At least 20 parties were shut down over opening weekend at East Carolina University for violating state coronavirus orders that ban large gatherings — including one with an estimated 400 people in attendance, police say.
Students started arriving at residence halls Aug. 5, according to a university news release. Most of the parties took place Aug. 6 to 9 and had between 25 and 50 guests, Lt. Chris Sutton, who heads ECU Police Department’s emergency and event management, told McClatchy News.
An additional 80 liquor violations in residence halls were reported to police by campus housing authorities, according to the university’s August crime log. Sutton said those were likely underage alcohol violations and did not involve law enforcement.
“It’s a difficult time for everyone,” Sutton said. “We’ve really had to change policing methods over the last several weeks due to different events across our country and now we’re having to wrestle with a pandemic since our students have returned to campus.”
Still, Sutton said said the combined number of parties and alcohol violations are both “reasonable” and “manageable” given what past opening weekends at ECU have looked like.
“One (gathering of close to 400 people) over a four-day period and all the rest are between 25 and 50 — then right now for our fight against COVID and keeping the numbers down, I’m calling that a win,” he told McClatchy News.
Students return to campus
The UNC System opted this summer to allow students to return to campus for the fall semester, and classes officially started at ECU on Monday.
All faculty, staff, students and visitors were required to wear a face covering in public, classrooms and labs starting July 1, according to ECU’s website for coronavirus updates.
Students at ECU were not required to get tested for the virus before returning to campus, but they were “encouraged.”
There are currently two confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff and 28 cases among students at ECU, according to the university’s website. That’s more than triple the number of student cases from the week prior.
Students who test positive for the coronavirus are required to quarantine for 14 days and self-report to the university, which in-turn will employ contact tracing efforts to track down potential exposures.
“Infected individuals should be isolated, and exposed individuals should be quarantined,” ECU says in its reopening guide.
‘We want the cooperation of our students’
Saturday’s 400-person party was held a few blocks away from campus in an area “heavily dominated by off-campus student housing” and was “predominantly a student age population,” Sutton said.
The students reportedly dispersed voluntarily once law enforcement arrived.
“The tenants of the property were identified and we were able to have some very constructive dialogue with them so that they understand why this is not acceptable right now and what they can do to help us moving forward,” Sutton said.
He told McClatchy News the weekend crackdown was part of a new police initiative in which at least four designated officers will patrol areas near campus where parties are frequently held. The idea is to address gatherings of fewer than 25 people and explain to them what the university and state guidelines are before the crowd gets out of control, he said.
Police define a “large gathering” as 25 or more people, in accordance with Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order.
Sutton said he expects most students to disperse voluntarily when approached by law enforcement, but anyone who is uncooperative may be referred to ECU’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, where they will effectively be “put on notice.”
If police have to return to the same residence a second or third time, those students may face fines or suspension.
“At the very premise of this, we want it to be non-punitive in nature because we want the cooperation of our students and we want them to be responsible for their behavior and to help us by policing themselves,” Sutton said.
He also emphasized that police aren’t trying to limit students’ interactions with friends.
“Students thrive and need social interaction,” Sutton said. “It’s part of their growth process, it’s part of their college experience, it’s an outlet they’ve got to have.”
But quelling the potential spread of the coronavirus and keeping students on campus throughout the semester is a priority, he told McClatchy News, saying “a college campus with no students is not a college campus — it’s just vacant real estate.”