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The COVID Drama Roiling Bloomington’s Greek Life

One side cries unfair treatment. The other, reckless behavior. Sound familiar?

Remember, if you can, your college days: Long nights of studying or partying, the constant (maybe excessive) presence of friends, and on most U.S. campuses, the Greek houses. If you rushed a fraternity or sorority, you might have done so to ease your transition to campus life, to connect with a hypothetical future boardroom member, or just to meet girls and/or guys more easily—and, most likely, you went through a hellish initiation or recruitment process just to get the chance. 

The pinnacle of that experience is living in the fraternity or sorority house, where you spend too much time with your sisters or brothers eating, sleeping, exchanging clothes, going for midnight car rides, or getting ready for parties. In normal times, you’d overlook the fact that you’re sharing the kind of close contact that can turn one case of the common cold, for example, into three, or four, or ten more. 

These are not normal times. At Indiana University in Bloomington, COVID-19 and the precautions taken to slow its spread have made these hubs for partying, networking, and just plain hanging out eerily quiet—and that was before three quarters of IU’s Greek houses went into quarantine at the beginning of September, following orders from the Monroe County Health Department. 

Just 10 days after the beginning of the fall semester, Dr. Aaron Carroll, the university’s director of mitigation testing, announced that among Greek residents the positivity rate had increased from 8.1 percent to more than 20 percent in almost one week. IU spokesperson Chuck Carney recommended that all 40 of the university’s chapters shut down, meaning Greek house residents would, for the time being, need to find a new place to live or return home. 

But there’s a catch: Indiana University doesn’t actually control whether these houses close. Due to a bureaucratic arrangement where Greek houses are technically designated as “off-campus housing,” only the national leadership for each chapter and the Monroe County Health Department can decide whether to shut them down. Therefore, Carney and Carroll’s “recommendation” was just that.  

Some Greek members, dealing now with yet another disruption amid the pandemic, took offense. Maggie Mulligan, a member of the sorority Gamma Phi Beta, opined in the Indiana Daily Student that the university was to blame for the rise in cases. She argued that given IU’s decision to bring students back despite the severity of the pandemic, it was rich that they were now telling to leave her house. 

“While jeopardizing my housing and sense of security, the university treated me with the same callousness it did all of its students when they invited us back,” Mulligan wrote. “If your home was being snatched from under you, would you be able to focus on your studies?”

Carroll says Greek houses have been singled out for additional tracking and testing because of their unique living conditions and because the City of Bloomington and MCHD need to quickly make decisions about whether to quarantine. But the students’ complaints about the testing, warranted or not, raise pointed questions for each party: How can the university keep its Greek houses safe and happy when they don’t control their housing, a fundamental element of both? And how can fraternity and sorority members convince the powers that be that they should be treated like everyone else when they’re testing positive, in some cases, at massively higher rates than the overall student population?

While IU doesn’t have the power to kick people out of Greek houses, or even make and enforce their in-house rules, it has a responsibility to keep people safe on campus—but it doesn’t always know what’s happening behind closed doors. The housing requirement set by the Monroe County Health Department requires the houses to be at 75 percent capacity or less, but didn’t go into effect until August 28, after school had started. According to Celinda Leach, the chair of the Monroe County Health Board of Directors, about 16 houses are still not complying with this rule. The Indiana Daily Student reported that Monroe County legal counsel and board member Margie Rice is considering legal action.

While those vague threats and blandishments fly, the coronavirus is spreading rapidly not just in Bloomington, but on campus in cities like East Lansing, Madison, and Iowa City, leaving administrators and students on their back feet. The confusion, callousness, and bad choices that abound in Bloomington today reflect the sometimes-contentious relationship between IU and its Greek life. But they also mirror what’s happening on campus across the country—and whether those schools can even finish out their semester, much less get “back to normal,” might depend on whether such grievances can be resolved. 

***

Since students returned in late August, the university has conducted thousands of tests per week across its campuses to make sure that coronavirus cases are caught, isolated, and traced early on. Some members of IU’s Greek life say they’ve been tested every week since their return to campus. According to the university’s testing dashboard, 1,421 people out of about 2,600 in Greek housing were tested during the first week of school in late August.  

While frequent testing has become somewhat of a joke among Greek members who complain IU has unfairly targeted them, the numbers don’t bear that out. 54 percent of the population in Greek housing has been tested, about the same percentage as those in on-campus residence halls, which Carroll says is necessary because of the sheer number of cases in both settings. In a way, students are correct that IU is targeting Greek life—but they’re not alone. 

