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Penn Police officers are concerned about contracting and transmitting COVID-19 while responding to incidences of students partying in off- and on-campus locations.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

As students continue to host in-person gatherings in off- and on-campus locations, Penn Police officers responding to parties are voicing concerns over contracting the virus while on the job. 

Penn Police officers told The Daily Pennsylvanian that when they respond to in-person gatherings, students often answer the door maskless and inebriated. Despite taking numerous safety precautions including consistently using masks, face shields, gloves, antibacterial spray, and individual patrol cars, officers said they are still worried about potentially contracting the virus and transmitting it to family members at home due to these COVID-19 safety violations.

For Penn Police Department Captain Gary Williams, working night shifts means risking his safety when interacting with students breaking COVID-19 safety guidelines. Williams, who has worked for Penn Police for 14 years, said these conditions lead not only to a “difficult time at the door” for responding officers, but also pose serious health risks regarding the spread of COVID-19 within Penn and the larger Philadelphia community. 

“The number of parties is down, as well as their size,” Williams said. “Yet, they’re still happening, and when we respond, we see no social distancing, no masks, and alcohol use.”

Vice President of Public Safety and Penn Police Superintendent Maureen Rush said that though there has been a decrease in parties over the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, student gatherings are still occurring at a concerning rate — often without abiding by COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

A “completely disproportionate” number of positive COVID-19 cases on campus has been linked to in-person social events held by fraternities and sororities, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé previously confirmed with the DP.

“Our officers must be extremely careful. They have families; they have coworkers,” Rush said. “Partying right now is irresponsible not only for the responding police officers, but [also for] the rest of their and our communities.”

As first responders, Rush said that officers were given the option to participate in the first wave of vaccine distribution in December 2020 and confirmed that the majority of officers are fully vaccinated. Rush and Penn Police officers, however, noted that COVID-19 vaccines have not yet been proven to prevent vaccinated individuals from transmitting the virus if infected, emphasizing the continued practice of masking and social distancing to keep officers and students alike safe.

Penn Police Lieutenant Joseph Ferdman, a 25-year veteran of the force who is currently working the 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. night shift, said he is concerned about his co-workers who chose not to get vaccinated and about bringing the virus back home to his family.

“We’re human beings like everyone else," Ferdman said. "We don’t want to bring [COVID-19] back to our families and back to other officers.”

Williams and Ferdman said that partygoers are often uncooperative due to a combination of alcohol consumption and fear of repercussion. There have even been instances where students will leave the house or apartment vacant when an officer arrives to avoid any punishment, Ferdman said.

“They’re putting the health and safety of a bunch of people at risk, including themselves and officers," Williams said.

Rush said that the Department of Public Safety most commonly receives reports of student parties from the managers of apartment buildings and complexes, who typically give multiple warnings for the gatherings to be shut down after which they call Penn Police.

The fact that student parties continue after managers’ warnings is “absolutely outrageous,” Rush said.

If students are not following safety guidelines, officers follow protocol of maintaining adequate distance and requesting that the individual and everyone else in the building first put on a mask before conducting their call. 

"If we boil it down to the actual interaction here, someone may have been drinking and likely forgot their mask, [and] they aren't usually greeting the officer with a smile. There may be some loud voice exchanges or shouting, both of which increase the chance for transmission," Dubé said. 

After ensuring people are masked, officers identify the owner of the house or apartment and take down their information, which is then passed onto Penn's Compact Review Panel to determine the appropriate repercussions.

Possible punishments for violating the Student Campus Compact range from campus restrictions, such as PennCard deactivation or removal from student housing, to disciplinary sanctions, including suspension or referral to the Office of Student Conduct among other resources, to educational interventions such as an in-person meeting or phone call.

A total of 257 reports of students violating the University's COVID-19 protocols has been submitted to the Campus Compact Review Panel since the beginning of the spring semester, but not all reports have resulted in disciplinary action.

Rush, along with members of the Penn Police, insisted that student partying must come to an end in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“This is no time to be having a party,” Rush said. “Regarding [COVID-19] transmission and the safety of the campus, having a gathering of 10, 15, [or] 25 people is playing Russian roulette.”

Penn Police officers expressed that members of the University community must work together to overcome the pandemic.

"It's a difficult set of circumstances. We look forward to a time where [COVID-19] is not here, and students have the ability to socialize," Williams said. "But for now, you need to follow the guidelines. This is not the time for casual partying." 

University administrators also urged students to follow public health guidelines and make conscious decisions that will not adversely affect surrounding communities. 

"The risks are real. When Penn decided to reopen, it reopened with an understanding both from faculty, staff, and administrators — but also from students — that Penn is part of a larger community," Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said. "What you do matters because it impacts everyone around you."