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Pandemic-era parties led to lots of warnings, and a handful of stiffer sanctions

The city and JMU police departments were tasked with enforcing mass-gathering restrictions intended to limit the spread of Covid-19 – a big ask in a college town . File photo by Randi B. Hagi.

By Jake Conley, contributor

Daniel Cindea was standing on the deck of his friend’s townhouse in mid-March, sipping out of a Smirnoff Ice “Smash” can and talking to friends about whatever people talk about at parties. Others, all JMU students like Cindea, were smoking cigarettes, drinking similar drinks and laughing.

The house was a common gathering place for the JMU senior and his circle, but on this night more people had shown up than expected — about 75 or so, which was more than what was allowed by the city’s emergency order on gatherings and far more than what JMU permitted during the pandemic. 

Around 11 p.m., the trap music coming from inside cut off abruptly. Police officers had knocked on the front door. The officers, Cindea said, made short order of getting everyone not living in the house or hiding away in a bedroom to leave immediately. 

Cindea said he and others had figured that at some point the party might get busted for having too many people. Over the last year, 891 people faced repercussions from the city or the university as a result of the pandemic-related limits on gatherings. Some were cited or received court summonses by Harrisonburg police. Others faced university discipline. But despite those actions, students still gathered and people still partied. 

The Harrisonburg City Council approved an ordinance capping social gathering limits at 50 people at its Aug. 11, 2020, meeting, just as JMU students were preparing to return to town. 

The measure — Emergency Ordinance 15-7-3 — came after a series of state executive orders from Gov. Ralph Northam, but this was the first local restriction on gatherings in Harrisonburg. JMU also announced in late July 2020 its requirement that all students sign a “Stop the Spread” agreement in order to enroll in classes that, among other things, stipulated that they would not be part of a gathering with more than 10 people. The agreement covered both on- and off-campus areas.

In a city of about 54,000 people, JMU’s share of the population sits at approximately 21,000. And seeking to limit students from socializing in large numbers — telling them, effectively, that they can’t party — was always going to be a big ask, as university officials acknowledged. 

“I recognize that these are not easy things to do, but you are doing it, and history will remember you as part of the solution to beating this virus,” Tim Miller, JMU’s vice president for student affairs, wrote in a March 31, 2020, letter to students.

Miller told students he was sorry the pandemic would curtail that part of the college social scene, but partying in large groups “is the worst thing you can do.” He described mass gatherings as “reckless, selfish and detrimental to the efforts of millions of people who are being responsible and staying home.”

But many Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at off-campus houses during the 2020-21 academic year looked and sounded a lot like the pre-pandemic era. Snapchat and Instagram stories filled nightly with images and videos of 20-somethings crowded into balconies, living rooms and porches; in their hands were red Solo cups full of cheap vodka, warm beer or “juice” mixed together by the amateur bartender on duty that night. 

How did the enforcement work? 

The city’s emergency order gave the Harrisonburg Police Department legal grounds to arrest, fine or issue court summonses to individuals found to be hosting or participating in gatherings of more than 50 people.

Once students returned to Harrisonburg last August, police were fielding reports of mass gathering violations “several times a week,” Lt. Phillip Read said. Officers responded to 135 calls for service for gathering violations from Aug. 13, 2020, to May 16, 2021, according to police data provided in response to a request by The Citizen. That works out to be more than three call responses per week. Those numbers don’t include calls regarding violations of the city’s noise ordinance. 

Meanwhile, the “Stop the Spread” agreement students signed gave the JMU police department the ability to enforce the 10-person limit. The jurisdiction for JMU police extends into the city, including off university property. 

JMU police responded to 49 calls regarding mass gatherings or noise violations — the university lumped the two together — in spring 2021. JMU did not itemize mass gathering calls before January 2021. While JMU police could enforce the city limit, the JMU officers also reported violators to the university’s Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP), which is the judicial arm that conducts hearings and can dole out punishment. 

Lots of people in a crowded space meant head counting often became a task that could quickly lead to the guesswork it was supposed to avoid. If the crowd’s size was “questionable, 50 or 60 people,” Read said, the responding officers would give a warning, again on the grounds of “Don’t make us come back.” Even when the crowd clearly did exceed the limit, in Read’s experience, a warning was still often the first step. “99% of the time,” Read said, people complied. Most of the time, if a quick headcount didn’t turn up a number egregiously over 50, Read said, the responding officers would give out a warning and leave it there. 

For instance, at that 75-plus-person party in March where Cindea was standing on the deck, sipping his Smirnoff Ice “Smash,” when the police knocked on the door to shut it down, the officers said the party needed to be shut down for the night and everyone needed to leave the house, essentially giving a warning. In short order following, Cindea said, everyone who didn’t live at the residence made their way out.

Either JMU police or city police can respond to calls anywhere in the city. According to information from Mary-Hope Vass, JMU spokesperson and director of communications, “JMUPD has the authority to assist other law enforcement agencies if needed throughout the city” — including enforcement of the city’s 50-person gathering cap. The JMU police actually maintain a group of three to five officers explicitly assigned to patrol off-campus areas known to be student housing hubs.

Because JMU police had the added charge of enforcing the university’s 10-person limit, Read said that if the Harrisonburg police responded to an event with less than 50 people but the individuals weren’t cooperating and the officers got the impression that those involved were JMU students, they would call the JMU police department to come out as well and deal with any potential university policy violations.

The university told The Citizen that the JMU police department reported students involved in hosting a social gathering to OSARP when the officers “made a criminal charge” for a violation of the city’s emergency order. Additionally, the JMU officers forwarded all tips they received through the LiveSafe app to OSARP

Since his arrival in 2018, Miller’s been semi-regularly going on ride-alongs with the Harrisonburg police and fire departments because, as Miller told The Citizen, he “felt it was important to understand all aspects of the JMU student experience and not just what I see on campus during the workday.”

