With students — and covid-19 — on campuses, college towns look on warily

Then in August, the biggest school in town reopened — the University of Georgia. Coronavirus cases exploded among the 39,000 students, temporarily turning Athens-Clarke County into one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots and, in the view of many residents and local leaders, recklessly endangering the community.

Campus outbreaks have fueled tensions in college towns and cities across the country, from San Diego to Morgantown, W.Va., even though there is little evidence so far of spillover into local populations.

In many ways, these dynamics reflect enduring town-and-gown friction, characterized in recent decades by clashes over student behavior and land use by universities. But never before have the conflicts played out amid a global pandemic that is forcing colleges and local governments to balance life-or-death matters of community health against the financial solvency of higher-education institutions that may be their towns’ biggest economic engines.

“We’ve begun to feel like a colony of the university with the degree to which we’ve been ignored and even blamed for the covid outbreak,” said Russell Edwards, a member of the Athens-Clarke County Commission, who described the result as “a huge fracture in the town-and-gown relationship.”

In some communities, local governments and schools have presented a united front, but increases in cases have stirred resentment among residents and triggered student-directed crackdowns by public health officials. In others, elected officials and university administrators have publicly traded blame and sparred over strategy.

The discord may be especially thorny in towns that are home to land-grant universities such as Georgia and the University of Wisconsin, which view themselves as having a responsibility to the entire state, not just the locality where they sit, said Stephen Gavazzi, an Ohio State University professor who wrote a book about town-gown relations.

“It’s unprecedented in terms of the public health implications,” Gavazzi said of the present moment. “There are so many competing influences here.”

Although driven by students, campus outbreaks in most jurisdictions are added to city or county coronavirus data, sometimes upending metrics that dictate timelines for reopening businesses or resuming high school sports. The deeper concern, government officials and residents say, is that college students do not live in bubbles and might seed community transmission with outings to bars, gyms or supermarkets.

“You drive through downtown Madison, you’re driving through campus,” said Joe Parisi, county executive in surrounding Dane County. He has urged the University of Wisconsin to send infected students home, rejecting criticism from public health experts who say that would spread the virus more widely.

“Implicit in that statement is it’s okay for them to stay here and infect our community,” Parisi said. “I think there’s a way to do it carefully.”

University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank has rebuffed Parisi’s calls and asked the county to do more to stop off-campus gatherings. UW last month paused all in-person instruction for two weeks and says it has increased testing and contact tracing. Coronavirus cases linked to the campus, which total about 3,000, have slowed in recent weeks, though they still represented 65 percent of new cases in Dane County in the two-week period ending Sept. 21.

‘A matter of life and death’

The extent to which college outbreaks are bleeding into their wider communities is unclear. A recent study, not yet peer-reviewed, found that two weeks after schools opened for in-person instruction, coronavirus cases increased in counties that are home to colleges. But the researchers did not evaluate the extent to which infections on campuses seeded the surrounding community.

The public health department in Madison says it has no clear evidence of spillover of cases from UW. Joe Gerald, a University of Arizona researcher who tracks the coronavirus in Arizona, said it is too early to detect spread from campus outbreaks in the state, but it may be that the overlap between students and locals is minimal enough to prevent that.

But many public health officials view it as likely that thousands of new cases in young adults — who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are playing a significant role in spreading the virus — will radiate beyond campuses if given the chance.

In a bid to prevent that in East Lansing, Mich., Ingham County Health Officer Linda S. Vail last month placed 39 large group houses near Michigan State University under mandatory quarantine. Although the university moved most classes online shortly before school started, thousands of students had already come to town, causing a surge that Vail described as a “crisis situation” that seemed “bound to spread out.”

The University of Arizona has partnered with Tucson and Pima County to break up student parties and issue a 14-day shelter-in-place recommendation on and near campus to curb an outbreak. It was lifted Tuesday after cases declined, but Tucson City Council Member Steve Kozachik, whose ward encompasses the campus and surrounding area, said his many high-risk and elderly constituents remain resentful about the students living among them. Kozachik, who has organized pop-up testing at student high-rises, wants to see regular testing of all enrolled students.

