Benjamin Nugent sends a postcard from the fraternity scene.
Last week, I drove to my hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, to see if the frat boys were following the university’s social distancing rules. It was a breezy Thursday evening, cool enough that you could sit out on a porch without pouring sweat. In a normal year, on a mild, late-August night like this one, I would have seen dense crowds of hundreds of UMass Greeks, happy to be reunited, milling through the streets surrounding the Alpha Sig fraternity and the Iota Gamma Epsilon sorority. I would have seen them scream greetings and profanities at each other, spill down the steps of the wooden porticos, stumble to the ground, sip from Solo cups, and dance to music blasted from weatherproof speakers, while cops monitored the scene from their cruisers, blue lights spinning as the mob flowed around them. It’s a harvest-season ritual familiar to anyone who grew up here, a marker of the end of summer.
This year is different, of course. All over the country, local authorities have traced COVID-19 outbreaks to fraternity parties, and colleges that have tried to resume in-person classes have struggled with students’ refusal to observe protocol. Over at Syracuse, the day before I arrived, hundreds of newly arrived first years had gathered on the quad and roved the campus in open mockery of the required safety measures. Through July, UMass had insisted it was going to bring its twenty-one thousand undergrads back to campus, even though most classes would be taught online, only to meet stiff resistance from locals and staff; the RA union called the plan “suicidal.” In early August the administration reversed course and instructed the students not to come back after all, unless they were taking studio, lab or captstone classes, the only courses that would be taught face-to-face. That meant that only a little more than a thousand kids would be allowed to live in the dorms. Those who lived off-campus—like frat boys and sorority girls—were discouraged from returning to Amherst. And if that wasn’t enough to put Greek life on pause, a movement to ban fraternities, driven by former members, Black students, and students of color, had gained followers through the summer. But nobody could force the Greeks to stay home with their parents. Would they come back to Amherst and try to throw the usual back-to-school rager, despite its potential lethality and despite the political headwinds? The only way to find out was to stalk them after nightfall. Read More