Over a year has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation, forcing thousands of Philadelphians and members of the Penn community to adapt to the challenges of life under various lockdown restrictions. The University's actions regarding the pandemic have affected the West Philadelphia community in a variety of ways, ranging from its employment of local residents to its economic effects on local businesses.
An on-campus spring semester leads to fluctuating COVID-19 rates
Penn invited over 3,000 undergraduates back to on-campus housing in January 2021, which prompted backlash from some West Philadelphians who felt blindsided by the decision, saying that they feared an outbreak would occur due to social activity on campus. They said that the impacts of the virus, which have disproportionately affected Philadelphia’s Black and Hispanic communities, would be exacerbated by students’ return.
First-year students as well as residential advisors reported large parties within days of moving in, confirming the concerns of West Philadelphian residents. At its peak, undergraduate COVID-19 cases reached a 4.47% positivity rate during the week of Jan. 31 to Feb. 6., but recently dropped to a semester low of 0.19% during the week of March 7 to March 13.
“We at Penn, and maybe even across the city, could absolutely see a reduction in case counts in general if we vaccinated our college student population,” Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said.
Halbritter added that the benefits associated with being vaccinated are not a reason for students to cut the line or jump ahead of those who are mandated by the city to receive the vaccine first.
“I want students vaccinated as soon as possible and students want the same thing, but this is an opportunity to remind everybody about all of the racial injustices that we have been talking about all year," Halbritter said. “But guess what? We’ve still had a lot of positive cases with almost zero hospitalizations in our students, and that’s not the case for all of the other groups that fall into the 1A, 1B, and 1C categories.”
Some students and faculty seek police abolition after Black Lives Matter protests
In the midst of months-long protests against police brutality following the police killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, thousands petitioned the University to cut ties with the Philadelphia Police Department.
Last June, an assembly of Penn community members formed Police Free Penn to formally demand that the University also defund and disband the Penn Police Department, arising out of a petition with over 15,000 signatures. Some criticized Penn for not addressing the extent of its ties to the Philadelphia Police Foundation, and Black students also recounted experiences being profiled by members of Penn Police.
Following the backlash from students and faculty, Penn announced it would conduct an independent review of its Division of Public Safety, as well as stop purchasing tickets to attend Philadelphia Police Foundation fundraising events.
UMOJA, the umbrella organization for Black student groups at Penn, demanded action from the University by means of providing space on Locust Walk for Black students as well as terminating its relationship with the PPD and donating to West Philadelphia organizations. Although Provost Wendell Pritchett told UMOJA members that Penn would commit to donating to Black-owned organizations like the Philadelphia Bail Fund and Black Lives Matter Philadelphia, students told the DP they did not feel optimistic about the University meeting their demands.
The University has since maintained its relationship with the PPD, and demands for space on Locust Walk continue.
Penn pledges millions to resolve issues in Philadelphia's schools
The nationwide push for racial justice also renewed calls for the University to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOTs, which would support public services such as school systems. Student groups, City Councilmembers, and Penn professors have since continued to argue that PILOTs would provide much-needed financial support to schools — particularly amid COVID-19 — in efforts to address system racism and inequality.
In November 2020, the University announced it would contribute $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia over the next 10 years to address environmental hazards in the city's schools, including asbestos and lead.
Students and professors criticized this contribution as a short-term commitment, and said that if the University paid PILOTs annually, they should be contributing $36.4 million per year. They did acknowledge, however, that the donation would be beneficial in improving students’ and teachers’ health by fighting against asbestos problems in schools.
Furloughs leave dining hall workers feeling expendable
When the pandemic began, Penn’s dining provider, Bon Appétit Management Company, laid off its 140-person retail dining staff without pay after March 31. In response to a petition with over 8,000 signatures called for the University to compensate the laid-off workers, Penn decided to pay the staff for the remainder of the semester, until May 15.
In July, Bon Appétit sent a letter to employees requesting they confirm by the end of the month whether they would continue to work at Penn for the fall semester. Workers were told that if they did not return to work in the fall, their unemployment benefits would be cut off when the dining halls reopened in August. Several chefs expressed discomfort in resuming their work during the pandemic, and felt as if they had no choice but to return.
