Champaign-Urbana emergency orders fall short of researchers’ recommendations

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Photos are being captured of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student gatherings and parties as they return to campus. This gathering, located at Green Street Towers on August 21, 2020, was posted to Reddit, shaming students for ignoring city orders and not wearing masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cities of Champaign and Urbana both issued emergency orders intended to prevent a possible surge in COVID-19 cases as students return to campus for the fall semester. 

The emergency orders will limit operations at bars and restaurants in the area, particularly in the area known as Campustown.

The orders fell short of recommendations from two Illinois researchers who said bars and restaurants should close except for curb-side pick-up, drive through or delivery.

The orders follow deep concerns about the impact of thousands of students coming back to the community from other states and parts of Illinois that have much higher rates of cases. One specific concern is that students, like those at other universities, will have parties in which they do not social distance or wear face masks.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill halted in-person instruction officially on Wednesday, Aug. 19, after almost 200 students were isolated after testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday, according to a letter sent to the Carolina Community from UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Robert Blouin.  

Michigan State University as well as Notre Dame University also announced on Tuesday that instruction would be moved online. Notre Dame officials said they are only moving instruction online until Sept. 2, while Michigan State is moving online for the remainder of the semester. 

Under one of the emergency orders, Champaign will restrict indoor dining and only allow outdoor dining for the Campustown area until Labor Day on Sept. 7. For bars, the order went into effect on Wednesday, Aug. 19 at 5 p.m. and at 9 p.m. on Friday for restaurants.

Campustown is an area of bars, restaurants, small businesses and apartment high rises where students often socialize. It has Green Street as its center thoroughfare. The district contains about eight city blocks bordered on the west by Neil and Wright streets on the east and roughly by Healey Street on the north and John and Daniels Street on the south.

Illinois researchers Eric Jakobsson and Santiago Nunez-Corrales created a computer model that estimated that students will bring back nine times the viral load – or rate of disease – than of community members. In a letter to both city councils, they recommended the cities, all bars and restaurants return to having only curbside pick-up, delivery or drive through. They said without those measures there could be an additional 800 cases, 80 more hospitalizations and four more deaths.

A report compared student demographics from the last academic year with infection rates of where they are from. The comparison showed that up to 25,000 of the university’s roughly 50,000 students had permanent addresses with positivity rates of above 5 percent.

Since March, Champaign County has had 1,907 cases and 20 deaths as of Aug. 22, according to the Illinois Department of Health. The positivity rate has been lower than 2 percent, meaning only 2 percent or fewer of those people tested have tested positive.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, two-thirds of classes are already set to be online only and twice a week testing is required for all students residing in the Champaign County during the school year. 

For in-person classes, masks and face coverings are required and social distancing of six feet is to be maintained in classrooms. 

A Massmail by Chancellor Robert Jones sent to students, staff and faculty on Tuesday, Aug. 19, also stated that a trained employee or Wellness Support Associate would be inside either one or two entrances of buildings that in-person classes will be in.

All other entrances of these facilities will be locked. Anyone who wishes to enter the building will have to show a building entry status either on the Safer Illinois app or on a website called the COVID-19 Boarding Pass, which can be shown on a webpage or printed out. 

Entry is granted if the status shows the individual has up-to-date campus testing, does not have a positive COVID-19 test and does not have to quarantine or isolate for any reason. 

Another Champaign order requires all customers in bars and restaurants with liquor licenses in the rest of the city to be seated when eating or drinking, whether they are seated indoors or outdoors. Customers will only be able to stand when using the restroom or picking up a to-go order, and masks or face coverings will be required. 

In addition, anyone under the age of 21 will not be allowed inside a bar after 9 p.m. each night, effective Wednesday, Aug. 19, at 5 p.m. 

The city of Urbana also issued a similar order, effective Thursday, Aug. 20, at 9 p.m., that requires customers in bars and restaurants to be seated if not eating or drinking. Bars in Urbana are also to restrict entry to anyone under the age of 21 after 9 p.m.

The Urbana order also requires face coverings to be worn by customers and employees in any public area, business or facility when social distancing cannot be maintained. 

Both cities’ orders also are limiting parties and social gatherings to 10 during the time period. Under phase 4, gatherings can include up to 50 persons.

“Our actions are based on the information we have now. We know that consistently wearing face coverings is one of the most effective ways that we, as individuals and as a community, can reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Urbana Mayor Diane Wolfe Marlin said in a press release. 

Outside of Campustown, customers are able to enter bars and restaurants for placing orders, picking up orders and using the restrooms, but a mask or face covering must be worn at all times. 

“We have all made great sacrifices since the pandemic started, and I realize that these changes will be inconvenient for our residents and businesses, but they are necessary to flatten the curve and prevent a large increase in COVID-19 cases in our community as the fall semester gets underway. Flattening the curve now gives us a much better chance that students will be able to remain on campus and the University will be able to stay open for the remainder of the semester as originally planned,” Champaign Mayor Deborah Feinen stated in a Champaign press release. 

Jakobsson, who is a professor emeritus at the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications said in an email that the cities’ responses were made with economics in mind. 

He noted the emergency orders were strong on mask wearing and sizes of gatherings but were moderate in terms of how bars and restaurants could operate. He said restricting bars and restaurants more would “impose an economic cost” on business owners and employees. 

Jakobsson and Nunez-Corrales, a PhD student in Informatics, wrote their letter to Champaign and Urbana city officials last week after their research found more people would be infected or hospitalized if the cities stayed in Phase 4 of the Illinois reopening plan. The letter encouraged city officials to constrain bars and restaurants in their cities back to Phase 3 in order to slow a surge of COVID-19 cases as students return to campus. 

Phase 3  limits bars and restaurants from opening except for curb-side pick-up, delivery or drive-through. Phase 3 also limits private gatherings to a maximum of ten people. The researchers’ suggestion to move to Phase 3 was to last from Aug. 15 to Sept. 8. 

Illinois entered Phase 4 on June 26, which allowed groups of 50 to gather and permitted bars and restaurants to open with approved safety guidance. 

“I am pleased that they did anything at all in anticipation of the surge from the returning cohort.  So often public health measures are almost completely reactive. The cities are being somewhat proactive,” Jakobsson said.  

Nunez-Corrales also said in an email that the cities and the university made decisions in a way to prevent as many infections as they can without crippling the local economy. 

“The staggering amount of resources devoted by the University of Illinois to protect its students is as unprecedented as the pandemic, and will likely be a key ingredient in regaining our lives back locally,” Nunez-Corrales said. 

He said their research was done in order to help public officials make these types of decisions. 

“Even if the actions taken differ somewhat from our recommendations, they certainly move in the direction of public safety and collective responsibility,” Nunez-Corrales said. 

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  1. Janet

    I am so grateful for this information. I and my two adult children have breathing problems, I am 57 years old and wear a mask whenever, I go into public spaces. My children do as well, they are essential workers and have requested that others also wear masks. After they work, they come home and stay, especially my daughter who is twenty. On Sundays, we go out but we still wear our masks to protect ourselves and others.
    I have eaten in open air spaces, but it must be very limited with people. I drive by the Courier restaurant daily, the staff wears their mask, but many customers don’t.

    It’s outside, so there safe?? The traffic is getting heavy and the most of the trees have been cut down in Crystal lake.
    I remember attending a city council meeting here $700,000 dollars was paid to a company for tree removal and installation, at Urbana. They say birds feces, bats and other debris are the reason for the Coronovirus?