Penn’s administration has made their intentions quite clear in bringing the student body back to campus; the West Philadelphia community comes second to their own plans. West Philadelphia residents were frustrated with the University’s decision to open campus this semester, anticipating the wave of COVID-19 cases that came to fruition last week. Penn, however, ignored their concerns, neglecting to offer the local residents any legitimate safeguards from the health risks posed by bringing Penn students back to campus, and not even consulting them about their plan to bring students to campus. Penn administration must take concrete steps to protect the West Philadelphia community — not just their students, faculty, and staff — from COVID-19.
The difference in the treatment received by COVID-19-positive Penn students is quite stark compared to what the average West Philadelphia resident would receive. When most students at Penn contract COVID-19, they are not worried about their next steps. After receiving an eventual call informing them of their positive test result, off-campus students can quarantine in their homes, receiving daily texts from the University that track improvements in their health. On-campus students have time to pack their belongings before quarantining at Sansom Place West. While some issues exist, students are largely assured access to adequate health care and do not have to worry about missing work — or nearly any other matter. Many West Philadelphians, on the other hand, do have to worry about these things — positive test or not. After parties and outbreaks, who is there to protect the residents of West Philadelphia when irresponsible, privileged students threaten their lives? While it is not necessarily Penn’s duty to fix their problems, it is Penn’s duty to mitigate the risks the public incurs.
This is not a problem that Penn can patch up with money; bandaids can’t fix gaping holes. A viable solution, however, is glaringly obvious: to require PennOpen Pass for entry to businesses and public buildings on a larger scale. Although the Open Pass system is flawed and can be cheated, offering it in the West Philadelphia community at locations not directly affiliated with Penn could be a good start.
One such place would be the Acme Markets next to campus. It is nearly impossible to leave Acme without seeing a familiar face in the sea of Penn students who fill each and every aisle. Among the Penn students, however, are members of the West Philadelphia community doing their own grocery shopping, stocking the shelves, or working the registers. It is scarily easy for a student who has been exposed to COVID-19 — or even has tested positive — to walk into Acme unchecked and risk exposing the community.
Instead of relying on the benevolence of students, Penn administration needs to demonstrate its dedication to protecting the community and its members. Before entering Acme or other off-campus locations frequented by Penn students, Penn should station security guards outside, requiring students show their green Open Passes. Students should readily show them, so that it's as natural as showing green Open Passes before entering Penn-owned buildings. Security officials are already found at Acme, so why not show West Philadelphians that they are not there to monitor them, but rather to protect their health and security, in addition to that of Penn students? Other potential locations could include places near campus with indoor dining like Allegro Pizza, Smokey Joe’s, and Panera Bread. Since the City of Philadelphia has already recognized that Smokes' violated COVID-19 regulations, adding an extra layer of protection for the community could prove to be beneficial for the community and the COVID-19 count in general.
While the “Penn bubble” is undoubtedly real in most respects, a highly contagious virus shatters this notion of a bubble. Penn increased the levels of danger in West Philadelphia by encouraging students to return to campus, making it the administration’s duty to protect the individuals that do not reap the benefits of Penn’s medical services when they fall ill: West Philadelphia residents. By taking existing Open Pass technology and broadening its reach and purpose, Penn can create tangible change and show some respect toward the community it claims to hold in esteem. It’s time to stop painting the town red, and start painting Acme green — with Open Pass, of course.
ISABELLA GLASSMAN is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Suffern, N.Y. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.