As positive COVID-19 cases have risen on college campuses nation-wide since the start of the school year, some college towns have responded with city ordinances and mandates designed to curb coronavirus spread. These restrictions, intended for students, have also impacted residents of the towns.
Tensions came to a head in Brookings, home to South Dakota State University, at a council meeting on Sept. 2. The council was going to vote on extending Emergency Ordinance 20-010, which outlined safety measures and requirements for the Brookings’ community.
In response, over 200 residents attended the meeting in opposition to the restrictions, arguing that the ordinance infringed on personal rights and would further harm businesses that are struggling to survive the pandemic. Many residents also spoke in favor of the ordinance, citing safety concerns.
The Brookings City Council also amended the ordinance at its Sept. 8 meeting. The ordinance now requires individuals to wear face coverings in indoor businesses and indoor public places unless social distancing of six feet is maintained. The ordinance also limits businesses to a maximum of 10 customers or half of their capacity, whichever is greater. This applies to bars, restaurants, casinos, grocery stores and gyms.
The ordinance, which is similar to other restrictions established in college towns across the country, will be in effect for 60 days after Sept. 8.
Universities should reevaluate COVID-19 policies to assist communities with safety concerns
Government restrictions intended to minimize the spread of COVID-19 are a contentious issue, to say the least. Over 200 residents of Brookings, SD attended a city council meeting this month, largely unmasked, to oppose restrictions that the council was considering in response to the recent increase in case numbers. Many residents gave unfactual claims about comorbidity and made comparisons to the flu — others resorted to vague assertions about constitutional freedoms.
However, one does not need to resort to faulty science, slippery slope arguments or Facebook anecdotes to argue against COVID-19 restrictions in college towns. There is a strong argument to be made that, beyond mask mandates, city governments should not take responsibility for controlling outbreaks due to colleges. Instead, university officials should adjust their policies and messaging to encourage students to stay on-campus. If this method does not work, then students should go home.
Dealing with COVID-19 creates an array of challenges for college administrators. Some solutions, like on-campus mask mandates and limits on groups are easier to enact. Many schools have responded to infractions by taking strict action to enforce their policies, even suspending students for minor infractions of COVID-19 policies. Some institutions, like Northeastern University in Boston have gone so far as to suspend students without fully reimbursing tuition. Actions like these are unsustainable, hard to enforce and potentially expose institutions to civil suits. However, many schools feel the need to maximize their authority in order to curb the virus—that means strict limitations on campus.
The chief issue, however, is off-campus behavior, which is much harder for administrators to control. A school can enact widespread efforts to control students’ behavior on campus, but there is little that they can do once students have left. As a result, some institutions have pressured local governments to impose mandates on gatherings in businesses and private residencies. These controversial ordinances are hard to enforce and burdensome for small businesses, which continue to suffer as a result of the pandemic (South Dakota restaurants lost up to $90 million in revenue as a result of the pandemic according to the National Restaurant Association).
The main problem with city-wide limitations on gatherings is that they fail to address the heart of the issue. What administrators advocating for city-wide restrictions fail to grasp is the powerful resolve of thousands of young adults who have endured months of social deprivation. These students, many weary from an uneventful summer spent in their parents’ house, will inevitably seek in-person socialization. Strict on-campus guidelines push them off-campus and into the surrounding communities. Freshmen, for example, may struggle to make friends within the first week and drive home over the weekend. Other students, feeling constrained on-campus, may resort to meeting elsewhere, increasing their chances of spreading the coronavirus within the community. Strict enforcement of campus guidelines seems necessary in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, it may not be entirely effective.
There is an alternative to the strict enforcement of broad standards. If campuses shifted their messaging to emphasize small, responsible gatherings on campus, then students would be less likely to leave campus. Schools often list the many things that students can not do—gather in large groups, take off their masks or stand close to each other. But by allowing, or even encouraging, students to spend time with a specific, small group of friends in a less-distanced format, students would be much less inclined to go off-campus. This change, although small, could have a huge impact on not only the amount of students going off-campus, but also students’ quality of life on distanced campuses.
A university may evaluate their situation and determine that loosening restrictions on campus would not offset community spread. A school with a high percentage of students in Greek life, a campus in a large city or a large amount of vulnerable faculty may find that it is still creating excessive risk for its community. These universities should seriously consider having their students quarantine, return home and go online. A university’s duties go beyond educating their students — it is also responsible for serving the community it is located in. Students deserve a chance to satisfy their social needs in a way that respects health care workers, waiters, elderly people and people with immunodeficiencies. Universities should give them that opportunity. However, if a significant portion of the student body chooses not to act respectfully, then they should go home. It is not the responsibility of residents to sacrifice their way of life for the college students temporarily living in their community, but it is the responsibility of students to respect the towns they choose to live in.
Ordinances from college towns restrict, harm struggling businesses amid pandemic
According to an article in the Alcohol Rehab Guide, “College Alcoholism,” roughly 80% of students consume alcohol to some degree. With this statistic, some college towns with large student populations are mandating that liquor stores restrict business hours to maintain a better environment for students. Asking businesses to restrict their own hours is a bit on the extreme side.
Restricting one’s business to only a few hours a day can negatively affect profits and customers. Those lost profits help owners pay bills, employees receive paychecks and inventory remains stocked. A society can’t “punish” a group of people and expect everyone to
listen. Adults who are over the age of 21 are affected by this because they are being restricted on buying alcohol legally. Students rely on stores that are open late to pick up stuff for the weekend or to get together with friends. With closures, those students will have to go out of their way, putting their business elsewhere.
They also want to restrict hours to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Public safety is important so the pandemic can end sooner, but it’s costly to cut out half a workday. If a business decides to cut hours for safety precautions, it can make the choice to close an hour earlier or maybe open up later, instead of closing at 5 p.m. when most working adults are done for the day.
This action is on the unjust side. The United States is composed of freedoms and choices. For elected officials to control when stores or companies can be open for business or closed, losing profits along the way, is unfair to people who could be making ends meet at their job. If businesses are slow during hours, employees could be sent home early, losing a few extra hours in their paycheck. Everyone is affected by this, and it does not come out positive.
I do understand that this restriction is trying to prevent underage drinking and stop the
spread of COVID-19. Instead of punishing a whole town for the actions of students, they should make resources available for others to get help if they could be struggling with an addiction. Also, store clerks should be identifying a customer’s I.D. and able to conclude what is fake or real. If they aren’t reliable to check or do a “slide-by” they shouldn’t be employed.
There are healthier and safer ways to decrease underage drinking and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Restricting a business and customers who are legally able to shop should not also be pooled into the trouble that others may cause.
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