According to Carroll, Greek housing was identified as high risk due to the eating areas they congregate in, the sharing of bathrooms, the amount of people possibly sleeping in the same room, and because of the social aspect of Greek houses compared to dorms, where people do not know each other at the beginning of the year. 

“It’s very hard to imagine how some Greek houses can be safe in a pandemic,” he said. “In a house, you’ve all literally chosen, and you’re all excited, to all be together. It’s why the place exists.” 

Abby and Sophia

Abby sits on the grass Sept 12. alongside fellow Phi Mu sister sophomore Sophia Cruz. Abby is currently a chemistry major at Indiana University Bloomington.Photo by Izzy Myszak

In these houses, it’s easier to congregate and harder to isolate and prevent spread, Carroll said. In the dorms, where people do not know each other at the beginning of the semester, once a student tests positive or is identified as being in close contact with a positive case, they are moved to a dorm designated for isolating. 

This was yet another reason why Carroll and Carney made their recommendation this month to shut down all Greek housing, which, in fact, a large number of people living in Greek housing did follow. Kaitlyn Phillips, the 20-year-old Singing Hoosier and president of Delta Gamma, said many of the move-outs in her chapter’s house were in response to the university recommendation. Abby Walker, a 20-year-old sophomore and Phi Mu member, also said the statement influenced some women in her chapter to move out. Delta Gamma, which had 60 members living in the house at the beginning of the semester, now has about 25, according to Phillips. Walker said that Phi Mu is down from 60 to around 20.

Still, Ray Scherer, a Phi Kappa Tau, feels that Greek students are “just the scapegoat for a lot of [IU’s] problems right now.” He also worries that sending people home could accelerate the spread of COVID-19. He complains that IU continued with a planned tuition raise despite the pandemic, and that some Greek houses, including his, don’t give people their money back if they want to leave the house.

There were no good options. I wish there were,” Carroll said in an email. “Living in most houses does not appear to be safe with respect to avoiding infection. That’s the basis of my recommendation.” 

Carroll noted that while this was his recommendation, the houses are independently run and were not required to act. 

Phillips said she doesn’t have a stance on whether the university is targeting Greek life. She said she trusts that the people in charge know what they are doing and acknowledged the difficulty of figuring out just how much Greek residents should be tested.

“I would understand if they had to test Greek life more to make sure it’s not spreading, because it is kind of a weird, new living arrangement that usually doesn’t happen outside of college campuses,” Phillips said. 

In the kitchens, bedrooms, and front lawns of Bloomington’s Greek houses, the pandemic with its new rules, restrictions, and potentially distorted incentives have only made that “weird” arrangement even weirder.

***

While Greek houses currently in quarantine implemented their own COVID-19 rules at the beginning of the semester, they’ve only become stricter over time. During quarantine, residents are required to stay in the house for at least 14 days, not leaving even for classes or groceries. But because each house is responsible for setting and enforcing its own rules, the specific nature of that quarantine and those who tested positive can vary. At Kappa Delta, those isolating were allowed outside for a short period of time each day. At Phi Mu, people who tested positive for COVID-19 need to stay in their room and only leave to go to the bathroom for 10 days, the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Phillips, the Delta Gamma president, spent the summer coming up with the house rules her sorority sisters would need to follow to keep the house open this fall. Using guidelines set by the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life as well as those set by her chapter’s national leadership, Phillips reduced the number of women who could live in the house from 115 to 60, mandated mask-wearing outside bedrooms, and ordered sisters to use separate bathrooms from that used by any student isolating. Crucially, almost no one from the outside, including live-out members of the sorority, is allowed in. The only people that can are essential workers that help clean or fix the house if necessary.

Although rules differ between houses, each chapter must comply with the rules set by their national organizations, and they’re strongly encouraged to follow those posted by the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life. Phillips said the only problems they’ve had in the Delta Gamma house were with women sometimes forgetting their masks while walking to the bathroom, or simply forgetting when new rules were made. 

“We haven’t had a lot of trouble with that,” Phillips said. “I think people really understand that it is a very serious situation, we have immunocompromised women living in the house.”

