COVID Is So Crazy at the University of Washington They’re Keeping Sorority Sisters in the Basement

After setting off one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks on a college campus this summer, members of University of Washington Greek life swore they had learned their lesson. Chapter leaders cut the number of residents in each house by half, moved rush week online, and put a moratorium on all social events for the fall semester. In an email to the Greek community July 3, according to the Daily UW, Interfraternity Council President Erik Johnson predicted that the outbreak had reached its peak.

But just this week, as students returned to classes for the fall, the university announced a whopping 212 new coronavirus cases among fraternity and sorority members, accounting for more than a third of all cases on the university’s Seattle campus.

Multiple Greek life members, who asked to be anonymous for fear of retaliation, told The Daily Beast they were scrambling to control the outbreak, quarantining members in their basements and blocking off stalls in shared bathrooms—even as some members continued to socialize.

“I don’t think people learned their lesson from the summer,” one sorority member said. “I think they just see it as a way to say they’re immune and continue to go out.”

Approximately 2,000 students are living in the university’s towering Greek mansions this fall, down from about 3,400 in years past. When the school tested more than 1,250 of those members upon moving in, they found just four cases of the virus. But by the time classes started Sept. 30, the Interfraternity Council had reported 88 cases across eight different organizations, according to the Daily UW. By the next day, there were more than 100.

Geoffrey Gottlieb, medical director for the schools environmental health and safety department, issued a message last week urging anyone who had been in contact with Greek life members to get tested immediately.

“The UW Greek community is experiencing a significant outbreak of COVID-19 cases spread across multiple fraternity and sorority houses, associated ‘live-outs’ and individual members,” he wrote in the Oct. 2 message, warning that case counts had “increased rapidly over the last several days.”

One sorority member told The Daily Beast she received a phone call in late September letting her know that three of her sisters had tested positive during routine screening. By the end of that day, the house of approximately 40 women had nine cases. By Monday, they had 21.

“There’s not many healthy girls left, if we’re honest,” the sorority member said.

“At this point it’s like, all of the girls who are in the house are sick, so it’s not as big of a deal,” she added. “They’re just staying in the house and focusing on getting better.”

Still, the sorority is doing its best to protect the remaining uninfected members. Because the number of residents was cut in half, there is enough space in the house to give each woman her own room. But that still leaves the problem of shared bathroom and laundry facilities. To get around this, the sorority has blocked off certain bathroom stalls to be used only by infected women, and instituted separate showering shifts for infected and uninfected members. The same applies to laundry facilities, which are cleaned in between shifts.

A member of another sorority with multiple cases said her organization was quarantining positive members in the chapter house basement. Healthy or recovered members deliver them meals downstairs, and they are granted occasional “breath of air” breaks to go outside.

The sorority member said her chapter had worked with the health department over the summer to formulate a safety plan, and felt like her sisters were taking it seriously. And she pushed back on the focus on the Greek community, saying such outbreaks were to be expected in any large, communal living situation.

“We’re dealing with an uphill battle that can’t really be contained by us,” the sorority member said. “All we can do is do our best to limit the spread.”

“It just feels out of our hands, honestly,” she added. “…It’s just so many unknowns — you’re trying to err on the side of caution without substantial information.”

The university’s first Greek Row outbreak occurred in June, infecting 154 of the 1,100 students living in fraternity houses over the summer. The outbreak resulted in no serious cases, but raised questions about how the school would handle an influx of students in the fall. (It was amid this outbreak that the university announced a “hybrid model” for classes, in which some would be taught online and others in person.)

In the aftermath, the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic—the governing bodies of fraternities and sororities on campus—banned all social events for the rest of the year. Recruitment week, which usually brings hundreds of students in and out of the Greek Row houses, was moved entirely online. Many chapters even moved their internal events, such as chapter, to a remote setting.

But the students who spoke to The Daily Beast said members found ways to congregate anyway. One sorority member said her house had traced their outbreak to two sophomores who met up with men at a “live-out”—a non-official house for members of a specific fraternity. Another fraternity brother admitted to recently hosting “at least” 30 people in his live-out.

Current orders from the state health department require anyone living in congregate housing to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing in all common spaces. While some sorority members said their chapters had gotten better about this in recent days, copious social media posts show this was not always the case. (The fraternity brother said that at his chapter house, “once you’re inside, you’re basically mask-free.”) The directive also limits gatherings with more than five people outside your household unit per week—a limit that was obviously not being followed at some houses.

In an Oct. 6 letter to chapter leaders, the university warned of possible consequences for violating local health orders, including suspension, dismissal, a notice to chapter house landlords. Other universities have already suspended dozens of students and entire chapters for violating public health rules, and police at nearby Washington State University have even started issuing fines to party-goers.

But so far, the UW has yet to sanction a single student. In an email to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson said the school preferred to take a “more positive and collaborative approach” to the situation. Neither IFC nor Panhellenic, the bodies charged with policing their own members’ conduct, have sanctioned any chapter or individual for violating their highly touted new rules. (As one sorority member put it: “IFC knows stuff is definitely going on. They just have to say that because it’s their job.”)

Several sorority members said their chapters had recently started cracking down on members who violated the rules. One said the chapter had re-written their housing contract over the summer to make residents promise to follow all pandemic-related guidelines. Another said they had issued a new, stricter set of standards after the recent outbreak started. Johnson, the IFC president, told a local news station that fraternity members were spending a lot of time in their rooms, wearing masks in common areas and sanitizing any commons surfaces they touched.

But another fraternity member said he doubted that case counts would dwindle substantially without serious changes.

“A lot of people have the mindset that, ‘I’m a healthy young person and I’m only seeing other relatively healthy young people, what can go wrong?’” he said.

“Unless this scare really actually gets to people, I don’t really think that it’s gonna get better very soon.”

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