A COVID-19 sign is posted on the door of a packed bar. Students and Athens residents made their way downtown to the bars on Aug. 18, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/ Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

Despite pictures of Greek house parties circulating online throughout the summer and into the start of the fall semester, only one Interfraternity Council chapter has been fined by IFC for partying during the COVID-19 pandemic as of August 18.

Over the summer, University of Georgia Greek organizations garnered negative attention for lawn parties that culminated in posts that have gained more than 800 likes. With house parties popping up late in the summer through the start of a new school year in response to bars operating under an earlier “last call” time, one thing the coronavirus outbreak has confirmed is that the party scene in Athens doesn’t stop — not even for a pandemic. 

With the UGA community experiencing its first death on July 24 and the number of COVID-19 cases in Athens-Clarke County at over 2,200, the threat of the spread of the virus continues to grow. 

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz said that although going out, congregating and meeting people are central to college life, these behaviors are too dangerous to practice right now.

“Maintaining clusters with the people you live with, and not going out, and particularly not being indoors in places like bars, is the safest for every individual student, and for their roommates and their family members, and the grandparents who they may go to see on the weekend, and everybody they encounter,” Girtz said.

Hannah Barron, a member of a Panhellenic sorority, said when canceling spring events such as formal, there was a general consensus that it was best for the community. However, she said there are still members of her sorority who go out to frats and bars, and she wishes people would think more carefully about their actions. 

“[By going to events] you’re going to get everyone sick. College kids act like they’re invincible. We’re not,” she said. 

IFC president Brennan Cox said August 18 in a statement, “As the University reopens and begins class this Thursday, I call on the entire University and Athens community to do our part in reducing the spread of COVID-19 for a fighting chance at in-person instruction this fall. Regrettably, fraternities have not been perfect in this endeavor either. That blame rested on my shoulders and I am encouraged to see the turnaround the council has made in recent weeks and into the fall semester.”

Party Row

C. Rhett Jackson, a UGA professor and parent of a UGA student, lives off of Milledge Avenue. Crowded parties, with “no physical distancing, no safety measures, and a lot of beer pong” were a common sight on Milledge since classes were canceled in March through the first weekend of July, he said. 

People who live on Milledge Avenue weren’t the only ones who noticed Greek parties taking place this summer. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health made an Instagram post about frat parties during the pandemic, tagging Athens, Georgia, as the location. 

The Alpha Gamma Rho house, among other houses, was pictured with a party on the front lawn on an Overheard at UGA Facebook post on June 27. The post received over 500 likes and nearly 700 comments. As of publication, Alpha Gamma Rho has not responded to a request for comment.

Sachi Shastri, who graduated from UGA in May and now works with several Athens nonprofits, made the Facebook post out of frustration with her peers, she said. The pictures she shared weren’t all of the parties she saw on Milledge that day, she said.

UGA fraternities aren’t the only groups getting negative attention online. Panhellenic sorority Delta Gamma garnered scrutiny on Twitter when screenshots of a GroupMe showed members discussing renting an apartment “solely for parties.” 

The screenshots also contained messages about day drinking, with one message stating “I can’t just be sober,” in response to Athens-Clarke County moving the “last call” for bars from 2 a.m. to 9 p.m. It has since been pushed to 11:30 p.m.

Delta Gamma’s UGA chapter posted a response to the incident on its Instagram page, stating that they would be investigating the incident to ensure their community’s health and well-being. As of publication, Delta Gamma has not responded to a request for comment.

Fines & Guidelines

These incidents aren’t the result of a lack of guidelines or restrictions — at least, not entirely. IFC passed a bill instituting a fine of $5,000 for fraternities that fail to adhere to the state’s social distancing guidelines, with the fine increasing to $7,500 and $10,000 for second and third offenses, respectively.

These punishments are only applicable to events “planned by a member chapter officer (a president or recruitment chair)” or events paid for using “member chapter funds,” according to the bill. 

While only one fraternity has been fined, Cox said IFC officers and Greek Life Office staff “investigate each and every accusation and tip,” as well as monitor social media for violations.  

There are guidelines to curb the spread of coronavirus in the bar scene, which is often frequented by fraternity and sorority members. Bars in Athens are required to operate at a 35% capacity rate, said Jarrod Miller, the chief operating officer of 1785 Bar and Grill, Moonshine and On The Rocks. 

“Some bars are adhering to this, some bars are not,” Miller said. 

Miller said he hasn’t noticed an increase in people coming out to bars in the last couple of weeks, but the Athens party scene is “exploding.” On the night of Aug. 14, when news spread that bars downtown would have to be cleared by midnight, parties started popping up, he said.

“I knew Friday that there were 10 house parties that popped up within half an hour of that settlement news being spread,” Miller said. 

This is problematic because bars are safer than house parties in general, and even more so with the ongoing pandemic, he said. Unlike house parties, bars have regulations to follow and there’s no way to social distance at a house party, Miller said.

“College kids are going to do what they want to do,” he said. “The only thing we can do is put them in a safe environment, a structured environment.” 

Contact tracing

Courtney Skelly is a COVID-19 contact tracer and case investigator with the Georgia Department of Public Health, as well as a graduate student at UGA. When someone tests positive for coronavirus, case interviewers will ask them where they’ve been in the previous days and who they have had contact with, Skelly said. 

Parties make it hard for contact tracers to notify people who could have been exposed to the virus, Skelly said. Students often don’t know the address of the house parties they attended, and even if they have the address, they don’t have the contact information of everyone there. This leaves contract tracers in the dark, and other party goers at risk, she said.

Skelly said coronavirus safety is simple and easy to remember using the three W’s: wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance. 

Other ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus include avoiding sharing drinks or food. Skelly said several COVID-19-positive students she’s worked with have reported sharing vape products, which she advises against.

“Aside from the inherent risk associated with vaping, sharing those products in the middle of a pandemic that spreads through respiratory droplets is just incredibly dangerous,” she said.

Girtz said Athens has been able to maintain a lower number of COVID-19 deaths than other similarly sized areas because the local population has acted carefully. Students returning to campus should continue this behavior, he said.

“If you behave in a way that's medically sound, you're going to be saving lives. Literally saving lives,” Girtz said.

Jackson said from a professor’s standpoint, it’s frustrating to watch UGA students not follow COVID-19 guidelines. He said he feels as though the university has put together a good plan for classes in the fall, but if students don’t abide by guidelines outside of the classroom, it’s all for nothing.

“Even though we faculty are kind of jaded and complaining about [in-person classes], we do love y’all, students. We just wish you would behave better,” Jackson said.

In addition to impacting professors and classmates, Jackson said failing to abide by guidelines puts the entire community at risk. Athens-Clarke County hospitals serve 16 surrounding counties in addition to Athens-Clarke, and these hospitals are already close to capacity in ICU units. There’s no need for people to be “getting sick out of stupidity,” Jackson said. 

“Our generation and generations before us have not gone through a pandemic, the last one was in 1918. Of course we’re all going to be a little bit uncomfortable, we’re going to have to do things that are unprecedented to us, but it’s a small sacrifice to make to save the literal lives of people,” Shastri said. 

Kyra Posey contributed to this report.