City of Newark officials are considering possible restrictions on private gatherings as the COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Delaware continues to worsen.
UD reported 136 new cases Thursday. That is UD’s highest one-day total ever, breaking the record set Wednesday, when 105 cases were reported. So far this week, UD has seen 255 cases, the worst since early March.
To put the numbers in context, the City of Newark saw 113 cases over the summer, between UD’s graduation on May 28 and when students began moving in Aug. 26. UD exceeded that number with just Thursday’s infections.
“Rest assured, the Newark government will do what is necessary and what is right,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said Thursday afternoon.
UD officials said that, much like last year, the virus is spreading at large off-campus parties.
However, Newark cannot immediately reinstitute limits on private gatherings as once expected, spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said.
The law – limiting parties to 20 people outdoors or 10 indoors – was in effect for most of last school year but was lifted in late May as case counts dropped. The law was written so the restrictions would be retriggered if the city sees two consecutive weeks of 125 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate of 6 percent or higher.
Newark has already surpassed that threshold but won’t reinstate the current law due to legal concerns.
“The ordinance is no longer applicable as written because the Governor’s State of Emergency has ended,” Gravell said. “The main issue is in the section title: ‘Section 22-74.4 – Unlawful social gathering in or at a private residence during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.’”
Clifton said the city intends to work with state health officials to craft a new ordinance using different metrics. However, he kept open the possibility that the city could pass short-term restrictions via an emergency ordinance at Monday night’s council meeting.
What happens over the weekend will play a large role in the discussion, Clifton said, noting that he wants to see if this is just a temporary start-of-the-semester spike or the beginning of a more disturbing trend.
“You have about 9 percent of student body that aren't vaccinated. So if that's where the spike is coming from, and we're seeing the net results from just that population, then it's possible the numbers may plateau or go down come our meeting on Monday,” Clifton said. “And I'm hopeful that is what's going to happen. So I think it's a little early to say that we're absolutely going to do this or that Monday night.”
He noted that while some people will oppose any new restrictions, imposing some limits on gatherings could help get the outbreak under control and prevent the need for harsher measures later.
“It's like the old military adage – the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war,” Clifton said. “That's what this is, it's a war. So if we sacrifice a little bit on the front side, we can have a better back side.”
The worse-case scenario for Newark, he said, is if UD has to move classes online and send students home – a move that could be detrimental for local businesses and the city’s finances.
“Even last year, when the business were saying that they weren't going to survive, they did survive. But I'm not sure that they can take a round two of this and survive,” Clifton said. “Round two could be the knockout punch.”
Also on Thursday, Newark canceled the annual Community Day festival on the UD Green. UD requires all attendees of events on campus to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test – a restriction that officials said would be impossible to enforce at an event like Community Day.
UD is planning to have full capacity at Saturday’s Blue Hen football game, but all attendees must show proof of vaccination or a negative test.
UD running out of isolation space
According to UD officials, the on-campus isolation space is nearing capacity, and the university will ask students who test positive to go home to their permanent residence to quarantine.
“The rise in cases at UD matches the situation in Delaware and the nation, with the increases due primarily to the virus’ Delta variant,” Vice President for Student Life José-Luis Riera and Director of Student Health Services Dr. Timothy Dowling wrote in a letter to students Wednesday. “While more than 90 percent of you are fully vaccinated, the Delta variant is highly contagious and has infected some vaccinated individuals.”
UD has seen a total of 332 cases since students returned for the fall semester. University officials did not say how many of those who tested positive were actually showing symptoms.
The true number of cases could be even higher because UD is not routinely testing all students, like it did last year. Only unvaccinated students and employees are required to be tested weekly.
The rapid rise in cases is a discouraging sign for UD, which had hoped that a vaccine mandate and an indoor mask mandate would allow for a relatively normal semester. The vaccine mandate is already in effect, but students who don’t comply or have a documented exemption could begin facing disciplinary sanctions Sept. 14.
Even with nearly all students vaccinated, UD has seen significantly more cases in the first two weeks of this fall than it did in the first two weeks of Fall 2020.
“This number may be discouraging and anxiety-inducing, and we need your help to safeguard our community,” Riera and Dowling wrote.
Faculty union calls for more precautions
On Tuesday, the faculty union, the American Association of University Professors, sent a letter to the UD President Dennis Assanis and Provost Robin Morgan, urging them to institute stronger COVID-19 precautions.
The letter called for mandatory weekly testing of all students and employees on campus, regardless of vaccination status. Currently, only those who are unvaccinated are required to be tested.
“We are perplexed and troubled by the lack of thorough surveillance testing and additional measures that would seem prudent to put in place because of the rapidly spreading Delta variant. We believe that this lack of appropriate measures is creating a potentially dangerous situation that could erupt later (or even sooner) during this fall semester,” AAUP-UD President Deni S. Galileo wrote. “We ask that this inadequacy be corrected, and that the university implement our requested items immediately, along with other measures that would contribute to the health and safety of UD faculty, staff, and students.”
The union also called on UD to reverse a new policy that restricts the number of access points to campus buildings. At the beginning of the semester, the university began keeping some doors locked in the name of increased security.
“This restriction of access to buildings forces people to funnel though doors, especially between classes, thus decreasing physical distancing and increasing congregation outside buildings while most people are still unmasked,” Galileo wrote.
In a letter to faculty Wednesday, Morgan wrote that professors can temporarily move classes online for up to two weeks if they determine that the number of students who are sick or in quarantine negatively affects student learning.
However, she added that professors are prohibited from informing students if someone in the class has tested positive. Instead, professors are encouraged to give students a generic message that due to the university’s rising COVID-19 numbers, students should assume it’s possible they have been in contact with people who could be contagious.
Anyone determined to be in “close contact” with a COVID-19 positive individual, as defined by CDC and Division of Public Health guidelines, will be notified by Student Health Services.