My university has a covid outbreak

Every day for several weeks, when I walk home through the Quad, I’ve seen groups of students congregating in groups that violate the new pandemic regulations enacted by the University. If you’re in the open air, you have to wear a mask if you’re within six feet of people, or within any university building unless you’re isolated from people.

To be able to come back to campus or work here, we all had to sign on to this agreement. Note that we are pledged to report safety concerns as well.

It was impressed on all of us that violators of this pact would be subject to punishment—right up to expulsion.

Students living on campus are also required to be tested for Covid-19 regularly (once a week, I think).  Up to this week we had about 55 reported cases, which isn’t bad for a school our size. But given my personal experience with how the rules are being implemented, I wasn’t convinced the news would remain good.

Every day I see groups of students on campus who are very close to each other, schoozing, canoodling, or playing Beer Pong or Frisbee without masks, often clearly in violation of the six-foot rule. Sometimes they’re jammed right up against each other, heads on laps and with other signs of Young Love (it must be hell to find romance during a pandemic). In a five-minute walk across the Quad, I always see at least four groups violating the rules. When I see these incidents, I photograph the offenses and send the photos to UCAIR, the reporting agency. I haven’t reproduced the photos here to protect the privacy of the students, but believe me, the photos tell the tale.

The University put up signs on the Quad (I doubt it was because of my reports), but the signs have not reduced the frequency of social-distancing/mask violations. When I brought this up to the relevant officials, they told me that they don’t punish individuals, but simply monitor localities liable to violations (in this case, the Quad: the central grassy area of the University). But I don’t even see that; nobody is there to monitor violations, and the few times I’ve tried personally, I’ve met with mixed success. Students say “we live together” (not a valid excuse) or “we didn’t know the rules” (they did), and so on. Sometimes they just get angry and talk back to me. I’ve given up trying to actually talk to students, and just keep sending photos to the authorities. But nothing has happened save the “signage”.

Unless the University begins serious monitoring of violations, and actually sanctions students who don’t comply, our campus is a disaster in waiting. As one resident head wrote to the student newspaper, any policy that depends on 100% voluntary compliance by students is a policy doomed to fail. We need teeth in the regulations.

Well, the unthinkable has already happened. We were informed yesterday by the University that there was a big-time violation at the Business School, with over 100 students were in quarantine. This was big news: when I walked to work this morning, satellite news trucks from the local affiliates of ABC, NBC, and CBS were all parked in front of the Business School. Click on the screenshot below to read the Chicago Tribune’s report.

Apparently the MBA students had a big party on the North side, many of them not wearing masks. Some of the students tested positive for the virus, and 100 of them have been put in quarantine for two weeks. The Business School is now closed for business—that is, no in-person teaching will take place there (some of it is allowed for smaller classes on our campus).

In the email that the university officials concerned with safety sent to us, we read this paragraph:

Continuing in-person activities on our campus depends critically on everyone following public health requirements to the greatest extent possible. We ask everyone on campus to once again review the terms of the UChicago Health Pact and uphold its principles. It takes only one incident like this to put many others at risk.

Once again they are simply asking students to comply with the regulations. Asking won’t work—that is clear. There must be punishments for violation, just as every country that has enacted rules has a framework for punishing violators. Not here. Punishment could result in our school losing students, and the offending MBA students, who to my mind should all be expelled, are a big source of cash.

It’s telling that the Tribune reports this:  “A school spokesman did not comment on whether the students could face discipline.” Yet we were told that violators would face discipline.

So, I tender a brief open letter:

Dear University of Chicago,

Please get serious about the quarantine regulations. They have not worked under purely voluntary compliance, and they’re not working now, even with health pacts and signs all over the campus. Please get authorized people to talk to offenders, remind them of the rules, and then punish them if they refuse to follow them.

Jerry Coyne
Emeritus Professor and senior citizen who doesn’t want to get infected


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    It seems you are beating a nearly dead horse or two legged animal of another kind. Maybe they are going for Trump’s herd immunity. It would seem to be something they could establish fines for and then let the campus police issue tickets? I am not sure how successful rules put out by the state or county or city have been. In Wichita, if you don’t wear the mask, in most places they won’t let you in. But you are correct, rules with no enforcement are no rules.

