CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia administrators are looking into reports of large student gatherings at which COVID-19 restrictions are ignored as the fall semester winds down, including reported events this week and one last week at a local winery.
Charlottesville residents have reported numerous parties in the Rugby Road area with students not wearing masks while ignoring attendance limits and not social distancing. Residents reported one party on Saturday afternoon near Gordon Avenue and 17th Street NW.
UVA's dean of students, Allen W. Grove, sent a message Sunday reminding students that they agreed to follow school-mandated measures and that violations will be referred to the University Judiciary Committee.
“Last week, we received a concerning report of a very large gathering of students at a local winery in Albemarle County in which none of the critical public health requirements were followed by those in attendance. We are looking into this incident with the assistance of the winery and we hope it does not turn out to have been the super-spreader event we have tried so hard to avoid,” Groves wrote.
“This weekend, too, saw a few large gatherings in the [Gordon Avenue and Rugby Road] area,” he wrote. “Once again, we will look to our student-run [justice system] to address these violations of policy that put the community at risk.”
Thomas Jefferson Health District officials said they had not received a complaint of student violations from local wineries. They said that’s not odd as complaints are often directed to the university if it involves recognized UVA student organizations or groups clearly comprised of students.
The district has, however, seen COVID-19 cases caused by community gatherings and events.
“We’ve seen an increase in cases from large social gatherings and from smaller social gatherings as well,” said Kathryn Goodman, a health district spokesperson. “It’s possible to spread COVID any time you have even two households meeting together, and that’s a concern as the holidays approach.”
District statistics show that since Nov. 1, there have been 53 complaints of face mask noncompliance at grocery and convenience stores; 45 at retail stores; two at breweries and wineries; two at barber/beauty shops; five at gyms; and three at recreational sporting events.
Officials said they received 116 complaints involving restaurants but determined that many were invalid or unsubstantiated.
Of the 2,504 complaints the health district has received since the pandemic began, 2,362 are about failure to wear face masks.
At UVA, complaints are handled through the school’s Judiciary Committee and are divided into three types. Those include unintentional or accidental violations that “occur infrequently, without the intent to harm or disrupt” and are promptly addressed; intentional or reckless violations that threaten health or safety; and repeated violations.
The committee can order meetings with members of Grove’s office; investigate or hold a trial; or invoke an interim suspension.
There were multiple reports on social media this past weekend of large groups of students hanging out neither masked nor socially distant. Reports have also circulated among students and community members on social media regarding student gatherings eschewing COVID-19 restrictions since Halloween.
Goodman said last week’s tightening of restrictions by Gov. Ralph Northam is designed to decrease transmission of the disease as cold weather pushes social contact indoors, the perfect location for spreading the virus.
“We don’t want people to live in fear, but we do want them to live cautiously,” she said. “It seems like COVID has been here a long time, and we’re all tired of it, and that includes those of us who deal with it every day.”
Groves warned students that the restrictions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, not just at UVA but also in their home communities.
“The pandemic is far from over despite recent promising news in vaccine development and our [lower than the national average] case numbers in the local health district,” he wrote. “As you know, the number of cases has swelled nationwide and in many spots around the world. Predictions suggest some difficult months lie ahead as the weather turns colder, affording fewer outdoor activities, and the holidays beckon, tempting everyone with travel and family gatherings.”
Groves said UVA officials expect those students who are not permanent local residents to return to their homes and not come back to Charlottesville until just prior to the February start of spring semester. He said they should stay at home once they get there.
“Back-and-forth travel puts yourself and many others at risk, especially at a time when cases are increasing and resources are being strained in many parts of the country,” he wrote.
UVA students will be required to test for COVID-19 prior to returning in February, Grove said. Students can receive pre-departure COVID-19 tests for the Thanksgiving break and those living off-campus were given appointments last week. Those who did not receive the emails should send an email to email@example.com and make other arrangements for a test.
UVA health officials recommend students that minimize contact with others before leaving for the break. Anyone testing positive or in close contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive prior to leaving is required to isolate. For students living on-campus, isolation and quarantine spaces will remain available during breaks.
Goodman, the health district spokesperson, said the large number of students repeatedly being tested has skewed the community’s positivity rate, which is often used to determine how prevalent the virus is in the region.
“We don’t want the public to have a false sense of security. We’re doing OK, but we have seen an increase in community cases over the past two months,” she said. “COVID is far more common now than it was in March and we understand people have COVID fatigue and are tired of all the restrictions, but we need to be extra careful with winter coming.”
Goodman said similar steps should be taken by the overall community as holidays loom.
“The chances of spreading the virus increase dramatically when you have two or more households that get together indoors for a period of time,” she said. “It’s best to have a holiday with only the immediate family. It’s a terrible thing to say, but this year has been very unique.”
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