When Alyssa Matias stopped her car at the crosswalk at Jefferson and Hoover, she did not expect to see an overpacked Rock and Reilly’s serving students in the middle of the afternoon with no masks in sight. Driving a bit past the bar where crosswalk signs from USC read “United We Stop COVID,” she saw groups of students walking toward USC Village, with many disregarding mask mandates.
Matias, a sophomore majoring in political science, is set to move into her USC Housing assignment in Cowlings and Ilium Residential College this week. But from her experience visiting campus for her on-campus job and driving near the area, she said she has witnessed students disregarding health and safety guidelines during the pandemic.
Between Aug. 15 and Aug. 29, the coronavirus positivity rate among students rose from 3.6% to 27.5%, according to a Student Health update Tuesday. Between Aug. 24 and Aug. 27 alone, 104 students tested positive for COVID-19, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said in a media briefing last Thursday, and case numbers have only risen since then. While some students have shirked the risk and continued to host and attend parties and gatherings around the campus area, others have taken to social media to call out their peers for acting selfish and ignoring safety measures.
Matias has been frustrated seeing some students continue to break public health guidelines when other students and community members are acting in the best interest of their family, friends and everyone around them.
“You can definitely tell when you get on campus who’s taking it seriously and who is not,” Matias said. “But the sad part to me is that this virus disproportionately affects certain groups of people and those people aren’t the ones partying or having gatherings during COVID.”
Origins of community spread
At housing complexes like University Gateway, student gatherings and parties have been taking place since students moved in. In a Reddit post Aug. 16, a gathering with more than 50 residents went viral, with various other pictures and posts shared online of other instances of large social gatherings taking place at the complex. At The Lorenzo Apartments, a “Quarantine Balcony Party” was put together by the property’s management Aug. 21 in which the invitation to residents cited a capacity of 45 people.
Julia McGowan, a sophomore majoring in theatre, witnessed large gatherings of more than 30 residents taking place three times since she moved into Gateway mid-August. As she and her roommate were making their way to the laundry room through Gateway’s outside hallways one day, she said they saw another large gathering where most of the residents were not wearing masks. When McGowan decided to take photos of the students to post on Snapchat, one of them yelled “Take a video, it’ll last longer.”
In an email to residents Aug. 24, Gateway issued mandatory mask wearing in all common areas, including the courtyard, garage, hallways and rooftop decks — a mandate building staff said would be “closely monitored.” Elevators would also be restricted to one household per ride and no more than four people at a time. The email did not say what repercussions residents who don’t comply would face.
Despite the guidance, McGowan said not all students wear masks throughout the complex. Getting on an empty elevator, around eight residents hopped on at the next floor, with only three wearing masks, she said.
“If they’re spreading COVID and they touch a surface, that affects us,” McGowan said. “‘Do what you want to do until it affects me’ — I feel like that’s a philosophy that people stand by but at the end of the day it could affect you way quicker than you realize when you’re in tight living quarters.”
In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Department of Public Safety Chief John Thomas said he has met with management at Gateway regarding the large gatherings taking place and is working with the staff to help the University and the city hold students accountable.
Gateway and the Lorenzo Apartments did not respond to requests for comment.
However, small and large student gatherings have also been taking place in houses off campus, including on 28th Street, which is home to more than 23 fraternity and sorority houses. Over the summer, 45 positive cases of the coronavirus were connected to fraternities at the Row.
Andrew Hulin, a senior in the Iovine and Young Academy, has only hung out with his roommates and friends living in a neighboring apartment on Menlo Avenue since moving back to USC. Through his window, he has regularly seen students play beer pong in their yards or host parties without masks or social distancing.
On Aug. 27, Hulin posted a photo of more than 10 students playing beer pong on a lawn. He said that he took the photo the day before classes began and posted it to call attention to the type of gathering that could lead to a rise in cases.
Many of his peers, Hulin said, have no regard for the community that surrounds USC’s campus. Rather than follow safety guidelines meant to protect everyone, he said they put South Central residents in danger every time they party while still frequenting businesses and restaurants in the area.
“When you just look out at the street and see everyone [on] North Campus throwing these parties just so wild, out in the open,” he said. “It’s just like, I don’t know, it makes you want to shake them, like ‘Why can’t you see how close we are to the rest of L.A.?’”
However, large gatherings are not the only cause of coronavirus spread. In a communitywide email Aug. 24, Van Orman wrote that “every interaction where you share close contact or remove your face covering, can pose a risk to yourself and your friends” including small gatherings. If there is one person at the gathering that has contracted the virus, each participant, especially if in close proximity, is at risk of exposure and spread.
Sophomore Grace Oh, who is majoring in business administration, said she has been exposed to three people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. She said that she would hang out with various small groups of friends and would try to wear a mask most of the time, but ended up socializing directly with at least 13 people beyond her roommates.