    • Posted October 16, 2020 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      *Trump’s* “herd immunity”? This has been a sound strategy for Homo sapiens, for many generations. Included in the Great Barrington Declaration, co-authored by epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford.
      What is the *measure* of when UC can come out of this lockdown, however strictly it’s enforced? When there are zero cases? (Which we’ve been told — by *experts* — is not possible?). Or…when? What measure?
      By the way, I, like JC, am a vulnerable OAP, living in Hong Kong. My strategy is… stay away from crowds. We’re going to have to learn to live with this thing. On-again, off-again lockdowns won’t do it.

      • Posted October 16, 2020 at 3:57 am | Permalink

        You don’t mention that the Great Barrington Declaration has been denounced by nearly all health experts, who call its remedy of herd immunity dangerous and impractical. No, you left that part out. Why didn’t you mention it? Do you recommend that we all drink bleach, too?

        Sorry, but I won’t have people on my website proposing this kind of dangerous quackery.

      • Posted October 16, 2020 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        The problem with herd immunity being a sound strategy for Homo sapiens for generations is that, unless it’s created by a safe vaccine, lots of people have to die.

        If lots of people die, it will be catastrophic, not only for them and their families and acquaintances but also for the economy. Yes, there are costs associated with the lockdown, but there are also costs associated with not locking down that look very similar.

  2. Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    People will of course immediately bend or break rules if they see other people bending or breaking rules. So if they see some not wearing masks, then off go the masks.

    I wonder if one could ‘woke-etize’ mask wearing and social distance practices?

    • jezgrove
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      A business and marketing competition for UofC students with a large cash prize for the entry that is worn by the highest number on campus?

    • Tom B
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately I have heard from my college attending niece and nephew that students have started going the other way. They now refer to anyone trying to enforce mask wearing as “mask-hole”.

      • Dan T.
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        I think the woke like to refer to such enforcers as “Karens”, at least when they’re white females; however, that label also gets applied to those who refuse to wear masks and are militant about it; the race and sex and perceived militancy seem more relevant than which side of this particular issue they’re on.

  3. eric
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Sad to hear. I’m generally positive and optimistic about the long-term rationality of our young folk, but putting thousands of 18-22 year olds together and not expecting close social interaction is, IMO, asking too much of them. I think it’s a foregone conclusion that most if not all college campuses “open for business” are going to have outbreaks. Even with fairly responsible people, the fact that the virus is contagious days (up to a week?) before one even shows symptoms, means it’s going to be very hard to stop, as even conscientious, healthy people will occasionally slip protocol and that’s all it takes.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure what the best punishment is. Quarantine for sure, but if you expel them for a term, they just go home…and spread the virus even more.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Tell them that if they don’t follow the guidance now they’ll have to quarantine at the end of term and won’t be able to go home for Christmas?

      • eric
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but does a university even have the legal authority to force quarantine people? I would guess not. Locking them in a building against their will for more than a couple hours for some extreme case would count as kidnapping. I would hazard a guess that the reason the Universities don’t threaten more serious punishment is because they really can’t; the only bullet in their gun is suspension/expulsion. Which they can certainly do and it may in many cases be the right strategic decision. But tactically, it means sending a covid-positive person into a new community.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think they can force quarantine but I’m sure they can make anything a requirement for entering their campus so maybe the answer is somewhere near what Steve is suggesting.

  4. Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    There is definitely an age divide on this. Young people just wanna have fun. We old people just wanna survive to see the end of this nightmare.

    • GBJames
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, yes.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Next thing you’ll be telling us is that 20-year olds aren’t as aware of their mortality as us old folks. Gasp! That they take more risks. And that maybe some of them hope they die before they grow old (which he probably still sings, in concert…)

      Not a criticism. Just pointing out that the attitude divide on covid is nothing more than a new aspect of normal human age-related psychology.

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, instant gratification is the curse of the young and the young at heart.

