An eerie, remarkable scene unfolded across the University of Colorado Boulder’s grassy Norlin Quad on Wednesday: It was a beautiful autumn afternoon with nobody around to enjoy it.
Boulder’s student-dominated spaces looked like a museum to the city’s pre-pandemic self — empty academic buildings and deserted University Hill sidewalks relics to a time when COVID-19 had not altered life in this quintessential college town in nearly every conceivable way.
A gorgeous day on the campus of yore would have yielded slacklines taut with the weight of intrepid youth, flying Frisbees, scholars cracking textbooks beneath shade trees, and friends meeting to plan the weekend’s escapades. On Wednesday, there was nary a human in sight aside from a rare masked student and occasional patrols by university and local police.
“Walking around, it’s like a ghost town,” freshman Ethan Fantl said.
Following a surge in coronavirus infections tied to the university community, the Boulder campus shifted classes online for a minimum of two weeks, beginning Sept. 23. The next day, Boulder County Public Health ordered a two-week ban on gatherings of 18-to-22-year-olds in Boulder, and put more than three dozen properties — largely Greek houses — under a stay-at-home order.
On a visit to Boulder one week into these measures, the CU community remained the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the state with more than 1,500 confirmed cases, though new infections among those in their late teens and early 20s are now trending downward, according to state and local public health data. CU leaders have attributed that progress to an earlier intervention: the recommendation that all students living in Boulder self-quarantine.
Nevertheless, infections among all other age groups continued to rise this week, with local health authorities sounding the alarm that Boulder County was in the state’s “red zone” for new cases — something that could trigger more aggressive restrictions to stop the virus’ spread.
“A culture of fear”
Fantl, 19, was heartened by the dropping numbers among CU students, but said he thinks the university will have a tougher time healing its reputation in light of the past few turbulent months.
“For a lot of students, the fear of getting sick is there, but there’s not a whole lot of knowledge about what it will do to someone who is young. Some people think it’s just like a cold,” Fantl said. “But in terms of the punitive measures students could face for breaking public health rules, everyone is really terrified of that, even more so than getting sick. We’re living in a culture of fear.”
Violating the county’s public health order is a misdemeanor subject to criminal and civil penalties and fines, said Shannon Aulabaugh, spokeswoman for the city of Boulder. A violator would receive a summons to appear in Boulder Municipal Court with penalties including up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Students also could be reported to CU for violating the student code of conduct, which could result in exclusion from campus, suspension of expulsion.
Rumors swirled around campus about friends of friends getting fined thousands of dollars for going outside or being hounded by local police. In reality, the city has issued five citations since the order went into affect, Aulabaugh said.
CU Boulder has investigated almost 500 instances of students violating public health orders on and off campus since classes began at the end of August, resulting in three students being suspended through the end of the fall semester and 27 more who are suspended at least through the final adjudication of their conduct hearings.
Fantl hightailed it out of Boulder to his family’s home in Parker once the stricter measures were enforced because he said there was little else young adults could do other than sit in their rooms.
“Life in the dorms is pretty dismal right now,” Fantl said. “There’s not a lot of support. It’s pretty depressing.”
The university is offering a bevy of virtual events and 24/7 mental health support through Counseling and Psychiatric Services.
“While our campus supports the county’s public health order, we are also concerned about the impacts it will have on our students,” Chancellor Phil DiStefano wrote in a letter to students and employees. “To support all of our students during this time, we will be providing additional care, flexibility and resources for your emotional, physical and academic needs.”
“Shocking and unnerving and unsettling”
Still, local gyms weren’t allowing entry to 18-to-22-year-olds. Restaurants asked callers inquiring about reservations whether they were a part of the banished age group before scheduling. A sign stuck outside the Sundown Saloon, a Pearl Street dive bar beloved by the college crowd, read “unfortunately and until further notice per Boulder County: No entry under 23.”
