The University of Illinois brought an estimated 35,000 students back to campus in August, touting an expansive, saliva-based COVID-19 testing system that university researchers predicted would help limit campus cases to 700 by Thanksgiving break.
But even as the testing system, known as SHIELD, drew praise from national media and experts, the number of cases spiked within two weeks and eventually surged to 3,892 cases the Friday students left for the break.
While many students obeyed guidelines that included wearing masks and social distancing, a significant number of students held or attended large parties and social gatherings at Greek houses, dorms and apartments.
At the same time, bars in Campustown, the area around the university, did robust business during the semester.
While university administrators acknowledged the problems they faced, they maintained that the semester overall was a success because classes never stopped, and there was effective quarantining and cooperation with the two cities and the public health department.
Yet a review of more than 400 complaints about partying and public health violations, multiple disciplinary actions and partial lockdowns at apartment complexes show the impact of the partying and social gathering was far wider than previously recognized.
Public records show that four fraternities and one sorority have been disciplined and more than 1,500 students were disciplined.
In addition, dorms and other campus housing significantly limited students’ access at those buildings. What is not known is how many high rises and apartment complexes went into partial lockdowns without notifying public health or campus officials. The university did have a list of as many as 30 housing locations that were of concern because of testing.
More than 2,000 cases in a month
By Sept. 16, the university had recorded more than 2,000 cases just one month after students returned, and the number had surpassed 4,500 cases as finals ended on December 18.
From Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 alone, the university recorded 549 new cases, nearly doubling its total to 1,287 after just over two weeks of students on campus.
A member of a fraternity who saw its number of positive cases jump from a handful to more than 30 in a week said the outbreak could be traced back to parties held at several sorority members’ apartments over the first weekends back on campus.
“When there’s these apartment parties going on, it’s people coming from all different directions,” said the fraternity member, who requested anonymity because of fear of retribution from the fraternity system.
“So it’s not just eight friends who are really close with these eight girls, with these eight close guys, right? It’s 10 girls who have friends in three different fraternities, and they’re all there. And it’s 40 people and you don’t know where they’ve been. So your network goes from 20 to 30 people to 250 people that they’ve been exposed to in the last three days, or more.”
More than a quarter of those who lived in the fraternity house tested positive before the spread began to level off.
“We tracked it back to one get-together at an apartment with probably 40 plus people,” the fraternity member said. “It was just interesting to see that all those names all went to the same place that one night, and they all tested positive.”
He added, “It was kind of textbook.”
Reports, complaints show that non-compliance widespread
Similar scenarios played out across campus, prompting the university to increase enforcement of COVID-19 regulations.
After the fourth day in a row of more than 100 cases a day, Chancellor Robert Jones wrote in a Sept. 2 email to students that “unacceptable behavior by a small number of students” was responsible for a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, and that the university was immediately picking up its efforts “to identity and swiftly remove” students who violate rules. Jones also advised students to limit in-person activities to class, trips for groceries or food, work and other essential activities.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 16, Jones sent an update that said the increased mitigation efforts had worked and students could “carefully and responsibly resume some COVID-19-limited in-person activities,” while continuing to stress that students not attend parties. This was the same day the university reached 2,000 total cases since students began moving in on Aug. 16.
But a review of the more than 400 complaints sent to campus officials from Aug. 20 to Sept. 29 showed that violations of campus conduct and public health directives went far beyond a small number of students. The complaints cited the misbehavior of students, faculty and businesses near campus.
Fraternities made up the largest share of the complaints, making up at least 51. There were also 44 complaints about activities at various apartments and 37 complaints against individual students directly. Other complaints were mixed in who they were reporting or had multiple key terms.
On Sept. 1, multiple complaints came in, citing a party hosted by members of the Delta Sigma Pi Fraternity. The party allegedly had more than 200 attendees, including multiple people who knew they were positive for COVID-19. The frat did not return a request for comment.
A member of another fraternity, reporting the incident, said an attendee showed up at his house, maskless, where he “neglected to inform anyone that he was exposed to the virus, and then tested positive after socializing, going to bars and going to many different apartments.”
Multiple reports of the party say attendees tested positive afterward, including one that said, “DSP threw a party, and now a lot of us are dealing with the aftermath of choice people attending.”