When the initially planned in-person fall 2020 semester was switched to be entirely online, Bon Appétit furloughed its entire staff at Penn. Those who had worked at the University for decades told the DP they felt disrespected learning they were furloughed from a TV news segment rather than their employer.
“The only thing it takes is for one person to put themselves in the shoes of the employees that work here," one dining worker previously told the DP. "Maybe that would just change the way that they treat us, because I don't think any of them could survive living with what we have to live with.”
Despite interacting with students every day this spring semester, Bon Appétit workers were not allowed to schedule on-campus COVID-19 tests until almost a month after dining cafes began to open on campus on January 10.
Falk Dining Commons chef Troy Harris said that he felt torn coming back to work for the spring semester, saying that he did not want to potentially contract COVID-19 on campus and then bring it back to his family, but he could not afford to quit his job. Harris said that Bon Appétit workers are now being offered vaccines, but that he still worries about his family since it is still unknown whether or not vaccinated people can still spread the virus. Harris added that Bon Appétit workers are not paid hazard pay, despite having to interact with students every day.
“Coming out every day is a risk,” Harris told the DP. “We need to be compensated for feeding campus.”
Penn aids some local businesses amid economic harm
In March 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a stay-at-home order, forcing all non-essential businesses to close, including many in University City. Penn then provided short-term rent abatement and grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to locally owned and operated retailers.
Executive Director of Real Estate Ed Datz told the DP that the University has continued to offer assistance to struggling businesses in the University City District boundaries. He explained that Penn has been evaluating each business’ monthly sales, providing rent, and operating expense relief according to the needs of each business, ranging from 25% to 75% reductions in rent.
Datz said that although businesses have improved their sales since the beginning of the pandemic, many are operating at a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels.
Some local businesses, particularly food trucks, have struggled to retain business even as students arrived on campus for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters.
Deb Varvoutis, who owns the vegan food truck Magic Carpet with her husband Dean, told the DP that the University has not offered the couple financial assistance despite being part of Shop Penn retailers. Magic Carpet closed in March and reopened one of its two food trucks in August.
Despite opening both the trucks in January 2021, Varvoutis said that her business, which used to have lines of people waiting to order food, is just as quiet as it was in the fall with about 30 to 40 customers per day. The trucks have been reliant on a GoFundMe page to stay afloat, but Varvoutis said she still remains hopeful that one day business will go back to normal.
Other business owners, like Jihed Chehimi from the Chez Yasmine food truck, have been out of work since the pandemic began. Chehimi, whose food truck has been closed for almost 13 months, said he will reopen his business after he gets fully vaccinated in mid-March. Still, he's worried business will be slow after witnessing fewer food trucks on campus, with even fewer customers in late February 2021 in comparison to before the pandemic.
Members of Penn community work to combat COVID-19 disparities
As of March 17, over 390,000 Philadelphians have been given the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Although over 40% of Philadelphians are Black, less than 25% of those given the vaccine have been Black.
To combat this racial disparity, Penn Medicine partnered with Mercy Catholic Medical Center and local faith leaders to administer vaccines in West Philadelphia. At the first vaccination clinic, held on Feb. 13, around 500 people in the city's designated Phase 1A and 1B groups were given their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Since then, Penn Medicine and Mercy Philadelphia have held two additional clinics, with another planned for April 3. They have already provided vaccines to over 2,800 Philadelphians.
“The purpose of this clinic is to address the vast racial inequity in COVID[-19] outcomes and vaccine distribution by vaccinating our West [Philadelphia] Black and brown communities hit hard by COVID[-19],” the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which establishes connections with West Philadelphia schools through community service courses and after-school programs, wrote in an Instagram post advertising the event.
In addition to these clinics, Penn Medicine has hired 50 laboratory assistants responsible for collecting and processing COVID-19 testing samples. The employees were hired through the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, which seeks to close the opportunity gap in Philadelphia by connecting unemployed Philadelphians with the region’s major employers to achieve higher-wage, secure careers.