  5. Charles Jones
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Things are going reasonably well at the University of Pittsburgh (about 2 cases reported per day over the last 5 days), but last weekend my family visited Penn State.

    On the Penn State campus everyone was wearing masks and seemed to be social distancing, but one block off campus students in the commercial district were frequently in violation of distancing rules. Even worse were the fraternities two blocks off campus: They set up beer-pong tables on the front lawns and were drinking and socializing like there was no pandemic. If you look at a COVID map of Pennsylvania, Penn State’s home county is the one bright-red hotspot in the state.

  6. ploubere
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    The problem with this pandemic is that its effects are not immediately apparent to most people. Abstract numbers of hundreds of thousands of dead don’t stir a lot of people, and most people haven’t had anyone close to them die. That may change.

    • cyan
      Posted October 16, 2020 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      There are a little over 209,000,000 people over the age of 18 in the US (according to Using Dunbar’s number as a rough estimate, with 216,000 dead from Covid-19, 32,400,000 people personally know one of those dead; that is, at this time, about 15% of adults over 18 theoretically personally know someone who has died from this virus.

      So we wait to see what percentage of adults experience the Covid death of someone they know before enforced mandates are enacted. For example, 348,000 dead would mean 25% of the population theoretically would have known one of them.

      It is a grim wait, isn’t it.

      • Adam M.
        Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        Well, I personally don’t believe that the count of excess dead is really 216,000, and will await the end-of-year total fatality counts.

        ~200k may be the number of people who died “with COVID”, which is not the same as dying “of COVID”, and even if 100% of those were actual COVID deaths, it primarily impacts the demographic that normally dies in significant numbers every year anyway. I fully expect that with so many dying of COVID comparatively few will be dying of the flu for example, and so, in the end, the total number of American dead for the year may only be a little more than the usual ~2.5 million.

  7. Adam M.
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, I personally don’t care about infections if they’re not accompanied by deaths or permanent health problems. And the chance of a student dying from COVID-19 is vanishingly small.

    That said, the elderly faculty are at greater risk, especially if they’re much older than 70. (Those in the 60-69 age bracket are still nearly guaranteed to survive.)

    • GBJames
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      How about the chance of passing it to someone who is more at risk?

      Framing the issue in terms of the chance of some low-risk person dying is missing the point. The important question is “What is the chance that this person will infect someone else?”

      • jezgrove
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:02 pm | Permalink


      • Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

        +1 Seriously, you don’t care about young people getting sick so long as they don’t die, even if they make older people, or people comorbidities die? One of the reasons that older people are at risk is because they get the virus from asymptomatic or mildly ill but infected young people

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

          And besides the clear lack of care of many people toward older people which has really created an indescribable feeling in me toward society that hovers somewhere between nausea, disgust, and rage, there seems to be a real lack of understanding of just how many people suffer from autoimmune diseases that are very manageable usually but put them at high risk. Things like diabetes or arthritis. And kids have those so if people think anyone over 40 are disposable maybe they should have to watch a kid die because of them and see how that makes them feel.

        • Adam M.
          Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          I did mention older people – well, older faculty. And if they do die I would care. But I don’t care much about cases without deaths.

          It still depends the numbers. If the death rate becomes comparable to that of the flu, I don’t see why we should worry more about it than we do about the flu.

          And even if we do worry about it, we still have to decide on strategy. Locking down and laying off everyone is very damaging. It’d be cheaper and less disruptive, for example, to allow the vulnerable to lock themselves down if they choose and have the government pay and otherwise support them as necessary than to try doing that with the entire country.

          • GBJames
            Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:53 am | Permalink

            “But I don’t care much about cases without deaths.”

            I find your attitude profoundly depressing. Long term effects of Covid-19, assuming you don’t die, include:

            • Heart damage and increased risk of heart failure

            • Long term scarring of the lungs and the consequent breathing problems for the rest of your life

            • Increased risk of stroke and seizures.

            Wishful thinking along the lines of “If the death rate becomes comparable to that of the flu…” is just that.

