Large gathering and mask enforcement not starting well at BYU

Students gather in on-campus housing areas before the semester starts. Some are concerned about BYU’s lack of enforcement regarding COVID-19 safety protocols. (Lisi Merkley, Thomas Fekete, Luke Romney)

BYU has outlined its expectations of students regarding COVID-19 protocols for Fall Semester, but how it will enforce those guidelines is less clear — and it seems students are taking advantage of this.

Large gatherings where individuals are not wearing masks or practicing social distancing have occurred in the last week on campus despite BYU’s encouragement to avoid such gatherings and follow safety guidelines.

On Tuesday, Aug. 25, the same day BYU posted an Instagram story warning against parties and large gatherings, there were two separate gatherings of 100 to 200 people at Helaman and Heritage Halls around 9 p.m. Neither group practiced social distancing and most individuals were not wearing masks.

“I have seen scenes like this almost every night since I arrived on campus,” said Rylee Holmes, a Heritage Halls resident and freshman. “Honestly it was kind of scary.”

Luke Romney, an interdisciplinary humanities freshman, lives in Merrill Hall at Helaman Halls. He said he has also seen multiple large gatherings since he moved in.

“The actions of these students are honestly selfish and disappointing. I want to have social experiences too, but I always make sure they are in a safe way,” Romney said. “Especially after BYU’s Instagram story on Tuesday, I just don’t see any excuse for this kind of behavior.”

Both Romney and Holmes expressed frustration that the decisions of other students could negatively impact their freshman experience if classes go online. They would also like to see better enforcement of BYU’s guidelines, with Romney suggesting resident assistants and hall advisors be able to break up large gatherings in the dorms.

Thomas Fekete, another freshman and Helaman Halls resident, said while there aren’t large groups of students gathering together 24/7, it’s “pretty bad.”

“I just can’t go home for school, and it’s like watching people get me closer to going back,” he said. “Don’t make it harder for others because you want the freshman experience, I already don’t get that, so just be mindful and try, please.”

He filmed a video of what seemed to be a party at Helaman Halls over the weekend where the University Police were called to break it up.

University Police Lt. Rich Christianson confirmed a gathering of about 100 individuals took place at Helaman Halls over the weekend and that University Police were called because people weren’t wearing masks. 

“University Police encourage wearing masks in compliance with BYU’s policy to protect the campus community from the spread of COVID-19. However, University Police and security do not enforce compliance,” says a statement from the BYU Office of the General Counsel.

Instead, Christianson said University Police will break up parties or gatherings that are disruptive or not sanctioned by the university, meaning private events where BYU has not communicated approval to students. Christianson said there are likely many private events and gatherings the police never receive calls about because they are small enough in nature. “Usually we just get called on the real big ones that get caught,” he said. 

BYU also released a new set of FAQs on Wednesday, Aug. 26, that address some issues of enforcement. The FAQs state that individuals who are non-compliant with campus COVID policies will have their on-campus privileges restricted, which may include not being able to attend class on campus, work on campus or receive in-person campus services. It could also result in suspension and loss of employment.

Individuals with a disability that impacts their ability to comply with COVID policies must provide documentation of their condition to the university.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the university hopes compassionate conversations will help students follow BYU requirements. But she said if non-compliance with BYU’s COVID-19 requirements continues, these situations can be reported at a local level first and should be addressed by area supervisors, managers and building managers.

Reports of students who are non-compliant can be submitted to the Disruptive Student Committee in the Dean of Students Office, while similar reports for employees and visitors can be submitted to a supervisor and the BYU Office of the General Counsel, respectively.

BYU is not alone in its struggle to encourage students to adhere to COVID policies. Other universities have moved from in-person to remote instruction after COVID outbreaks, with some outbreaks having been traced back to large student gatherings and parties. Syracuse University, for example, suspended 23 students after a large group of students participated in a “selfish and reckless” gathering on campus.

“We have asked the members of our campus community to please be intentional right now to keep themselves and the BYU community safe. In order for this semester on campus to work, it will take a concerted effort from all of us, working together,” Jenkins said.

Additional reporting by Lisi Merkley

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