Strict limits on parties and other private gatherings are now in effect as Newark braces for the return of University of Delaware students and a possible uptick in coronavirus cases.
City council imposed the restrictions Monday night after two hours of contentious debate.
“The news is filled with universities across the country that had almost catastrophic results when the students returned to campus and had massive parties,” Councilwoman Sharon Hughes said. “This is not the time to take the brakes off. The virus is where I want the attention to be. The virus is insidious. It has ravaged our country.”
Under the law, parties and other gatherings at private residences are limited to 12 people indoors or 20 people outdoors. The limit includes residents of the property but excludes kids 16 and younger – a concession aimed at limiting the burden on families.
Party guests, as well as the hosts of the party, can be cited under the law.
If convicted, violators will be fined $100 to $500 and be ordered to complete up to 20 hours of community service. For a second offense, the penalty increases to $500 to $1,000 and up to 32 hours of community service.
The penalties will be civil citations, meaning they won’t appear on the person’s criminal record. However, civil offenses require a lower burden of proof for the prosecution, which only has to demonstrate a preponderance of evidence rather than prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Anyone accused of violating the ordinance a third time will be charged criminally and face a fine of up to $1,500.
The city will allow residents to apply for a permit to hold a larger gathering, with approval based on the size of the residence and adherence to social distancing guidelines. A draft of the permit requires applicants to submit a schematic of their table layout, give state officials contact information for guests if there is a coronavirus outbreak connected to the party and allow the city to inspect the home prior or during the party; however city officials said they would scale back those rules after council members balked.
The law applies only to private gatherings, not businesses or events in public places.
The debate in Newark comes as large parties and coronavirus spikes at other universities continue to make headlines.
Notre Dame had to suspend classes after more than 300 students tested positive for COVID-19. East Carolina University reported a cluster of cases in a residence hall less than a week after authorities there busted 20 parties, including one with 400 people, during the university’s opening weekend. At Penn State, videos surfaced of mask-less freshmen dancing on the lawn of their dorms in a scene described in local news accounts as akin to a mosh-pit or a rowdy football game tailgate.
Most recently, Ohio State University suspended more than 200 students for violating coronavirus restrictions.
Newark officials noted that the University of Delaware “has received national recognition as being one of the pre-eminent ‘party schools’ among colleges in the United States.”
UD has moved its classes online, except for certain labs and other hands-on courses. Only 1,400 students are expected to move into the dorms this weekend, just a fraction of the more than 7,000 who typically live on campus.
The biggest concern, though, is about the thousands of students who will live in off-campus apartments and houses around Newark. Officials fear that returning students will congregate at house parties and bars, potentially spreading COVID-19 amongst themselves. Those students might then visit grocery stores, restaurants, etc., risking spreading the virus to Newark residents.
Council has spent more than a month mulling whether to reinstate restrictions similar to the 10-person limit that was in effect from March through June.
City attorney Paul Bilodeau proposed limiting gatherings to 10 people indoors or 25 outdoors. On Monday, council voted on a flurry of amendments to tweak the numbers, with some members arguing for stricter limits and others looking to loosen the restriction.
They ultimately compromised on 12 indoors and 20 outdoors. They also voted to change the age of exemption from 14 to 16 and give the city alderman more discretion in issuing fines.
The ordinance passed 5-2, with councilmen Jay Bancroft and Chris Hamilton opposed.
Bancroft said he was torn over the proposal, but voiced concern that the city is “poking into people’s freedoms.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, advocated for stricter limits. He noted that there are areas in the neighborhoods he represents where three student rental properties are adjacent and said he worries they will throw joint parties with a total of 60 people across the three backyards.
“This is life and death, and some of you aren’t taking it that way,” Hamilton said, chastising his colleagues who supported a higher limit. “I’m stunned. We’re sitting here talking about, ‘Hey let’s have some bigger parties.’ It’s unbelievable.”
Another faction – made up of councilmen Jason Lawhorn, James Horning Jr. and Travis McDermott – supported the ordinance but said they wished the limit was higher.
“I’ve just had too many people that think this thing is way too aggressive, and I struggle with it,” Lawhorn said, adding that he fears the law will affect families who want to safely gather with friends or relatives.
Caitlin Olsen, UD’s liaison to the city, said the university supports the ordinance and plans to inform students about the new regulations immediately. Students convicted of violating the law will be referred to the office of student conduct for additional sanctions, which could be as severe as suspension or expulsion.
The law passed Monday was voted on as an emergency ordinance, which can be enacted immediately without the usual public notice requirements. It will be in effect for 60 days, or until council enacts a permanent ordinance through the usual legislative process.
Council is set to consider the permanent ordinance Sept. 28, and it would remain in place until the pandemic is over. At that time, council can revisit the details of the law if members desire.