On the Queen’s University campus, students wear masks, observe physical distancing and talk about the importance of containing COVID-19. But come Friday night, the nearby student neighbourhood buzzes with a different atmosphere.
Music thumps from open windows. Students dance indoors without masks or spill from doorways out onto the lawn. A beer pong ball skips into a plastic cup and a young woman drains its contents to the sound of cheers.
In the flashing lights of a police cruiser, a woman bursts into tears as an officer confiscates her drink and explains the fine for open alcohol. Two men stand in the bed of a pickup truck unloading case after case of beer. A man relieves himself on the side of a house. A bylaw officer interrupts a noisy party to issue a warning.
It’s not Hogarth’s Gin Lane, or even the wild homecoming parties of years past. But in the midst of a pandemic, this beery bacchanal and large gatherings in other university towns are raising fears of a second wave, prompting the university, the city and local public health officials to ponder how best to respond.
Queen’s, like many Canadian universities, has moved most of its teaching online. Its residences are at about 40-per-cent capacity. That means slightly fewer than 2,000 students living on campus, and about 4,300 (normally it would be 25,000) have some type of on-campus instruction.
But thousands of students studying online have returned to shared houses and apartments in the predominantly student-populated area near campus.
For many, life in a university town is what attracted them to Queen’s and Kingston in the first place. They want the energy and the atmosphere of campus, and its social life, even if it’s diminished by the pandemic.
Amy Laughlin, a third-year student, lives in a house with six others. She came back because she had already signed a lease before the pandemic and she likes being surrounded by friends, she said.
“I personally don’t go to parties. Move-in week there were some, for sure, but I try to be responsible. If we could keep the virus cases down that would be best for everyone,” Ms. Laughlin said.
Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases at Queen’s medical school, said the return of postsecondary students is probably the single biggest threat to cities like Kingston with significant student populations. In recent weeks, new COVID-19 cases across Ontario have been concentrated among the young. Although they are at relatively low-risk of serious illness themselves, they can spread the disease to more vulnerable populations.
Dr. Evans said the university’s efforts to persuade students to behave differently this year have been ineffective.
“They’re walking in the streets, there’s no masks on and there’s no physical distancing going on,” Dr. Evans said. “Queen’s in general has brought back a bit more [students] than I would have suggested.”
Although many of the gatherings may appear risky from a public-health perspective, they may not break provincial COVID-19 regulations. At the moment, gatherings of up to 50 people indoors and up to 100 people outdoors are permitted. The local health authority asks that residents have a social circle of up to 10 people, that they maintain physical distancing and mask indoors with a handful of exceptions, and that people arriving from outside Canada self-isolate. But city and public-health officials have turned to local nuisance bylaws on noise and alcohol to crack down on parties.
Last week, Queen’s professor Jeff Masuda issued an open letter to university administrators complaining of drunken students partying in groups, treating the neighbourhood “like a giant outdoor bar,” and acting with a sense of “herd impunity.”
“There were at least 100 students on my block last night and the previous two nights, likely co-ordinating with 10 times that many on other streets, moving, mixing, spreading. The multiplier effect is hard to fathom,” Prof. Masuda wrote.
It’s not only Kingston where these issues have flared up. In Waterloo, Ont., more than 100 people attended a party in the university district last week, according to police. In Nova Scotia, four students were fined for not observing isolation rules. And outbreaks have been declared at a Quebec CEGEP and at Western University in London, where five students tested positive on the weekend.
Queen’s principal Patrick Deane said he’s disappointed with the actions of some students, although the large majority have adhered to public-health guidelines. On the one hand it’s positive that so many are attracted to the campus and have returned to Kingston, he said. But irresponsible behaviour that threatens public health has to be dealt with.
“There is a growing concern with student parties,” he said. “There is a persistent, relatively small, group that is presenting challenges to the city.”
On Wednesday, in response to a request from public-health officials, Dr. Deane issued a statement saying that students who fail to comply with provincial health regulations and are identified as a public safety risk will be referred for possible discipline under the student code of conduct, which includes sanctions up to expulsion.
Queen’s has sent teams door to door in the student district with welcome packages featuring COVID-19 information. It also has an extensive social-media campaign to encourage good behaviour. On campus, visitors are banned from residence, masks are required in common areas and large gatherings are prohibited. But in the broader community, which has had relatively few COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, enforcement falls to the city and public health.
“We’ve had some issues with the university age group, I’ll be upfront with you, with congregating, parties and the pier,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Medical Officer of Health in the Kingston area. Last week the Gord Downie Pier near campus was shut down by authorities after it became too crowded to maintain physical distancing.
“It’s really the off-campus [living] which is an issue. We have to work together with Queen’s to ensure that group adheres to our best practices and prevention strategies,” Dr. Moore said.
On Friday night, police cars and bylaw officers were a visible presence in the student district. They were enforcing bylaws around noise complaints and alcohol laws. Mayor Bryan Paterson said they’re targeting “high-risk nuisance behaviour” to ensure situations don’t spin out of control. As of last Friday the city had responded to more than 250 noise complaints in the university district, issued 69 fines for noise violations, nuisance parties and failing to comply with an emergency order, as well as issuing 22 charges for Liquor Licence Act offences. This week the city increased fines for nuisance and emergency measures violations from $500 to $2,000.
Oliver Flis, president of the residence society, said the atmosphere among the 1,900 students actually living on campus has been respectful of the rules and cautious about the dangers of COVID-19. Most of the issues residence dons have encountered involved reminding people to stay masked in common areas.
“It’s about keeping the community safe. I think most students get it,” Mr. Flis said.
Last week there was only one case identified in the student population in Kingston, according to Dr. Moore, and that student was isolated and posed no risk to the public.
Although there have been few cases so far, the key point will be in three to four weeks, Dr. Evans said. That’s right around the time that many students traditionally have gone home to their families in other parts of Ontario and Quebec for Thanksgiving, he added.
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