“Here’s what I’m going to do going forward … number one, no more hugging people. I’m going to try to make sure most of the time I’m outside,” Oh said. “Just being more mindful about wearing a mask and being proactive about who I’m seeing.”
McGowan, who also attended a small gathering but said she regretted attending as soon as she arrived, said the issue is moreso with students who have continued to participate in large gatherings.
“People will make mistakes,” McGowan said. “It’s more of the fact that the people that have been out there at Gateway have shown no remorse for it … it’s not just like a mistake of ‘OK, we just got back to school, we did something stupid, we’ve learned our lesson, we’re not doing it again’ because it’s continuous and consistent.”
Since the start of the safer-at-home orders from Los Angeles County and California, Cherise Cayetano, who has a weakened immune system, has only left her house when absolutely necessary. Since the start of the pandemic, Cayetano has only visited campus once and hasn’t ventured to USC Village since the start of the semester because she doesn’t want to increase her risk of contracting the virus.
Although she has barely stepped out of her house, Cayetano is frustrated by posts on Twitter and Instagram showing students at large gatherings.
“What do you gain from this? Is it that important that you literally need to be crowding up a safe space for people,” said Cayetano, a senior majoring in law, history and culture. “What do you gain from potentially risking the lives of all the people around you? I genuinely don’t understand.”
Lack of disciplinary action
Before living in her current housing arrangement, Cayetano resided in Parkside Apartments, where she appealed to stay after the University transitioned to online classes in March. Citing to USC Housing her weakened immune system and the fact that her parents were older and at risk of contracting the virus, Cayetano was first denied her request. It was only after another housing representative looked at her file that Cayetano was able to stay. With cases rising among students, Cayetano sees a similar scenario unfolding this semester, with the University asking students to leave their on-campus housing arrangements.
Cayetano continued to face issues with housing over the summer, when the University first announced a hybrid model for classes in June and then pulled back on that plan in July, after Cayetano and many other students had paid rent on their off-campus leases.
“They should have never sent that email to make us think that we were coming back when they didn’t even get the OK from … L.A. County,” Cayetano said. “Students that are out of state, so many low income, first-generation students, there are so many resources that so many people just don’t have, and my worst fear is that USC is just going to say ‘Well, pack it up and go home’ when some people may not even have a home to go back to or the money to get home.”
Rachel Sanchez, a junior majoring in sociology, said she reported a lawn party with more than 20 students to DPS Aug. 22. Officers arrived at the scene, but she said she doesn’t know what happened to the students as a result of breaking safety guidelines. Sanchez, who has also reported infractions online, said she wishes the University would be more transparent about the consequences students are facing.
“It makes me very upset and sad to see [students] not only putting themselves in danger but putting the greater community at risk,” Sanchez said. “USC students who are not from South Central Los Angeles, we are guests in a community, and by breaking social distancing rules, by not wearing masks, by partying, by just being around people who aren’t in your direct social bubble or apartment, house — wherever you live — to me I feel like that’s sending a message to the community that we are occupying that says we don’t actually care about you.”
According to DPS crime logs, 14 parties that have been shut down were classified as “Loud and Raucous Noise,” since Aug. 14, in addition to one noncriminal incident report that cited many people disregarding social distancing protocols. In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Thomas said that although DPS does not have jurisdiction to take action against gatherings occurring inside housing complexes, the city attorney indicated to the department that in cases of “chronic or repetitive” gatherings taking place, students will be held accountable via Section 8.77 and 8.78 of the L.A. administrative code. Property managers may also be cited under this offense.
However, citations against these gatherings have not been issued, Thomas said.
Matias believes that labeling large gatherings and parties as noise complaints acts as a “coverup” to the real reason parties are being shut down. She also said that if the gatherings were being held by Black and Latinx students, DPS officers would not have issues with shutting those parties down or issuing disciplinary action.
“There have been parties pre-COVID where … there would be a party of mostly white students and then across the street there’s a party with mostly Black and Latinx students. Immediately, the party with people of color gets shut down and then the other one is fine,” Matias said. “I feel like there’s a double standard when it comes to shutting down COVID gatherings too. I can’t help [but] think that if there were these gatherings with minority students, they would also be shut down and, those consequences that the University is talking about, I feel as though they would be actually practiced because we haven’t seen any of that so far.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said a handful of students who hosted parties have been threatened with the potential loss of TrojanCheck, their pass to enter campus, or suspension, but students are in the process of appealing the disciplinary actions.
While a committee that includes the Office of Student Affairs and DPS has been formed to determine action against students, Crisp said it’s impossible to punish every student who attends a party. The group’s main goal, he said, is to enforce safety guidelines and warn students who gather in groups and don’t social distance or wear masks.
“I don’t want to give people the impression that somehow we either have the capability or the ability to chase down every student who goes to a party, even if they know they’re not supposed to, and bring discipline against them,” Crisp said. “We’re not trying to set up or create sort of a, a Big Brother or sort of a, you know, type of environment, but we need people to take the public health emergency very seriously. ”
Still, if the committee determines the hosts of a party or a residence is found to consistently host gatherings, Crisp said students can be held accountable, and members of the committee will continue to meet with landlords, property owners and USC Village restaurants and stores to ensure standards are communicated.