In the 2020-21 school year, that involved breaking up parties under the various regulations put in place by the city and the university to combat the spread of COVID-19. The experience of shutting down a party, Miller said, was different every time. Sometimes an officer would drive by the house and flash their lights, and the partygoers would get the message. Sometimes, though, shutting the event down required a walk up to the front door. 

In step with what Read, the Harrisonburg police lieutenant, described, Miller said the conversations he saw were respectful, and the revelers seemed inclined to listen to law enforcement and shut the party down without fuss.

Nearly 900 students were subject to disciplinary proceedings at JMU last year due to violations of COVID-19 policies, including but not limited to hosting large parties. File photo.

What were the consequences? 

In total, 884 students appeared before OSARP last academic year as a result of violating the university’s COVID-19 policies.  Students were most commonly brought before OSARP for not wearing a mask where required, exceeding room limits in residence halls, not physically distancing when required and for gathering in numbers of 10 or more, according to the university.

The university characterized violations of the 10-person gathering limit in the “Stop the Spread” agreement into two categories: gatherings of 11-49 people, and “larger gatherings” of 50-plus people. According to university data, those “larger” 50-plus gatherings made up 5.5% of COVID-related violations. OSARP didn’t track the number of violations for 11-49 person gatherings, so the university was unable to provide the total percentage of “Stop the Spread” agreement violations related to social gatherings.

Out of 884 students who faced OSARP for COVID-related issues, JMU’s judicial body found 826 responsible for those violations, resulting in 21 suspensions.  About two thirds of those numbers are attributed to the fall semester. The 21 suspensions, according to the university, were all directly related to “larger gathering” violations involving 50 or more people.

Other sanctions included disciplinary probation or being assigned to educational programs or Restorative Practices programs, according to the university. Miller hit on that point in a March 11, 2021, email reminding them of the pandemic-related restrictions. 

“If you choose to host or attend social gatherings with more than 10 people, to not use the LiveSafe App, to not wear a face covering, to not participate in surveillance testing, or to not practice physical distancing, you are choosing to accept consequences for those actions,” Miller said in the message. The LiveSafe App is an application university students, faculty and staff can use to register COVID-related complaints and had to use to sign in with their health status before coming to campus. 

Only seven individuals faced arrests or summons because of violations of the city mass gathering emergency order, according to Harrisonburg police data. All of those occurred between Sept. 4-Nov. 1, 2020. 

Despite the “Stop the Spread” agreements and police dropping by parties — and even disciplinary action or arrests — Cindea said many students weren’t deterred from getting together even in big parties. Cindea was still on that balcony, at that party with 75 others — and it was just one party out of many that Harrisonburg saw last year. College students still congregated in throngs on the porches and in the living rooms of houses where Friday nights meant a floor covered in a film of spilled liquor and sweat.

“The rules weren’t going to stop people from partying, you just can’t,” Cindea said. “It’s just what you want to do.”

But Miller, the JMU vice president, told The Citizen that the policies made a difference. 

“We had smaller numbers of incidents as the year went on and in general it helped the virus not spread later in the Fall and Spring semesters,” he said in an email response. “The thing to remember is that this wasn’t an anti-party mindset or approach but an ‘anti-spreading approach’ for the virus.” 

Parties, he added, were ripe for spreading the virus.

What lessons were learned? 

One of the most buzzed about floutings of JMU’s mass-gathering limits came at the end of the 2020-21 academic year as seniors prepared to graduate. 

Miller sent out an email May 7 aimed at warning soon-to-be graduates to celebrate the end of the year “responsibly” — and to remind them the COVID-era restrictions remained in place. 

“There have been reports of large gatherings taking place off campus the past few nights with JMU students telling officers that there can be no consequences for them,” he wrote in the message that went to all students. “This is untrue, even for graduating seniors.” 

He pointed out that JMU can still sanction students until the Registrar verifies their academic records, which occurs after students walk across the graduation stage. 

But a video the @barstooljmu Instagram account posted the night of Miller’s email and another similar one posted to the same account the next night show hundreds of students packed together like the “standing room only” section of a concert — a woman crowd-surfs atop one of the gatherings. In another, the students all sing the refrain of the 1969 Steam hit, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” in response to police officers who showed up at the scene.

“That email was super effective,” read @barstooljmu caption on the May 8 party video — a reference to Miller’s missive. The page is a JMU-specific affiliate of the Barstool Sports organization, dedicated to posting and talking about pop culture. 

Some of the comments on the videos condemn the students’ action: “y’all are so dumb lmao,” yikes guys do better,” “What the actual f___ is wrong with y’all peoples grandmas are dying out here for this??”

Others, however, egged the partiers on: “Soooo again tonight??” “MOVIE,” and “til the break of dawn yo,” a reference to the 2012 movie “Project X” about a group of high school seniors who throw a 1,000-person party.

Cindea said he saw the 100-plus-person parties on Snapchat and Instagram most every weekend and watched his fellow students gathering in large numbers at the usual party hubs, like Copper Beech Harrisonburg, Forest Hills Manor and Devon Lane. 

Cindea was out those nights but said the parties he attended were generally with 20-30 people. Most people there were his friends, so if one of them were to contract COVID-19, they’d all have gotten it anyway — so why not party together?

Miller, for his part, said he tries to remain positive about students, who were trying to do what college students usually do — meet people and connect with each other — just under challenging circumstances. 

“I think the vast majority of JMU students made appropriate and safe choices during the pandemic,” Miller told The Citizen. “I know some people think that all JMU students were out partying all year long but that’s not accurate. I am incredibly proud of most of our students who consistently made good choices to keep themselves and others safe.”


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