Mark Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink, said he believes Boulder residents — even those outside the targeted age group — are avoiding the student-centric University Hill neighborhood, where the beloved restaurant and a slew of other local businesses reside because they’re afraid of contracting the virus.
Additionally, big-business drivers like alumni events and football games are all paused because of the pandemic.
“It’s incredibly odd to have it be so empty,” Heinritz said. “Christmas Day, campus probably looks a lot like it does right now, but that’s one day a year, not every day for a sustained period of time. Everything is shocking and unnerving and unsettling and uncertain and that hasn’t stopped. Conditions have not improved. It’s not over. We could have another year of this left, so how do we get through another year?”
Heinritz said his restaurant has a large outdoor seating area and has been following all public health rules and best practices, including encouraging to-go orders. But, even so, they’re running on 40% to 50% of the sales they normally have. “That doesn’t pay the bills,” he said.
A walk around the Hill, a neighborhood flush with cohabitating college students and Greek houses, was quiet Wednesday aside from occasional music drifting out of open windows, and hushed chatter and suspicious glances from pairs of students seeking fresh air on their porches. Several houses featured self-ascribed names etched on their brick exteriors — some lighthearted, while others like “The Hospital” and “ICU” reflected the surreal reality many were experiencing.
Back on campus, graduate student Caroline Butcher, 30, said she felt like she was in a warped version of “Harry Potter” as she gingerly flipped through an enormous tome encased in a protective red box while sitting on the deserted quad. She’d requested the book from Norlin Library for her research on racism in the dance industry and, due to contactless delivery in light of COVID-19, did not realize its girth until arrival.
The book, a volume of theater magazines, was published in 1918 — one of the last times the campus was closed for an extended period of time, in response to the 1918 flu pandemic.
Back then, Boulder ordered a city-wide quarantine, according to an article in the university’s Arts and Sciences magazine. The university shut down. Nearly 650 Boulder residents were sickened and 119 died, the article said. Infected students were quarantined in fraternity houses turned into makeshift hospitals.
A masked Butcher studied next to masked peer Anna Pillot, 33, airing her irritation with having her visions of graduate school quashed.
“Choosing to come back for an MFA after working professionally for years and to have everything threatened by fraternities and sororities — it’s frustrating,” Butcher said.
(In an op-ed published Thursday in the Daily Camera, Chi Psi Boulder fraternity president Conor Bates-Janigo slammed the “neglect and complete lack of protocol and guidance” from university and public health leaders, saying he’d been left “moonlighting as a quasi-public health official/enforcer for over a month” with little direction. Bates-Janigo’s fraternity is one of 38 properties under a stay-at-home mandate for repeatedly violating public health orders or having a significant number of cases.)
Pillot, who had just exited quarantine after testing negative twice after exposure to someone with the virus, said the weirdness of living in a college town during COVID wasn’t even her most pressing worry.
“I still feel an anxiety hangover from the presidential debate last night,” Pillot said. “I’m stressed about the future of this country. I’m stressed about everything. What a time.”
“Back to normal next year?”
Making the most of the fall weather, Katie Morton sat outside her Baker Hall dorm among skittering autumn leaves, watching the end of her freshman philosophy class on her laptop.
The 19-year-old Wisconsinite said she tries to avoid her dim dorm room as much as possible, choosing to spend her days alone outside in the sunshine.
She gets anxious when she sees police stationed around campus or roaming her dorm hallways even though she’s doing her best to follow all the rules.
“It’s definitely a little strange that they’re everywhere you turn,” Morton said of the police, who have increased patrols of student-populated areas to enforce public health rules. “It feels like they’re just looking to bust you.”
Even as a fellow student Morton had been around significantly sat in COVID isolation Wednesday, Morton said she still hoped to stick out the semester and stay as long as possible.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking to think: Will we be back to normal next year?” Morton said. “How long will it last? A lot of norms have changed. You hear about plagues happening a long time ago and think, ‘Oh, that could never happen to us.’ Now, we’re all living through history.”