Apartment gatherings, parties spark health concerns among students

Media Credit: File Photo by Kate Carpenter | Staff Photographer

At the Ave, residents say they have seen gatherings of people noncompliant with the District's restrictions on group sizes and wearing masks.

After leaving a party in an apartment at the Residences on the Avenue one night in August, a student shouted into senior Madison Rose Watters’ home.

The student yelled “Snitch! Snitch!” as she walked by Watters’ door. The senior and her two roommates, who both deal with underlying health conditions, had filed a complaint about the students hosting the party to the Avenue’s front desk staff earlier that month after they saw the nearby apartment hold three consecutive nights of “loud gatherings” with more than 10 people in their room despite the pandemic.

Watters is one of half a dozen students living in Foggy Bottom who said student parties during the pandemic have become a weekly occasion near campus, opening the nearby community of residents, students and employees to a greater risk of COVID-19 infection. Students said parties during the pandemic have centered around the Avenue, Elise Apartments, 2400 M and the I Street townhouses, where fraternity homes are located.

“The privilege is so clear to be like, ‘Oh, well, I’m still a college student. I’m still going to party and have fun and go out, even though it could put me and others at risk,’ and they’re just not thinking of other people,” Watters said. “It’s frustrating. It’s clear that they don’t care about their neighbors.”

Watters said the Avenue’s rooftop pool lounge, which has restricted capacity to 10 people during the pandemic, has also become a popular attraction for students to gather.

She cited one occasion when up to 20 people congregated on the rooftop without masks, half of whom were in a single group and many of whom didn’t live in the building. Watters said several students had to ask their friends who lived in the Avenue to give them access to the building because the elevators are locked by residential tap access.

Watters’ roommate Esther, who declined to provide their last name, said they experience Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which could carry an autoimmune component. They said they’ve seen groups of up to eight students sitting without masks in the hallway outside their room.

Esther, who’s employed by the University, said one of their coworkers has tested positive for COVID-19 after having close contact with someone on campus.

“A lot of people our age aren’t familiar enough with chronic diseases or health concerns to really understand that there are people our age who have those things, and it is up to everyone to protect them,” they said. “And it just is very disheartening to see people so careless with other people’s health.”

Esther said the Avenue has levied “almost no enforcement” against social distancing violations, adding that staff threatened to terminate tenants’ leases for posting political signs on their windows but has failed to do the same for COVID-19-related reasons. They said they complained to the Avenue’s staff about social distancing violations, but the students across the hall only received an email.

University spokesperson Crystal Nosal said officials have received “some” reports of students breaching social distancing guidelines in the Avenue, 2400 M and the I Street townhouses during the pandemic and have launched investigations into each case, but she declined to specify the number of cases from those buildings. She said the Office of Community and Government Relations has “regularly” met with building managers to discuss officials’ recommendations for students to safely distance themselves during the pandemic.

Local residents said last month that students’ parties during the pandemic have raised concerns about community safety, as more than 120 students received warning letters or “more elevated” conduct outcomes from administrators.

Nosal said officials consider “removal outcomes” through a University Hearing Board process if they receive credible reports of large parties during the pandemic. Since The Hatchet reported last month that 26 cases had been filed so far this semester, officials have received seven additional community incident reports, she said.

COVID-19 cases near campus have also bubbled this month, as 23 students living both on and off campus tested positive on Nov. 4 – the highest single-day total so far for students living around Foggy Bottom.

Amanda Castel, a professor of epidemiology, said the spike in cases is “likely” tied to large gatherings during Halloween and the election in addition to a rise in cases across the D.C. area and the country.

“Now more than ever we are encouraging people to continue adhering to safety precautions for COVID-19 such as wearing masks, social distancing and gathering in small groups when necessary, and preferably outdoors,” Castel said in an email. “GW students should follow these same recommendations to help get us through this next phase of the pandemic.”

A student, who lives on campus and requested anonymity due to another student’s privacy concerns, said “practically everyone” she knows who lives off campus has attended a party with social distancing violations during the pandemic. She said the Avenue, the Elise and off-campus fraternity houses have become the most common sites for parties, which she said have occurred every week since she moved to campus in August.

She said her friends have been invited to several of these parties, one of which drew more than 20 students who did not wear masks.

Representatives for the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Association did not return requests for comment.

She said one student, who’s part of Greek life and faces her own health concerns, submitted a list to campus authorities of about 30 people who she saw violating guidelines. She said she’s received emails from officials who’ve stated they’ve already removed multiple students from on-campus housing for not complying with COVID-19 guidelines.

“It’s just blatant ignorance at this point because everyone knows how much people have died in our country and what’s going on with everything,” she said. “If anything, it’s selfish.”

She added that students with pre-existing disciplinary violations have been academically suspended for two weeks before removal from residence halls on campus. Officials relaxed their on-campus visitor restrictions last week, now allowing students one guest in their room from the same building for the remainder of the fall semester.

Senior Chloe Levine said she’s also seen students partying near the I Street townhouses two or three times a week since she moved into her apartment in August. She said the trend of parties violating distancing guidelines have become so common that there are “too many to count,” as evidenced by parties in off-campus townhouses and social media posts on Halloween with 15 to 20 people in view.

With the sounds of music resonating through her apartment’s window from parties that often last until 2 a.m., Levine said students need to understand the danger tied to the spread of COVID-19, especially in a city where the virus has disproportionately targeted minority and low-income neighborhoods.

“They want life to go back to normal and I get that, but it just isn’t, and we all have made that sacrifice,” she said. “But I’m pretty sure dying is a lot worse than not being able to party for nine months.”

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