Crisp emphasized that contact tracing efforts from Student Health are separate from his committee’s efforts to warn and discipline consistent rulebreakers. While Student Health and the committee may look into the same incident, he said Student Health officials will never share details like names or causes of outbreaks with Student Affairs when doing contact tracing. Still, Crisp said if the source of a cluster is found to be a party, the committee may try to find the hosts to meet with them and discuss rules and standards.
“I do want to be crystal clear that the information that they collect in response to symptomology outbreaks, clustering … is not shared with and is not used in any kind of disciplinary process and it won’t be,” Crisp said. “Now let me be clear, if in the process of that we found out that is a cluster and all of the people in the cluster appeared, and we can trace it back and it appears to be able to be traced back to a party, we may be trying to talk to the folks who hosted that party about where did this come from and so on and so forth so that we can ensure that we don’t have repeated instances.”
Andrew Kinoshita, a junior majoring in health and human sciences, said he believes the disciplinary action outlined in USC’s emails has kept students from participating in Student Health’s contact tracing program out of fear of suspension or expulsion. He outlined that USC should enlist a cohesive message to encourage students to get tested without fear of repercussions.
“I do empathize with the fact that a lot of students who are following instructions would like to see the students punished,” Kinoshita said. “But the issue is that for those of us who are actually in the neighborhood, as much as it seems fair to punish the students who are breaking these guidelines, they’re going to be breaking the guidelines regardless of whether they’re punished or not. The only thing we can hope for at this point is that contact tracing works so that the students in the neighborhood who are following instruction are warned in time.”
Matias believes there should be a specific outline of University procedures that will be taken when students break safety guidelines, so they understand the consequences of their actions. Considering that the virus disproportionately affects marginalized people and South Central predominantly comprises Black and Indigenous people and people of color, she said USC should be more adamant about reprimanding students who break social distancing mandates to protect the community in which they reside.
South Central endangered
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inequities in health care have placed racial and ethinic minority groups at an increased risk of contracting and dying from the virus. In a study conducted by National Public Radio of data collected by 48 states and Washington D.C., 50% of cases and 90% of deaths have been from communities of color.
Considering DPS’s presence in the neighborhood that surrounds USC, Matias also said the same action should be issued to prevent student parties.
“USC has the authority [to take disciplinary action] because they’ve never been afraid to express that authority, especially with DPS,” Matias said. “In the past, DPS hasn’t been afraid to question people that actually live in the neighborhood or express their authority onto patrons of the neighborhood. I don’t feel like [USC] should be shy during this time when this type of authority is needed. I feel like now more than ever, they should be using their authority for good and that’s breaking up parties, reporting these parties as gatherings, endangerments to the community because that’s what they really are.”
Cayetano, whose home is near campus where her mother resides, said the University should expel students who can be identified in photos engaging in gatherings to ensure the safety of students who are following social distancing guidelines and to the surrounding South Central community.
“There’s always this running gag that USC actually stands for the ‘University of South Central,’ and I think USC needs to realize that because that’s where it is,” Cayetano said. “I think it needs to start giving its money back to the community that it gates itself from, especially since it’s already taken so much.”
Cayetano illustrated that common spaces shared by both South Central residents and students, such as grocery stores, could pose health risks to the multigenerational families in the area due to the increased community spread among students housed off campus.
“So many people are afraid to go to the store in their own backyard,” Cayetano said. “Say there’s someone who says ‘OK, I’ll take one for the team and I’ll run to Ralphs or Trader Joe’s for us.’ But then they touch the wrong things, they forget to wash their hands, next thing you know the whole family has COVID. It doesn’t make sense in my head that people can’t visualize these things happening or these things that have happened. It baffles me, this complete disregard of life that people have for others.”
Cayetano said USC should also be providing resources to South Central residents, such as free coronavirus testing, especially if it continues to take limited action against students endangering the community.
Cayetano, who was initially questioned by friends for not leaving her apartment in March and who now can’t imagine entering a public space without wearing a mask, said she is baffled by predominantly white, privileged students who continue to disregard the severity of the pandemic. Although these students, if they ever contracted the virus after engaging in social gatherings, will be able to pay for treatment — with hospitalization for uninsured patients at an average of $73,300 according to FAIR Health — low income students cannot risk it, she said.
“If you can’t understand the gravity of the situation, stay at home,” Cayetano said. “Because what’s the point of you risking someone else’s life all for your ignorance. So many people complain, ‘What do we do then, I just want to be able to eat out again.’ OK, so do I, but I’d rather us all stay calm and we ride this wave together so it’s over, and then we can all be back to as normal as possible.”
Twesha Dikshit, Andrea Klick, Ana Mata and Natalie Oganesyan contributed to this report.