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COVID-19 cases rise in spots as students return to college, parties

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Mehdi Mohammad Ali remembers the excitement of being a freshman at the University of Michigan five years ago: a new chapter in his life was beginning, and he wanted to meet new friends.

People walk along South University Avenue in Ann Arbor, Mich on Aug. 28, 2020.

But Mohammad Ali had mixed feelings when he walked around UM's campus last weekend amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He saw students gathered outside, some partying without masks or social distancing. It was a scene he has seen repeatedly as students returned for fall semester classes.

"It’s kind of concerning,” said Mohammad Ali, a UM alum who is now working but still living in the heart of campus. "I can empathize with them, but at the same time, I know you need to be a bit more cautious right now."

Students at most Michigan public universities began classes this week, and even though schools have spent months preparing for a safe return amid the pandemic, what's happening off campus is causing heightened concern.

The parties were inevitable, some say.

They started happening at schools where students returned to campuses earlier than most, such as the University of South Carolina, which began Aug. 20 and now has more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19. All but nine positive cases are students.

In Michigan, Central Michigan University now has 260 cases traced to the Aug. 17 return of students, including people living in and around the community, according to the Central Michigan District Health Department that serves six mid-Michigan counties.

At Adrian College, the number of cases reached 152, which includes 138 cases that are active, the Lenawee County Health Department reported Thursday.  

On Monday, President Jeffrey Docking said in a video message that the private school conducted more than 2,300 tests on campus during a two-week period. Positive cases included those who were asymptomatic or with mild symptoms. None had to go to the hospital.

Docking said food service would be changed to takeout to avoid large gatherings in the dining hall, and discouraged students from leaving campus.

"We want to continue to encourage you to limit large gatherings," he said. "This is the biggest concern that we have. Students need to stay in small groups so we control the spread of this virus."

People hang out on a porch in Ann Arbor, Mich on Aug. 28, 2020.

On UM’s campus last weekend, students congregated in small gatherings outside. A line was out the door at The Brown Jug, the 84-year-old restaurant beloved by students. People were sitting outside at Good Time Charley's, another Ann Arbor institution that hails itself as "the place to be" for students and faculty.

Many students declined to speak to The Detroit News. The few who did said they feel optimistic that their peers will follow the rules so UM doesn’t have to reverse its plans for online and in-person classes.

Susan Kaain, a sophomore from Nevada, said she has been staying close to her room in the apartment where she lives, so she hasn't noticed how others have been following safety measures on campus.

But she was optimistic about the future on campus even though there have been a few COVID-19 cases.

People wait in line along South University Avenue in Ann Arbor, Mich on Aug. 28, 2020.

"I think we are going to be all right," said Kaain. "I think we are going to be here for awhile."

Nicholas Smith, a freshman from Milford, is living in Mary Markley Hall, a UM residence hall, and said things had been going well so far.

"People are handling it well," he said, "and the vast majority of students are following the guidelines and listening to the rules. Students know from other colleges closing how easy it is to get sent home, and they very much do not want to get sent home."

Even so, some are skeptical: Ann Arbor officials enacted an emergency ordinance as students were heading back to campus, limiting gatherings and requiring masks.

CMU, like other schools, warned students that they face fines, suspension or a campus shutdown if students don’t stop attending large gatherings.

At Wayne State University, President M. Roy Wilson sent a letter to students, asking them to behave.

At Western Michigan University, the student newspaper published an editorial urging the administration to move all classes online.

“As universities and colleges across the country open for in-person instruction, it has become clear that no plan can accommodate the recklessness of college students," the Western Herald said in the Aug. 26 editorial. "Students will go to parties. Students will break social distancing both on and off campus. Students will spread COVID-19.” 

Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease professor at Wayne State, said getting the younger generation to embrace safe behaviors is tough.

"We can control what students do on campus," she said. "But when they are off campus, we cannot control that. These social gatherings are very good examples of how we are spreading the virus, and how the transmission can happen.

People walk past Cantina Taqueria + Bar along South University Avenue in Ann Arbor, Mich on Aug. 28, 2020.

Right now, students tend to gather outside, which is less risky. But once the weather changes and it's too cold to be outside all the time, Chopra doesn't expect schools to be able to continue in-person instruction.

"We are going to be in a different situation," she said. "I don’t think the schools and colleges in the midst of winter will be able to remain open very long. It is impossible for younger kids to comply with 100% masking, and not be within 6 feet of one another."

But Smith, the hopeful freshman, disagreed.

"I have faith," he said.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com