Students’ parties off campus have endangered local residents, neighbors say

Media Credit: File Photo by Grace Hromin | Assistant Photo Editor

Foggy Bottom residents said they feel angered and worried about off-campus students granting COVID-19 a foothold in the community by violating mask requirements and holding gatherings.

Scott Wayne’s wooden fence may divide his yard from the weekly beer pong matches next door, but he isn’t so sure it can protect him from the spread of COVID-19.

Sitting by his backyard water fountain feet away from his neighbors, Wayne said he often hears music blasting and shouting resonating from just beyond the wooden fence, where at least five GW seniors have been living since June. He said students have congregated weekly at the residence, and he doesn’t anticipate it ending anytime soon.

Wayne is one of six Foggy Bottom residents who said they’ve observed students regularly throwing parties despite the pandemic, prompting a slew of complaints from neighbors. Foggy Bottom leaders said they’ve received between 10 to 20 complaints from community members about social distancing violations in recent months, while University officials said they’ve sent warning letters to more than 120 students in the area as neighbors try dodging potential spreaders of the coronavirus.

As the parties continue, Wayne – who lives beside two residences housing students he believes violate COVID-19 regulations – said he’s concerned the shouting from a yard over could potentially spread the virus.

“COVID spreads very easily when you are speaking loudly, yelling, hollering, and it’s only a wooden fence that separates us from two yards,” Wayne said. “And we don’t feel that that’s much of a barrier to protect against COVID.”

Wayne said he and his wife have filed at least three complaints with the GW Police Department and the Division for Student Affairs, but officials have either not responded or assured them they’re communicating with the students causing neighborhood concerns. He said administrators should find additional ways to influence students to take the pandemic seriously and acknowledge its threat to the neighborhood.

Officials announced earlier this month that a recent increase in COVID-19 cases on campus was linked to a “trend” of off-campus gatherings. Delta Tau Delta shuttered its off-campus house last month after several members tested positive for the virus following an off-campus party.

“GW has that responsibility to constantly communicate this message with the students, and I don’t know what they’re doing to do that,” Wayne said. “I’ve got to imagine something’s being done, but whatever it is, it’s not getting through to these guys.”

Christy Anthony, the director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, said officials have received 26 off-campus community incident reports since the start of August, and “nearly all” students listed in a report have received a warning. More than 120 off-campus students or student organizations have received warning letters that remind them of COVID-19 restrictions, and 34 students have received “more elevated” conduct outcomes, she said at a Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting Wednesday.

Anthony said officials take community complaints seriously, but she added that the majority of students’ behavior off campus has been more compliant than that of students at other universities during the pandemic. She said officials have received “few” reports of students gathering in groups of more than 10 people, which Mayor Muriel Bowser has prohibited.

“We are pleased to say that GW students seem to be overwhelmingly complying with COVID behavioral restrictions,” Anthony said in an email. “Compared to many other institutions around the U.S., we have received few reports of gatherings that are only slightly over the gathering restriction of 10 people.”

Anthony said local residents can file complaints about students violating social distancing guidelines through the Office of Student Conduct’s website, where officials review reports and determine whether to charge students with a violation and send them a warning.

Foggy Bottom Association President Marina Streznewski said she’s received complaints from six or seven neighbors and is aware of 15 to 20 cases of students violating social distancing guidelines near campus. She said local residents who’ve alerted her of social distancing violations said they’ve seen parties and gatherings where students don’t wear masks and fail to distance themselves from one another.

Streznewski said residents are “very nervous” about the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, as weekly parties have distressed a neighborhood dominated by elderly residents who are considered at high risk for infection.

“We have a lot of folks in this neighborhood who are elderly, and the people who are older, as you get older you’re just more likely to have comorbidities, and so we have people who are really scared,” she said.

Streznewski said residents have either filed complaints with the University or called the police to respond to apparent social gatherings that violate distancing guidelines after noise levels get too high. She said Metropolitan Police Department officers have responded to multiple incidents of parties, large gatherings and noise complaints, but they’ve avoided arresting or fining students.

Streznewski said she doesn’t think much else can be done to encourage students to follow distancing guidelines, adding that most college students may feel naturally “bulletproof.”

“There’s not going to be fines,” Streznewski said. “There’s not going to be arrests or anything like that. It’s going to be the police showing up and saying, ‘Come on, put on your masks, try to be responsible,’ et cetera, et cetera.”

Bowser’s mask order states individuals who fail to abide by social distancing guidelines can be fined up to $1,000, but MPD spokesperson Alaina Gertz said officers are trying to avoid fines. She said their main priority in responding to COVID-19-related complaints is “voluntary compliance,” in which students will abide by city guidelines without disciplinary action.

Christina Farnsworth, a yearslong resident who suffers from metastatic breast cancer, said she’d probably die from COVID-19 if she’s infected before a vaccine is distributed. She hopes officers start fining students so those who are risking the spread of COVID-19 behave more cautiously during the pandemic.

“I’ve had cancer, and I am very vulnerable right now,” Farnsworth said. “I’ve got a crappy immune system, I’m in the vulnerable age range – so multiple risk factors. So I’m trying to be very careful, so it angers me that other people aren’t. It’s terrible.”

Anastasia Conley, Cleo Hudson and Jonas Pearce contributed reporting.

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