As coronavirus cases continue to mount at the University of Delaware, Gov. John Carney is calling for stepped-up enforcement of social gathering restrictions.
“It seems that with a combination of complacency and just ignoring the public health restrictions and guidelines among the student population as the students come back to town, enforcement increasingly is going to be an important part of containing the spread of the virus,” Carney said during his weekly press briefing Tuesday.
UD is now up to 129 coronavirus cases, according to the most recent data provided by the university.
The tally includes students and employees who have physically been on campus in the days leading up to testing positive as well as students living in off-campus housing within downtown Newark.
UD does its own surveillance testing and refers presumptive positive cases for a second, FDA-approved test for confirmation. Cases listed in the official count have been confirmed positive through a molecular diagnostic test and were reported to the university by the Delaware Division of Public Health.
UD, which is conducting approximately 1,000 tests per week, has not released information about the severity of the cases.
Carney noted that the cause of many of the infections continues to be off-campus parties. Some of the students who have tested positive have told contact tracers, “Yeah, we had a big party,” he added.
“It’s these off-campus social activities, super-spreader events, that are causing the uptick in cases,” the governor said.
He added that some of the parties are tied to sports teams, and officials plan to contact coaches and ask for their help getting their athletes to comply.
While praising the city of Newark and UD for doing what they can, Carney called for better public health messaging and consequences for students who aren’t following the rules.
“Guess what, students care more about university sanctions, which end up in their parents’ hands, as opposed to a citation from the city of Newark that their parents never see,” he said. “We need to think through that.”
UD officials have said that any student cited by the city will also face university discipline, which could be as harsh as suspension or expulsion.
Carney urged UD and Delaware State University students to consider the impact their carelessness can have on the surrounding community.
“It's not just about you and your party and your 20 friends or 30 or 40 friends. It's about the community,” he said.
Carney said that bad behavior on college campuses will ultimately make it harder for the state to give grade schools the green light to reopen.
“Being complacent about following those restrictions in Newark, Dover and other places means its going to take us longer to get their younger brothers and sisters back in classrooms in front of teachers because our numbers are going to go up as they are gradually, our percent positive is going to go up, and we’re going to have to be more cautious about those learning environments in-person with teachers,” he said.
While there was much discussion over the summer about Newark’s bars and restaurants – with city council proposing to limit bar seating before backing down due to a lawsuit threat – Carney said state officials have seen few coronavirus-related issues in the bars. In fact, he said, tightening restrictions in bars could push more people into drinking at house parties, which are uncontrolled environments and tend to be riskier.
Under Newark’s social gathering ordinance, parties and other gatherings at private residences are limited to 12 people indoors or 20 people outdoors.
On Aug. 31, police busted a 75-person party on Annabelle Street, but have not seen a party that big since then, Newark City Manager Tom Coleman said Monday. Over the past weekend, police issued citations for two parties, one with approximately 30 people and one with around 20.
“They seem to be getting smaller,” Coleman said. “I think the message is out and people are responding appropriately.”
Mayor Jerry Clifton said the social gathering laws seems to have had at least some success in keeping parties to a minimum.
“I think in some areas it has, but I’ve got to be honest with you, some it hasn't. I think there are certainly indications that some areas are maybe pushing it to the absolute limits,” Clifton said, mentioning Cleveland Avenue as one of the areas of concern.
He praised the UD administration for taking its pandemic preparations seriously.
“Any rise is concerning to me, but I know the university does have very serious protocols in place as to how they react to the rise in numbers,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether this was just a beginning-of-the-school-year bump or whether this is something that is going to have a more lasting effect. It's still too early, but I have all the faith in the world in the university administration that they understand and put in the proper protocols.”