            Pretending the risks are less than they are is largely why this pandemic has taken nearly a quarter million lives here in the US. And arguing that the only alternative to “locking down and laying off everyone” is “to allow the vulnerable to lock themselves down if they choose” is a classic false choice. That way of thinking about pandemics is also why we are pushing a quarter million dead.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 16, 2020 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            How about people with arthritis and diabetes – numerous young people have those ailments. What do you think will happen to the economy when many of them die or are too sick to work?

            Suggesting that “laying off everyone” is the only option for handling the pandemic is a false choice. There are lots of ways to target a pandemic especially now that we have had several months to learn about how it spreads and to trace its spread but by being lackadaisical about it and not worrying about it with an attitude of “meh, it probably won’t affect me” is only going to make it worse. Locking down the vulnerable (a lot of people btw) isn’t going to stop the spread when everyone else is sick…they don’t live in a bubble.

            Further, the data for how this affects the young is rather scarce at this point. Yes they are less likely to get complications but they are just as likely to catch it and spread it to others and the risk of complication is hardly zero. Besides, stats are much harder to deal with when you become part of them. You know what my chance of developing cancer was when I was 44? Less than 0% yet I got it anyway and I guarantee that it wasn’t nothing going through it.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      I question “nearly guaranteed to survive”. It’s a crap shoot. You don’t know how your body will respond. It’s Russian roulette. There are plenty dead or terribly injured younger people to convince me it’s nothing to risk.

      • Posted October 16, 2020 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        “nearly guaranteed” is pretty much the same as “not guaranteed”.

        Furthermore, as has been stated above, if you catch it, it improves its chances of propagating further.

        Also, we don’t know what the long term health costs are yet. It seems like they can be quite serious even in young people.

        I for one have decided I don’t want t catch COVID19.

        • Adam M.
          Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          Well I call a survival chance well over 99% “nearly guaranteed”. I’m not afraid of those chances.

          • Posted October 17, 2020 at 8:30 am | Permalink

            And if you pass it on to somebody who subsequently dies of it?

            And if you survive but you are left with permanent lung damage?

  8. Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I seem only able to think of particularly vicious responses, such as Russian Roulette with a hundred chambered revolver with one cylinder loaded for every noted violation, since if they expose other people to the virus, that’s something akin to the risk they’re delivering. But no one listens to my suggestions (which is probably a good thing).

    • jezgrove
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      They already “feel lucky” – and Dirty Harry apparently got confused with a six-shooter.

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s just so hard for universities to socially distance, especially larger universities with busy campuses. It’s why my university opted to remain closed for in-person for the most part and go online right into the winter semester. Researchers can still come on campus to do their research but they require permission and they must adhere to all the safety protocols (which many in health are used to anyway). Those students that require labs, I believe can come on with modifications on campus to help enforce safety. Staff of course are completely off campus and at home save for those that require them to be onsite for clinical support of students (ie: the students are doing problem based learning). And the staff, students, and faculty have to take training about safety, mask up (and PPE up if they are in clinics of course) then fill in a covid questionnaire before going on campus. Supervisors need to know if their staff are on campus as they are accountable for them and they can’t cluster together. There are people staying in residence who are international students that couldn’t leave I believe earlier in the year. There are of course essential security staff and staff that manage the nuclear reactor that need to be on site as well but for the most part, the normally very crowded campus is pretty empty.

  10. Greg Esres
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    The Universities wanted the tuition money. That’s why they opened, even though everyone knew this was going to happen. The exhortations to follow safety guidelines are to justify plausible deniability.

  11. Lee
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    It shouldn’t be this hard. One warning issued to a student with an explanation that the warning was going in the student’s record, and that the next violation WOULD result in expulsion, should do wonders. No one could complain it was unfair. And since herds learn by watching other herd members, a few well-published executions (sorry– I meant “expulsions”) would get the message across.

    One benefit would be that kids who avoid masks so as not to seem prudish or squeamish to their peers would have an excuse- hey, no one wants to get expelled, right? “I’m not wearing this mask ’cause it might save your life; I’m wearing it so the bastards don’t give me the axe.”

    AND, a few students getting booted should, in the end, keep the dollars flowing in by protecting the rest. Investing for the future. Of all people, business students should get this.

