Blame for Portage County’s rise to a COVID-19 Level 3 Red status on September 17 is being laid squarely at the feet of Kent State students who live and play off campus, including some in fraternities and sororities.
“We do feel that the Greek life and the associated gatherings have certainly played a part in the most recent rash of cases that has happened,” said Mike Anguilano, the accreditation coordinator for the Kent City Health Department. “It’s certainly not the only (cause) though.”
The department did not disclose specific information about any sororities or fraternities with positive cases.
Portage County is among four other counties in Ohio currently at Level 3 Red. There are no counties at Level 4 Purple, which would mean there exists a severe risk of exposure to and spread of the coronavirus. Residents would be advised to leave home only for supplies and services.
“We certainly don’t want to be the first so it’s important that we get out ahead of this,” Anguilano said.
This is the first time the state placed Portage County in a Level 3 Red status since the alert system went into place.
In an email sent to students on Tuesday, President Todd Diacon and Joan Seidel, Kent City health commissioner, stated the rise in cases is due to gatherings and parties off-campus, and any person who attends or hosts these events must stop or face disciplinary action through the university’s Code of Student Conduct.
The email, titled “Flashes Unite – Do What’s Right”, also implored students to “behave responsibly and start caring about others you may be infecting who could become seriously ill.”
For the next two weeks, Kent State is asking students to avoid all gatherings and parties, to limit their interactions with others by only attending class and engaging in physical exercise, as well as to watch for and report any misconduct.
Those who do not follow these safety precautions, as well as those who test positive for COVID-19 and do not quarantine, could also face disciplinary action, the email stated. This could include a warning, probation, suspension or dismissal.
If Portage County remains in Level 3 Red status, the city of Kent will “take stringent action,” with a zero-tolerance policy for any off-campus gatherings or parties that violate noise or other city ordinances. Other measures could follow, with potential mandatory quarantines for various off-campus areas.
Some Kent State sororities reportedly hosted bid days the weekend of Sept. 12 with gatherings that exceeded the 10-person limit, attendees not social distancing and some not wearing proper masks. Pictures of some of the events, intended to recruit new members, circulated on social media.
“If those did happen, we have already talked to our community and members. That is already being handled by student conduct,” said Kaileigh Sloan, president of the Panhellenic Council at Kent State.
“To my knowledge, there are no chapters that are totally affected,” Sloan said, when asked if the Delta Gamma house had to send members home because of the coronavirus. No members of Delta Gamma, including Chapter President Sidney Long, could be reached for comment.
All Kent State sororities were instructed by their national organizations to come up with their own COVID-19 plans. “They are not legally obligated to report to me or the Panhellenic Council about cases,” Sloan said.
Each sorority house operates independent of the council and is expected to follow the plan it developed. All members were told to wear masks and ensure social distancing at all times.
A member of the Phi Mu sorority said house members were all self-quarantining as of Sept. 17. One sister tested positive for the virus and went home to be with her family. House members traveled to multiple locations in Northeast Ohio to get tested and ensure they are not positive for the coronavirus.
Members decided to go to outside testing locations, rather than the university’s DeWeese Health Center, because they wanted to be sure they could get tested that day and were not sure the facility could handle the volume of tests.
In the Phi Mu sorority house on Fraternity Circle, masks are required to be worn inside unless the member is in their room or eating. Roommates can take their masks off when they’re together, but only when they are in their room.
“As someone who is in this community right now, it is scary,” said a Phi Mu sister, who requested anonymity because she is not permitted to speak about internal matters in the sorority.
“My girls don’t even know what’s going on in other houses and we have friends in other sororities, so it is scary. We don’t know their personal decisions, what they are doing on the weekend and everything,” she said.
“All we can do is make sure that we’re OK and I think we’ve been doing a really good job.”
Off-campus parties also continue to take place despite COVID, although with less frequency.
“Compared to normal years, we've seen fewer parties, but we’re certainly seeing more parties than we would have liked to have seen this fall with COVID going on,” said Administrative Lieutenant Michael Lewis of the Kent Police Department.
At these parties, Lewis said many of the party goers are not wearing masks or maintaining a safe social distance.
The Kent Police Department does not break up parties that exceed the 10-person mass gathering limit set by the Ohio Department of Health. Lewis explained it is not a part of their responsibility.
“We don’t respond to parties based on a number of people who are present,” Lewis said. “We are continuing to go by the longstanding rules and laws when it comes to dealing with parties and that’s violations of our unlawful noise ordinance or our nuisance party ordinance.”
Lewis agreed with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s assessment of the case increases and said these are all contributing factors in the rise of positive cases, but that he would not be able to say this with certainty unless there is proper contact tracing.
“I would just ask that students act responsibly; know that there is a much bigger picture involved here,” Lewis said. “This has far reaching effects. It’s not a temporary problem and we want to keep all of our residents and obviously our local economy very healthy.”
CORONAVIRUS NUMBERS RISE
Kent State’s Coronavirus Dashboard shows 25 new cases for the week of Sept. 13, with a total of 94 cases since July 7. The numbers represent outcomes from tests conducted at DeWeese Health Center, along with information self-reported to the university by students, faculty and staff who were tested elsewhere.
“The majority of cases are being driven by activities in off-campus housing, and to a lesser degree Greek housing," DeWine said in his press briefing Sept. 17. “So far in September, 51% of Portage County’s cases are in people younger than 29.”
The average daily case count rose from 5.5 on Aug. 24 to almost 11 on Sept. 4, DeWine said. Kent State classes began Thurs., Aug. 27.
Ohio House Rep. Randi Clites issued a statement that said “nearly three dozen cases” linked to off-campus spread at Kent State contributed to “about one-third of overall county cases in the past two weeks.”
Sara Crawford is the opinions editor. Contact her at email@example.com.
Gina Butkovich, Nathan Mehring and Chris Ramos contributed reporting to this story.
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