UM under stay-home order, attributes spike to social gatherings

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Washtenaw County is experiencing a rapidly growing number of COVID-19 cases, and leaders at the University of Michigan warned many of them can be traced back to maskless social gatherings around the Ann Arbor campus.

In response to the surge of cases in the county, the Washtenaw County Health Department on Tuesday issued a two-week, stay-at-home emergency order. The edict is immediate and runs through 7 a.m. Nov. 3.

UM President Mark Schlissel, along with Provost Susan Collins and Vice President for Student Life Martino Harmon, held a virtual meeting and posted a message Tuesday about the order, saying it's preventative because coronavirus cases among 18- to 24-year-olds have not led to increased hospitalizations or death rates.

"The order addresses social gatherings, which have been identified as the main cause of recent COVID-19 spread on campus, in the surrounding community and the broader region," their message said. "Most of the cases on our campus can be traced back to small- and medium-size gatherings without appropriate face coverings and social distancing."

The stay-at-home order specifically does not include Michigan athletics. Michigan football plays at Minnesota on Saturday, and at home against Michigan State on Halloween. All Big Ten players are tested daily.

But the order will require undergraduate students to remain in their residences, unless they are going to in-person classes, getting food or doing work that cannot be done remotely.

The county has reported 4,301 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday. More than 600 confirmed and probable cases had been reported in the county since Oct. 12, and 61%  — or 366 cases — are connected to UM students living on or off-campus, many in congregate or group settings. 

University of Michigan student Teuta Zeneli is waiting to hear from her professor whether her French class will move online in the wake of Tuesday's order.

Zeneli, a junior from Plymouth, has been staying close to her off-campus apartment as she continues her work in international studies and French. But she has heard fellow students partying nearby every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night since classes resumed in August.

That's why she wasn't surprised by Tuesday's stay-home order, which covers about 31,000 undergraduates on UM's Ann Arbor campus. But she is disappointed.

"I fully believe it was the university’s incompetence that got us to this point," said Zeneli, 20. "All the plans to have a safe environment were not enforced at all. It doesn't seem like there was much done to enforce people not throwing parties."

Violators of the order are subject to misdemeanor penalties under the public health code, said Susan Ringler Cerniglia, public health information officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department.

"Compliance is our goal, and hopefully things won’t escalate to that point," Ringler Cerniglia said.

It was not clear if Ann Arbor police would enforce the order, which went to the department's legal counsel, said Sgt. Mark Pulford.

A stay-in-place order is different from a quarantine in that it allows official and essential activities, such as going to work or voting in the presidential election, when using COVID-19 prevention measures including mask-wearing and social distancing. Students may return to their homes if they have completed the university's procedures for leaving campus safely.

A person walks down State Street at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on April 15, 2020.  Most of Ann Arbor has much less pedestrian traffic due the coronavirus threat.

"The situation locally has become critical, and this order is necessary to reverse the current increase in cases,” said Jimena Loveluck, health officer for Washtenaw County. “We must continue to do what we can to minimize the impact on the broader community and to ensure we have the public health capacity to fully investigate cases and prevent additional spread of illness.”

UM officials say the university will take steps so students have choices, including adjusting some undergraduate courses to make them fully remote.

About 80% of UM's undergraduate credit hours are being delivered remotely. The change to make classes more online to reduce the spread of COVID will push the university's remote delivery to about 90%, according to UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. 

“The university has been working closely with the health department all along in response to the pandemic and supports this decision to issue this stay-at-home order,” said Robert Ernst, executive director of UM’s University Health Service and associate vice president for student life. “This action is intended to reduce the strain on our capacities for contact tracing and quarantine and isolation housing.

"Many individuals and off-campus residences are cooperating fully, and we hope this additional guidance on limiting social activities reverses the trend of increased cases related to social gatherings.”

The order comes days after UM told residents of Mary Markley Hall to not attend in-person classes and observe enhanced social distancing practices for 14 days to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Markley Hall is near Nichols Arboretum and houses mostly first-year students.

The order also comes as positive cases continue to climb at UM, according to the university's dashboard of COVID cases.

During the week of Oct. 11, the number of COVID-19 positive cases reached 301, the highest since the university began posting numbers on March 8. The number includes testing done by UM, as well as outside testing.

UM began to report COVID clusters when students returned to campus and began classes on Aug. 31. 

Some faculty were dismayed by the administration's response to the pandemic, leading to a strike by the graduate student instructors' union and others around campus, along with a vote of no confidence in Schlissel by the faculty senate.

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents graduate student instructors and lecturers at UM, criticized the university's handling of the pandemic in a tweet Tuesday.

"This is what happens when higher education institutions put their financial needs above the safety needs of the community," Randi Weingarten wrote on Twitter.

In a statement, Graduate Employees’ Organization 3550, which launched the graduate student instructors' strike, also slammed UM for its response to the pandemic.

"This stay-in-place order supports what students, faculty, and staff have been saying since May: that the plans that were developed and then implemented were not enough to avoid a crisis on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus," the union said.

The increase in COVID-19 cases at UM comes in tandem with a growing number of cases across the state and nation.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,586 new COVID-19 cases and 22 more deaths, bringing the state's total COVID cases to 149,392 and total deaths to 7,053.

Staff Writer Tony Paul contributed.