Ari Mbunwe speaks to the crowd on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, at the Arch in downtown Athens, Georgia. Demands listed by the protesters included UGA release case numbers daily and “improve its COVID-19 precautions and testing capability”. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

Chants of “Shame on UGA” and “Do better UGA” echoed from students by the University of Georgia Arch Saturday evening. The protest at the Arch followed two days of sit-ins at Tate Plaza to protest UGA’s COVID-19 policies. Although the sit-ins didn’t have large attendance, the Arch protest attracted around 50 people. 

Arianna Mbunwe, one of the organizers of the sit-in and protest, has taken to Twitter in recent weeks to express her desire for change to her over 3,700 followers. She posts direct messages from people who wish to remain anonymous concerning UGA’s response to the pandemic. 

“UGA’s response to COVID has been lackluster and kind of criminal if you ask me,” Mbunwe, a junior political science major, said. “I feel like their negligence towards the rising case numbers and the horrible conditions people are being in when they’re forced to quarantine or isolate on campus, it’s kind of reached a tipping point.” 

The Saturday protest featured multiple speakers, including UGA math professor Joseph Fu, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement vice president Mykeisha Ross, graduate student Mikaela Warner and candidate for Georgia’s House of Representatives District 119 Jonathan Wallace. Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Russell Edwards also spoke. 

“Jere Morehead, we don’t care how much you care, we care how much you show. We care how much you do.” 

– Joe Fu, professor of mathematics at UGA

The speakers said they wanted UGA to take responsibility for its role in the spread of the virus in Athens. They want the university to increase its testing capacity and improve its contact tracing. They also want its data to be updated more frequently and the university to be transparent with positive COVID-19 cases. 

Mbunwe and two more UGA students, Jessica Jaconetti and Josey Wallace, organized a list of six demands for the university to improve their response to COVID-19. Josey Wallace said she hopes the demands will bring more action from the university.

“All of these things are things that, you know, would be just productive to have [been] talked about by the university, and they haven’t been at all,” Josey Wallace said.

“Jere Morehead, we don’t care how much you care, we care how much you show. We care how much you do,” Fu said. He said UGA’s testing capacity wasn’t robust enough and the university was trading blame with the Georgia Department of Public Health on who is responsible for contact tracing.

Although students have been vocal on social media in recent weeks, the protest and sit-ins were meant to grab the attention of university administration.

“I’m tired of screaming into the void that is social media,” Jake Tassoni said Thursday, a junior cognitive science major. Showing up is the only way to get university administration to listen, Tassoni and other demonstrators said. After the rally at the Arch, they left signs in protest outside the Administration Building on North Campus. 

Jaconetti said she was demonstrating for the residents of Athens, who can’t leave the city and are affected by the university’s actions. UGA’s lack of transparency about COVID-19 data and low testing capacity puts residents and UGA staff workers at risk, Jaconetti said. 

Ross, who grew up in Athens, echoed that sentiment. She grew up in Athens and emphasized that the actions of UGA and its students have an effect on the people that live in the city full-time.

Edwards, who is the county’s commissioner for District 7, also expressed displeasure with UGA administration.

“Jere Morehead’s a punk, y’all,” Edwards said. He said the county was proactive in enacting COVID-19 rules and it wasn’t right that UGA was blaming the county for the spread of the virus. Athens was the second city after Savannah to enact a mandatory mask rule over the summer. 

Mbunwe said she was happy with the protest and hopes the administration made the changes they asked for.

“I thought this was the best turnout that I could possibly imagine, given that we are all, well, it is a pandemic,” Mbunwe said. “So I felt really really happy and supported by the community of Athens tonight.”

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