Risk of COVID-19 puts no stop to gatherings amidst bars reopening

AJ’s Ultra Lounge during reopening weekend.

Kylee Haueter

Despite the risk of COVID-19 and Iowa State’s social gathering policy, students flocked to parties and bars over the weekend.

Crowds of mask-less students made their way down Welch Avenue to reach the bars while even more gathered in apartment buildings and houses. 

One student who wished to remain anonymous said they attended both parties and bars over the weekend. 

The bars they visited were minimally attended with room for social distancing, but masks were not enforced. They also said the more popular bars on Welch Avenue were packed with no room for social distancing as well as no mask enforcement. 

The student said the house parties they attended were packed.

“It’s definitely some cognitive dissonance,” the student said about why they made the decision to go out. “I understand the risks associated with going out. I wear my mask whenever I go to class, the grocery store, everywhere it’s required.”

The individual also mentioned this is their senior year, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, going to parties and bars was normal for them and their friends.

“I guess it’s easy in the moment to put [the risks] aside for what you — for the social benefit, for being able to see people, to experience college and all of that,” they said.

The student also spoke about their mental health and the toll being alone can have on young people.

“With all this social distancing and everything, it gets really lonely sometimes,” they said. “Just not being able to see your friends … every opportunity to meet new people has been taken away from you, so when you do have these opportunities to go out and socialize, it seems worth it, even in light of the pandemic going on. It’s like you’re able to rationalize the risk.”

The student said they understand that going out and seeing friends is not the smart thing to do and that the logical thing would be to stay in with a small group of friends and social distance.

“I know it’s not rational … but it’s a lot easier said than done, and I think something that really isn’t considered is just how lonely it gets when you’re not able to see people,” they said.

This weekend was the first weekend the bars have been open since Aug. 27, when Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered the bars to close in six Iowa counties in an effort to combat high coronavirus numbers in the state. 

After record highs, numbers around the state dropped for a short time before they began to rise statewide. 

Around campus, Iowa State has contained its cases, reporting 54 cases during the seventh week of classes and a positivity rate of less than 5 percent for four continuous weeks. 

As a response to “801 day,” President Wendy Wintersteen issued a social gathering policy stating that all gatherings must abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including face masks and social distancing. 

Students caught violating this policy are subject to discipline in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct.

This semester, 14 students have been suspended for breaking the policy. Sara Kellogg, assistant dean of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct, spoke about the process of enforcing the policy.

ISU Police Department is not able to enforce the policy off-campus due to jurisdiction issues, so Iowa State works heavily with Ames Police Department to receive reports of misconduct.

“They’ll let us know about incidents they encounter, but they’re not citing for — the social gathering policy isn’t law, so they’re not making citations for those types of things,” Kellogg said.

ISU PD Police Chief Michael Newton also spoke about their partnership with Ames Police and jurisdiction issues.

“Anything off campus, we would refer to the Ames Police Department,” Newton said. “That’s their jurisdiction. They have responsibility for anything that’s within the city. Sometimes they will ask us to assist them, and if they ask us to assist them, we will respond in those cases.”

Newton also said that if they see a large gathering or party, they will reach out to Ames Police.

He explained that ISU PD has full state authority, but off campus, that authority only extends to issues regarding the law.

“We can make traffic stops anywhere in the city, we can contact anyone in the city, but the houses and stuff are [Ames Police’s] primary jurisdiction,” Newton said. “… We can enforce policies as long as they’re on-campus. So if a large gathering happens in a residence hall or residence hall room, then we would have authority to enforce that policy. But when it gets off campus and it’s not a state law violation, it gets a little bit trickier.”

Ames Police Commander Jason Tuttle said when the department responds to a call about a party, they look for actual laws being broken since they cannot enforce school policy.

“We’re going to be looking for any type of litter in the front yard, parking violations, underage drinkers, a party that’s out of control, damaged property, people flowing into someone else’s yard,” Tuttle said. “Oftentimes, if we pull up and there’s underage people, they take off running, which can be an indicator for us. … Our goal is to try and identify the hosts of the party and talk to them and figure out what’s going on, then go from there.” 

Tuttle said Ames Police also tries to use education as opposed to enforcement.

“So if we get there and the party is a small gathering, maybe a little loud, we’re likely going to use education to tell them what the noise ordinance is, what the nuisance party ordinance is and ask for compliance moving forward,” Tuttle said. “Now, if we get called back there for the same call the next night, they’re potentially going to get a citation.” 

Tuttle said that issuance of citations also depends on other factors, such as the size of the party and how cooperative the hosts of the party are. 

“We try to evaluate all those things before issuing a citation,” Tuttle said. “Again, the ultimate goal is to have a safe gathering that’s not violating the law.”

He also said that for the most part, the individuals hosting the parties that the police are called to have been cooperative, though they have needed to issue a few citations. This information is shared with Iowa State so they can move forward with appropriate action if necessary.

“In the end, we want our students to have a safe — we want them to live in a safe community where they follow the laws that we have set in place, the ordinances we have set in place,” Tuttle said.

He also said that if students are hosting a small party and random individuals come, hosts can call the department to help with sending people home.

“We’re generally not going to come down hard on them if they’re asking for assistance,” Tuttle said. “We just ask the students to abide by our nuisance party and city ordinances but also the guidelines the governor has in place with social distancing and masks too, with our city ordinance as well.”

According to Ames Police records, the number of disturbance, peace and quiet (DP and Q) and nuisance party calls and infractions have been up. 

From Aug. 1, 2019, to Oct. 5, 2019, the department received 226 DP and Q calls and issued six nuisance party infractions. 

From Aug. 1, 2020, to Oct. 5, 2020, they received 357 DP and Q calls and issued 19 nuisance party infractions. 

Kellogg said once her office receives a report, they need to investigate to make sure they have enough information to move forward. The office will also typically only receive the names of the party hosts, as the police department focuses on locating those individuals.

“We’ll do what we can when we get the information and make a decision about how to move forward with what we have, but sometimes we don’t have very much to go by,” Kellogg said.

On some college campuses around the country, significant COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks have come from greek life due to massive bid days, events and the stereotypical “frat parties.”

At Iowa State, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“I’ve seen the fraternities and sororities do a great job this year of trying really hard to not be that trigger point for large parties and events and gatherings,” Newton said. “I know that weekly — every other week — they’re having lots of great conversations with our Dean of Students Office. They want to do the right thing, they don’t want to spread this because they want to be here on campus like many other students.”

Newton and Kellogg both said that while the occasional party does happen within the sorority and fraternity community, the community as a whole has done an exceptional job of creating and abiding by safety measures.

While Iowa State’s positive coronavirus cases were down for the fourth consecutive week, numbers may soon rise slightly with the opening and lack of enforcement in bars. Data is continuing to be updated on the COVID-19 dashboard.