One of his constituents is Diana Lett, 65, vice president of Feldman’s Neighborhood Association adjacent to campus. She bought her house in 1986, when most properties nearby were owner-occupied; now nearly 80 percent are rentals, she said. Even during the pandemic, nights are filled with the din of student parties, she said.

Lett has asthma and so badly wants to stay clear of college students that last month she made an extreme decision: When she learned the house next door was being sold, she bought it in cash, using half her retirement savings, to prevent it from being turned into a rental.

“Did I want to take on a second home? No. I regard it as a matter of life and death,” Lett said. “The university chose to flood our community with people who are spreading covid, and I’m furious about it.”

Football and angst

In Athens, University of Georgia students returned to smaller classes, some of which are being held online, and a campus mask requirement. Still, coronavirus cases skyrocketed: More than 3,300 students and faculty have tested positive, making up more than three-fifths of the county’s total.

Critics say the university needs to do more contact tracing, wastewater analysis and surveillance testing of students; the school conducts up to 500 surveillance tests daily, compared with 1,500 at Georgia Tech. University of Georgia officials say cases and test positivity have dropped dramatically as of late, but because the university has not always reported total tests and provides only weekly updates, there’s suspicion about the numbers, said W. David Bradford, a public policy professor.

“We can’t get the basic statistics we need,” Bradford said.

Local officials were taken aback when UGA President Jere W. Morehead told a reporter the problem was off-campus bars and parties that are the city’s responsibility and “beyond my control.” City leaders, including the mayor, shot back that a statewide order stunts their ability to further limit gatherings and allows businesses to opt out of mask mandates, and they noted that the city had been sued by bars after trying to impose a 10 p.m. closing time. They urged Morehead to use his influence with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to allow more restrictions.

University spokesman Greg Trevor said in a statement that the school is optimistic the decline in cases will continue. The university president was not available for an interview, said Trevor, who flagged a recent university Q&A with Morehead, which did not mention relations with the town.

“The question for higher education is not, do we remain open or do we close? Rather, the question is, in my view, how do we learn to carry out our mission as safely as possible while mitigating the spread and impact of the virus? We cannot shut our doors when the world needs us most,” Morehead said in the Q&A. But, he added, “COVID-19 remains a serious threat to our community. … We must redouble our efforts to ensure the downward trend continues. ”

That is little comfort to Adrianne Freeman, an attorney and UGA alum who wrote a letter to university officials urging them to “consider the impact of your decisions on our small town.” Freeman was hopeful her first-grader, who has Down syndrome, might be able to return this fall to school, where she receives special services. Instead, the girl now “mostly stares at the screen” for 15-minute virtual speech therapy, she said.

“UGA students are all going to school, and meanwhile my 6-year-old and her cohort have to learn on Zoom,” Freeman said.

Even with students back, foot traffic feels lighter in Athens these days. But there’s enough that Shakti Power Yoga, about a mile northwest of campus, was able to resume classes in mid-August. Owner Ruby Chandler, 28, said clients have been assiduous about masks and distance, and she’s grateful to be back in the serene studio. But she doesn’t thank the university for that.

“As a local, I think there’s a little bit of a feeling that the university gets to be here and there are people who are residents who make that work,” she said.

This week, Athens, a city known for graceful antebellum architecture, was gearing up for another source of hometown pride: the Bulldogs football team. The team is playing Auburn University on Saturday evening in a 93,000-seat stadium capped at 25 percent capacity to allow social distancing.

That will be a boon for local businesses, which were hit hard by the pandemic, said Athens Chamber of Commerce President David Bradley. The chamber estimates full-capacity home games bring $25 million to $35 million to the local economy over a weekend, he said.

“If we didn’t have football, it would yet again be a very difficult time for the folks who are employing Athenians,” he said.

But the game is sowing angst for other Athens residents, said Tim Denson, a county commissioner. The university has acknowledged that fans will descend from far and wide, and while it says tailgating is prohibited, it is allowing fans to “gather near their vehicle” with their traveling party on campus parking lots.

“I heard from a woman who lives in my district, she’s immune-compromised, and she can’t understand why it should be allowed to have tens of thousands of people come into our city when the health situation is so dire that she can’t go to the grocery store,” Denson said.

Jason Butt in Athens, Ga., contributed to this report.

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