigations are not large parties."
Despite attempts to social distance, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said the virus can actually spread faster at smaller gatherings.
"In contact investigation, it’s the small gatherings that tend to be more striking for the spread," he said.
The Campus Health Team met with several clubs and houses with students that reported cases. Though most students the team met with claim to be socially distancing, wearing masks continuously in social settings proves to be difficult.
"Students feel like they're gathering in small groups and they are maintaining appropriate distance. But when you're at a party and most parties have food or drinks available, you have to take your mask off to do those activities and that becomes a really high risk activity. And that's what is a threat to everybody," Halbritter said.
Dubé elaborated that eating can be dangerous due to the increased production of saliva and lack of masks.
"You produce more droplets, and, at the same time, increase your risk for infection because if you're eating, you're also not wearing a mask. That protective layer is a lot better to mitigate the risk of transmission so that has also reduced to a perfect storm."
To socialize in a safer manner, Halbritter urges students to avoid sharing food and drinks.
"Consider a picnic – outside, physically-distanced – where you bring your own blankets and your own food, and your own drink, and your own silverware. It's a way that you can gather with friends; it's a way that you can gather safely. But you really have to make sure that everybody is being responsible for their own thing," she said.
Staff reporter Chase Sutton contributed reporting.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.