And yet: by August 29, 13 cases of COVID-19 were identified in the house, a positivity rate of about 20 percent, leading the MCHD to put the chapter under quarantine. The house mom received an email in the morning and one hour later the house was completely shut down, with no time for its residents even to buy groceries. Despite the rules developed by Phillips and other chapter presidents, Delta Gamma and more than 30 other chapters were ordered to quarantine. According to the most recent data from the university, the overall positivity rate in Greek houses is 15.4 percent, nearly 13 percentage points higher than that of their counterparts in IU’s residence halls. (As of this writing, 23 houses are currently under quarantine.)

At Phi Mu, the MCHD put the hammer down on September 10 after three women tested positive, with many of the other 40 house members identified as being in close contact with them. The sorority’s Abby Walker said she knew she was taking a risk living with 60 women under one roof. About half of them slept in cold dorms and shared the same bathrooms, with the exception of those in isolation. 

“The sorority experience I always dreamed of is living in the house and getting to know all of the girls,” Walker said. “It’s a risk I was willing to take, because I did want that experience.” 

Phi Mu house

A sign reading “home is where my sisters are, Phi Mu” hangs on a corkboard alongside a hook with masks Sept. 12 inside Abby’s bedroom in the Phi Mu House. “Sisterhood is always having a support system that cares for me, my sisters bring out the best in me,” said Abby.Photo by Izzy Myszak

According to Walker, the quarantine hasn’t affected her school life considerably, as most of her classes are online. She said her and her sisters spend time sunning out in the lawn, and talking across the property line to some of the men next door at Theta Chi. (They’re also quarantined, with a whopping positivity rate of 76 percent). Walker said she doesn’t know what she’ll do if she tests positive, which would restrict her from going outside—her one saving grace during quarantine. 

Walker can go outside because she is in quarantine, not isolation. While these terms seem synonymous, understanding student behavior requires an understanding of the difference between them. “Isolation” refers to the period in which those infected are kept away from other people to prevent the virus’ spread, while “quarantine” is for those who were in close contact with the infected or, in the case of Greek life, living in a house ordered to quarantine, meant to prevent its spread into the community. 

According to Walker, Phi Mu’s policy is that women who have tested positive and gone through 10 days of isolation don’t have to stay in the house even if their chapter’s quarantine hasn’t officially ended. That rule is based on an isolation guidance set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The set of recommendations for compiled by IU’s Student Health Center also recommends 10 days for isolation.

In Phi Mu, once a member has been in isolation for 10 days and no longer have symptoms or a fever, they can come and go as they please. Walker said there is a member who tested positive at the beginning of the semester, who she now sees all the time when she is out on the lawn with her friends. 

“Now, since she is done with her quarantining, she walks off the property line. She can go wherever,” Walker said. “We just watch her, the whole sorority.” 

To those in quarantine, catching the deadly virus almost seems like a get-out-of-jail-free-card. Walker said some members have joked about how they just want to get it over with so they can enjoy the same freedom. But Walker has asthma, and said she’s afraid of the effect COVID-19 could have on her. She described hearing from members of Theta Chi who said that they drank from the same container as someone who had tested positive in the house just to get the quarantine over with. Walker said fraternity brothers were laughing at themselves as they talked about it. [Theta Chi did not respond to a request for comment.] 

Walker said she’s not interested in risking serious illness—or even death—just for a little more freedom. Still, like millions of Americans across the country, she isn’t doing the best mentally in quarantine, entirely separated from her friends outside of the sorority house. 

“I don’t want to say I’m depressed, but this is the closest I’ve ever been to depressed in my life,” Walker said. 

Phi Mu’s house hasn’t yet entirely shut down, forcing its members to find somewhere else to live, but members do have the option to stay or go. That option is at the core of the dilemma facing not just IU, but the entire country—What chance do we have of solving the collective action problem posed by a pandemic when we’re free to make our own decisions and ignore “recommendations” like Carroll and Carney’s? 

Like many Americans, Walker says that decision comes down to one factor: her personal relationships. Despite the risk and the quarantine regulations, she chooses to stay in the house because of the friendships she’s made in the chapter, especially with her roommates. She said that if they moved out, she would do the same. 

“They really brighten my day,” Walker said. “I couldn’t imagine not living with them.” 

Madi Smalstig is a junior studying journalism and Spanish at Indiana University. Madi has worked for IU’s student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, every semester she’s been at IU and is currently the elections reporter. She spent last summer working for the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, covering the Black Lives Matter movement and other local events.
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