Will coronavirus join the rush at fraternities and sororities?
The big bouquets of roses. The towering signs spelling out the letters of each house in Greek. And the hundreds of rushees clutching their acceptance envelopes as they run through campus together.
Bid day at the University of Alabama, when sororities decide which pledges will join their sisterhoods, is cause for celebration.
But this past weekend, women at the school, which has one of the biggest Greek systems in the country with 11,000 members, were warned not to party following their invitations to join any of two dozen sororities because of the potential spread of the coronavirus.
That did not stop all of them.
The bars and sidewalks along the Strip were crowded on Sunday as sorority members and other students reveled in their return-to-school rituals, sparking criticism from public officials, the fury of university officials and worries from other Tuscaloosans.
The concerns over Greek life come amid reports of virus outbreaks at fraternities and sororities across the country. Universities are struggling with how to prevent tightly packed sorority and fraternity houses from turning into coronavirus clusters.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, officials abruptly called off in-person classes on Monday after identifying four clusters in student housing facilities, including one at the Sigma Nu fraternity.
“The frats are being frats: They are having their parties,” Lamar Richards, a UNC sophomore, said.
The New York Times has identified at least 251 cases of the virus tied to fraternities and sororities. At the University of California, Berkeley, 47 cases were identified in a single week in early July, most of which were connected to the Greek system. In Mississippi, a significant outbreak in Oxford, home to the state’s flagship university, was partially blamed on fraternity parties. At the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, at least 165 of the 290 cases identified by the school have been associated with its Greek Row.
As students return to campus, there have been virus outbreaks at residence halls and other university housing as well. More than 13,000 students, faculty and staff members at colleges have been infected with the coronavirus, according to a Times database of cases confirmed by schools and government agencies.
But fraternities and sororities have been especially challenging for universities to regulate. Though they dominate social life on many campuses, their houses are often not owned or governed by the universities, and have frequently been the site of excessive drinking, sexual assault and hazing. That same lack of oversight, some experts say, extends to controlling the virus. Even on campuses that are offering online instruction only, people are still living in some sorority and fraternity houses.
“Fraternity and sorority homes have long functioned as a kind of ‘no-fly zone’ for university administrations,” said Matthew W. Hughey, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut who has studied Greek life and social inequality on campuses. “The structure that’s already been set up makes them harder to control when it comes to the transmission of disease.”
Among the 25 fraternity houses hosting students over the summer at the University of Washington, 15 of them suffered a coronavirus outbreak in the last week of July. At least 165 students of the 1,000 living there tested positive for the virus. Students quarantined within their fraternity houses, sometimes designating an entire floor for infected students. Across two of the facilities, 45 out of 65 students tested positive.
And at the University of Southern California, where classes — all held remotely — started on Monday, administrators have traced two outbreaks to fraternity houses over the past month, according to Dr. Sarah Van Orman, the university’s chief student health officer. In mid-July around 45 people tested positive for the virus, most of them members of fraternities or sororities. And last week 15 people were found to be infected, some of them fraternity members and others who lived nearby.
“It’s very challenging for everyone during this time, but we know particularly for young adults who crave connection, who crave being together,” Van Orman said.
Some members say they are making the appropriate sacrifices, like not holding the social events that many look forward to as a way to relax, form friendships and recruit new members.
“We have a lot of rules in place. We can’t do a lot,” said Tyler Blaylock, a 21-year-old senior at Florida Gulf Coast University. “We can’t do functions, and if we got caught, we would get kicked off, so we are not messing around.”
Blaylock tested positive for COVID-19 in March, along with at least 10 other members of his Sigma Chi fraternity.
“My biggest thing is, I want to shake someone’s hand and get to know a guy,” Blaylock said. “You can’t do that through Zoom.”
Fraternities and sororities say they have recommended significant departures from the familiar rhythms of Greek life to avoid spreading the virus. The North American Interfraternity Conference, a trade association of 58 fraternities — about 85% of the total — said its members were following local public health guidelines regarding the size of group gatherings. And in some cases, their own social distancing rules are even more strict.
Fraternities at the University of Missouri, for instance, have suspended all gatherings on chapter property starting next week, despite guidelines from the university that allow for gatherings of up to 20 people. A council made up of the fraternity chapters on campus recommended that each chapter allow members living in fraternity houses one guest at a time, and only in individual rooms, not in common spaces.
“Chapters will be met with strict consequences for violating the new rules,” the group’s board wrote in a memo last week.
On Monday, the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization covering 26 sororities with 400,000 undergraduate members, recommended that all sororities move to a fully virtual rush this fall.
Prospective members will be vetted on Zoom or other internet platforms, said Dani Weatherford, the organization’s chief executive.
Sorority houses are privately owned — usually by the local or national chapters of the organizations. But they often have agreements with universities that require them to adhere to campus rules on health and safety, Weatherford said. Most sororities are requiring members to sign “wellness pledges” in which they vow to check their temperature daily and be aware of symptoms — and take appropriate action if they have any.
At the University of Alabama, administrators recently visited sorority houses and issued new occupancy limits.
“They came into each one of the houses and said, ‘This is how many people can fit into this room socially distanced. This is how many people can sit in the dining room at any particular time,’” Weatherford said.
Some sororities hired a moving company to haul students’ belongings into their rooms, rather than having a parade of family members carrying things in.
Discipline for those who violate the rules is handled by each sorority, Weatherford said.
“Where you’re going to have problems with this will not be within the university’s care,” Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa said, nodding to new university policies that banned rites of Greek life like swaps and formals. But he acknowledged that safeguards could ebb behind closed doors or away from campus, and that outbreaks could emerge within the university’s Greek organizations.
Despite all the restrictions, both fraternities and sororities say they are reporting swelling numbers of applicants. Students are pining for the connections that college life is supposed to offer. And with many of the normal avenues of meeting people and making friends closed off, many students are turning to the Greek system. There are about 800,000 undergraduate members of fraternities and sororities.
“So far our recruitment registration numbers have been phenomenal, record-breaking,” Weatherford said.
But that enthusiasm can sometimes translate into behavior that non-Greek students say endangers others.
Robert Beyer, a senior at the University of Southern California, said he had observed good social distancing practices in neighborhoods around campus — except fraternity row, where he said he routinely saw large groups of students standing close together.
“Their attitudes are so selfish,” Beyer said. “They don’t care about spreading it to other people. I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s worth it to socialize and be with my friends even if it means getting COVID.’”
Some students and faculty said university administrators, not Greek-system students, were to blame for bringing students back to campus and not reining in bad behavior: “I feel like the school should have more strictly enforced the parameters they set in the first place,” said Kesan Ucheya, 17, a freshman at the University of North Carolina.
On Monday, Matthew Spangler, the president of the Sigma Nu chapter at Chapel Hill, where a virus cluster had been identified, said that he tested negative for the coronavirus with a fast test on Friday, but that his mother urged him to get another test.
He is awaiting those results.
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