    Whatever happened to “in loco parentis”? When did the admins start becoming afraid of the students? Too few administrators have a spine, apparently- easier to mourn the dead than keep the kids safe.

  12. C.
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Be safe, Prof., for your own sake and for you and your work enlightens the life of this here dullard.

    My own son, living in the Chicago suburbs and far from me, has the virus. He found out three days ago after a possible exposure through work and then again through a roommate’s girlfriend. First test was negative but her test was positive and he had been around her, so second test and now here we are. What pissed me off was that the boss at St@rb*cks insisted they come back to work after the first test, even with the probable second exposure. He’s a tRumper, surprise surprise. We will not escape this nightmare so long as so many seek to minimize or ignore the threat. Luckily, my son seems to be doing ok, just tired. Still, it is very hard on a parent to be 580 miles away and feeling helpless.

    Stay safe, everyone.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Hope your son has a swift recovery with no complications. And shame on Starbucks. I feel bad for people having to put up with bosses like that….I sure hated when I was a young person but it helped spur me on not to have to take a job like that forever.

      • C.
        Posted October 16, 2020 at 12:09 am | Permalink

        Thank you. So far so good, no serious problems, at least from what I can tell from long distance.
        The corporation started out with good intentions, gave them a month of pay while they stayed home at the beginning of this nightmare but after that it seems up to each individual managers how they run things. A friend who works at a different store told him they were not pressured to return until the all-clear and were assured that their shifts would be covered, no threats or guilt trips.

        It makes you wonder exactly how many thousands more have to die before this virus is taken seriously? Or perhaps unless the deniers lose a loved one or two they won’t ever take it seriously. We see that tRump’s hospitalization had little to no effect on him or his followers. It might have made things worse! I’m afraid the US is in it for the long haul no matter who wins the election,

  13. Max Blancke
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Elderly staff or faculty, or those with compromised immune systems or comorbidities like obesity have good reasons to be concerned, but the majority of kids do not.
    It is just not realistic to expect them to treat this as if it were a smallpox outbreak, with a 30% mortality rate, and the survivors scarred for life.
    With Covid, if they catch it, they may well have no symptoms. If they do have symptoms, they would probably be very mild.
    The fatality rate for those infected under 40 in the US is below .01%.

    It can be a very unpleasant disease. But a young, otherwise healthy person is probably never going to be convinced that Covid is a major concern. People of that age are reckless by nature, as we all know by experience.

    Even if your institution was facing a threat like bombardment by Nazi buzzbombs, those kids might initially run to the shelters each time the alarm sounded. But after some time, they would be partying on the roof.
    They certainly would not let either of those threats interfere with their fornication.

    • GBJames
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      Is it unrealistic to expect people to consider that they can infect others?

      • Max Blancke
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        Of course not. But it is unrealistic to expect kids to maintain a high level of pandemic vigilance for a long period of time, especially under the particular circumstances of the risks posed by this particular disease to their age group.
        Even for the rest of us, vigilance is going to wane. We are seven months into “two weeks to flatten the curve”.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

          I dunno. I think that is pretty low expectations. Should we really excuse that attitude with “oh kids”? These are young adults. It’s hard on all of us. Buck up.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 16, 2020 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          I have low tolerance for calling young adults “kids”. While statistically this age group is more prone to irresponsibility this is reason to increase the demand for decency, not absolve them of the need to protect their fellow citizens from disease and death.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:42 am | Permalink


  14. openidname
    Posted October 16, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I considered commenting, but then I found this article by Matt Ridley, which says what I wanted to say, but with greater authority:

    Students who catch COVID may be saving lives

    • Posted October 16, 2020 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      ” the truth?”. hmmm…
      “The extraordinary truth is that a student catching COVID might be saving Grandma’s life rather than threatening it”
      “Might be”…
      That’s it. Ridley doesn’t know.
      No one person is in control, least of all students and certainly the elderly.
      What are the best strategies may be revealed when this virus has accomplished what it set out to do…
      wreak havoc! fuck with tRump? show us up as a species?
      I know that’s working, Mr Ridley.

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