The first Michigan State University game day during the Covid-19 pandemic was this Saturday, and the occasion looked different depending which side of Grand River Ave. you happened to be on.
While campus was a relative ghost town, the East Lansing Police Department issued several citations to those hosting large gatherings in near-university neighborhoods. Now MSU is partnering with the City for a restorative justice program in which some students who have violated public health orders will engage the East Lansing community through volunteer work and service projects.
Lively downtown contrasts with empty campus
Tailgating was prohibited on campus this weekend, and no one seemed to attempt it. MSU police and parking enforcement blocked off many of the roads that allow access to the stadium.
Inside Spartan Stadium, approximately 200 fans attended the game against Rutgers, sitting in stands that also included cardboard cutouts of fans – including some dogs – who could not attend in person.
Employees and student athletes were tested for Covid-19 in advance of the game and then again on Saturday morning. Some employees were also given the option of purchasing medical-grade masks to wear while they worked the game.
Across Grand River Ave., downtown East Lansing had a livelier atmosphere, but the ELi reporting team found that most outdoor parties stayed under 25 people – the maximum cap on people at outdoor gatherings in certain parts of downtown.
In many cases, gatherings were well under this limit. One group of five or six students ran an extension cord outside to watch the game on TV on their front lawn. Many fraternities and sororities had empty lawns and abandoned beer pong tables.
On Saturday morning, the crowd downtown was mixed – masked and unmasked, students and non-students. Younger people carried cases of beer while others carried steaming cups of coffee.
Bars seemed to successfully avoid large lines forming outside their establishments. Harper’s advertised in advance on social media that it would be using an electronic reservation system. Last week, the Peanut Barrel and Crunchy’s told ELi they had similar systems in place. While people waited for their table to be seated, they could meander downtown and return after receiving an alert instead on congregating outside as they waited.
On Sunday morning, Mayor Aaron Stephens confirmed what our reporters saw on Saturday, telling ELi over text that, “The night was fairly quiet, the majority of our businesses maintained the rules, and there were a lot of 10-15 person tailgates with family or people that lived in their own houses.”
“However,” Stephens continued, “I encountered a few of the biggest parties I have seen all year yesterday. I was beyond disappointed. Not only that but when there was another, as I was watching people pour out of the backyard, I had people screaming at me, cussing at me, that we had ruined their good time, and Covid was a hoax.”
Citations were issued
The ELi team witnessed at least two houses receive citations for having outdoor gatherings with more than 25 people. According to ELPD Assistant Chief Steve Gonzalez, a total of four citations were issued on Saturday.
In August, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail capped outdoor gatherings at 25 people and indoor ones at 10. Then, earlier this month, Council unanimously passed Ordinance 1496, which made it a civil infraction to violate public health orders.
One party, held at a private house located near the intersection of Ann St. and Charles St., appeared already to have over 25 people before 10 a.m. The party size only grew throughout the morning and seemed to have well over 75 individuals on the front lawn when the police arrived around 11:50 a.m.
When two officers arrived on foot, young people streamed off the lawn and into the streets and alleys nearby. The officers wrote a citation to one individual who lived there. The residents claimed that they were unaware of the restrictions on gathering size.
The second citation that ELi witnessed was more confrontational. Police broke up an outdoor gathering on the 500-block of Evergreen St. that included well over 25 people in a small, mostly enclosed backyard. With blaring amplified music, members of the unmasked crowd were yelling in close proximity to each other to be heard above the noise.
What will happen to students who violated public health orders?
Stephens was optimistic in early September that a new town-gown relationship had emerged, in which MSU and the City were working together to keep both communities safe during the pandemic.
But, like many roads in Michigan, this one has been bumpy, particularly after the Big Ten announced that it would hold football games after all. In the lead-up to game day, Stephens and 11 other mayors of Big Ten cities wrote the Big Ten to ask for them to consider the Covid-19 risk for their communities.
On Oct. 15, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg told one city commission that, while the City had previously relied upon existing ordinances to control large gatherings, including rules concerning underage drinking and noise violations, she hoped that the new ordinance would discourage East Lansing residents from partying as the Big Ten football season approaches.
According to Gregg, the citations will play a “crucial” role in limiting health ordinance violations, particularly among the MSU student population residing within City limits.
The newly imposed $500 fine will come directly from the City of East Lansing, while MSU is responsible for handing out restorative justice tasks. The idea is that a combination of these repercussions will encourage MSU students and other East Lansing residents to stay vigilant and safe in the face of the pandemic.
Gregg said that prior to Council passing the new ordinance, the MSU administration lacked “enthusiasm” for imposing strict punishments, like suspensions, on MSU students.
MSU thus far has enacted a “restorative justice model” for some students in violation of city and state health codes, and all incoming MSU students signed a pledge that they would follow these rules when they came to campus this year.
According to MSU deputy spokesperson Dan Olsen, “Restorative justice provides an opportunity for an individual to repair the harm that was done within a community. This approach creates a learning opportunity for the individual that goes beyond just punitive action.”
Adam Cummins, the City employee running the program, said student violators will participate in 80 hours of community service in concert with the City of East Lansing, complete a Covid-19 public service project, and attend meetings where they listen to stories about how Covid-19 has impacted the community.
At the virtual Arts Commission meeting on Oct. 15, Gregg called these steps taken by MSU “positive,” but insisted that this disciplinary model may not be enough to handle the most “egregious” student violators of the East Lansing health ordinances. Gregg sees large fraternity parties immediately following quarantine as examples of those that might benefit from harsher penalties.
As of Oct. 19, 11 MSU students were already participating in the restorative justice program. It is possible that the numbers have risen in the past week. ELPD issued 4 citations to violators of Ordinance 1496 during the weekend of Oct. 17 and at least two more on game day.
Andrew Graham and Alice Dreger contributed reporting.
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