Labor Day weekend parties threaten fall 2020


Partying students would be dismissed without tuition refunds. Northeastern University had made that clear Friday, kicking out 11 first-year students who broke COVID-19 rules to gather in a Boston hotel room.

Yet by that night, a few dozen students from Northeastern and Boston University found their way to the Charles River, their legs lit by the Esplanade lights, their faces by reflections of skyscrapers off the water. Bottles of Tito’s vodka, Gatorade, Coca-Cola and soda water were laid out on a park bench, a convenient bar for students seeking a way to party. 

Any doubts that students would find a way to party, even during a pandemic, have been quickly dispelled as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed at colleges around the country. Some colleges promptly canceled in-person instruction, and social media videos and images of partying students helped feed a narrative of irresponsible behavior putting everyone in the university community at risk.

Boston University and Northeastern University students gather on the Charles River Esplanade on Friday.

Boston University and Northeastern University students gather on the Charles River Esplanade on Friday.
Caitlin Faulds

But the images can be misleading. Some students who wear masks out in public may relax in private with roommates or close friends they know are taking COVID-19 precautions seriously, no differently than they might at home with extended family members. And mental health professionals say expecting students to stop socializing is unrealistic and harmful to their developmental needs at that age. 

USA TODAY dispatched college journalists in seven university towns across the country over the Labor Day weekend to witness firsthand the campus social scene.

They found a boat party in Indiana that had observers fearing another outbreak in town; a college president shooting selfies with students lined up outside a Maryland dance bar; scores of students seeking ways to balance safety with an impulse for fun; and an impromptu chopsticks lesson that couldn’t have happened in a Zoom meeting.

Boston’s universities have some of the strictest coronavirus mandates governing behavior, but the lines are blurrier miles from campus, and students are adept at finding loopholes.

And they’re far from stupid.

Massachusetts has a 50-person limit on gatherings held outdoors in defined spaces. But there’s no cap on open spaces like the Charles River Esplanade. The student body from both universities could gather unmasked under a cluster of sweet cherry trees — with enough room for distancing, in theory — and still be on the right side of the law.

More importantly, they know how frequently every student has been tested for COVID-19. If anyone had tested positive, they’d have been set up in an isolation room and unable to leave.

One student, who didn’t give his name for fear of disciplinary action, said that’s why they check to make sure everyone at the party is a student. They’re wary of outsiders who haven’t undergone the same degree of testing, but the ones out here? They’re COVID-free on a warm September night, the students reason. So why not take the party down to the river?

Longing for ‘big adventure’: Boston universities

For 24 hours after they arrived on campus, Harvard first-year students Ava Bandel and Julia Wilkinson quarantined in their rooms. For the next six days, or until three negative tests pronounced them COVID-free, they remained on campus — mostly in their rooms, sometimes darting to the dining hall to pick up meals. It was hard to be in one place with so much newness beyond a closed gate.

So on Thursday, they headed into the city for the first time, celebrating their freedom in a 12-foot diameter social-distancing circle marked on a grassy corner a few blocks from Fenway Park. Their masks lay by their sides for the final bites of long-overdue Chipotle. The rich scent of overwatered grass, the clink of glasses from an outdoor brewery, the curt horns and chirpy sirens, the gentle lull of a late summer breeze — they had so much to explore, to “do a big adventure” walking from their Cambridge dorms to downtown Boston, Wilkinson said.

Pockets of Boston felt abandoned after months of shutdown and half a year without students. But tonight, this little “enclave,” as Wilkinson called the circle, was full of hope: of new friendships, new adventures and dreams.

That same feeling permeated the air near Nickerson Field on the Boston University campus where students gathered in small groups in a common area beneath a trio of high-rise dorms.

Boston University students spend Thursday evening in small groups outside their dorms at Nickerson Field.

Boston University students spend Thursday evening in small groups outside their dorms at Nickerson Field.
Caitlin Faulds

The university announced strict regulations before students came to campus, threatening suspension for anyone who attends or hosts an indoor gathering with more than 25 people. The dorms are spotted with hand sanitizer and “Don’t Go Viral” signs, with no visitors allowed past the lobby and any gathering with more than a few people quickly broken up. In one of the…



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