On Sept. 5, there were at least six complaints of a pool party at the Seven07 apartment complex near the intersection of Fourth and John Street, with one saying that there were “a bunch of students partying in the pool area, although the building managers sent out an email” forbidding it. While the university police report indicated management said they warned residents not to use the pool or gather outside of allowed circumstances, one of the complaints alleged that the parties occurred there “every Friday.”
A representative from Seven07 said it would not comment on the pool parties or complaints.
On Sept. 8, University of Illinois police officers pulled over a vehicle of students, all residents at the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity house. The officers found that the students had just purchased alcohol, despite all of them being underage, and two of the students had tested positive for COVID-19 and were supposed to be in quarantine.
On Sept. 9, two reports warned that YouTube stars the Nelk Boys could be headed to campus, citing a massive party the group had attended at neighboring Illinois State a night prior.
One of the complaints said the group actually approached them, “standing close to me without a mask.”
The complainant said they proceeded to ask the man to put on a mask, and he would not comply until the complainant “threatened to call the police, I guess, since they didn’t want to ruin the prank. It wasn’t until I pulled out my phone to call the police that he walked away.”
There were at least six complaints alleging parties and forbidden gatherings at Acacia Fraternity in late August and during September. The organization already had its recognition revoked until May of 2024 due to hazing and conduct threatening the safety of people, but it has nonetheless been operating without university recognition ever since. Acacia did not respond to a request for comment.
Another fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was reported for parties on Sept. 12 and 14, with one of the reports alleging that “many individuals (about 20) were entering the house” with alcohol.
Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, the body that oversees Greek organizations at Illinois, did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged violations at the Greek Houses.
As of Dec. 22, the university has disciplined four fraternities and one sorority for COVID-19 violations, though it is likely there are other cases still pending. None of the fraternities listed above are included in that list, at least for now.
Delta Tau Delta Fraternity was on interim suspension after hosting a large party on Sept. 17, the day after Jones’ instructions reiterated that students should limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people. It has had its revocation of recognition by the university held in abeyance, or temporary suspension, until Nov. 13, 2021.
That means the fraternity will continue to be recognized “under restrictions and conditions” and can eventually regain its normal operating status if there are no other violations in that time.
Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity, which hosted a large party the weekend of Aug. 29 and was suspended, is now on conduct probation until May 22, 2021. A request for comment was not returned.
Another fraternity, Sigma Beta Rho, has been placed on conduct probation until Sept. 29, 2021 for hosting a gathering in violation of the COVID-19/City Emergency Orders and Chancellors Jones’ order to avoid social gatherings on Sept. 2.
Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity has been placed on conduct probation until Nov. 16, 2021 after violating mask protocol and city emergency orders.
Alpha Phi Sorority is on conduct probation until Sept. 30, 2021 after being found in violation of Jones’ order to avoid social gatherings, mask noncompliance, social distancing noncompliance and failure to comply with “reasonable directions” from a university agent.
As of Nov. 16, the university had come to resolutions in 1,895 cases against students.
The university dismissed 34 students, holding six additional dismissals in abeyance, while putting 487 students on conduct probation.
The university censured an additional 139 students, reprimanded 91 students and 694 students received warning letters. It dropped charges against 60 students and found 285 students not in violation.
Fraternities and parties weren’t the only ones targeted by the complaints.
Joe’s Brewery, a bar in Campustown at 706 S. 5th St, received more than 23 complaints in the first several weeks of the semester alone.
Among the most serious allegations include 100-plus, mostly maskless patrons waiting for entry in a non-socially distanced line on Sept. 17.
“The majority of the people in the line are not wearing masks and none are social distancing,” the complaint read. “They are in close quarters. More people keep arriving as time goes on.”
Another complainant wrote, “The picture says it all. Tens of people in line at Joe’s Bar not social distancing. They’ll be the reason we get sent home because they’re so selfish, and the school doesn’t do anything about the bars or the people who go there, then punish (sic) the entire campus for the actions of selfish people.”
The Red Lion and Kam’s, both owned by Champaign businessman Scott Cochrane, had more than five complaints in the same period.
On Sept. 4, one complaint alleged that Red Lion patrons were “all in close contact, some without masks. This is not an essential activity.”
The Campustown bars each had to close at varying points throughout the semester in accordance with public health district orders, but all chose to reopen when allowed, filling up with university students time and time again.
A manager at Joe’s declined to comment, instead referring CU-CitizenAccess to its Instagram and Facebook accounts, where it had pushed out several statements.
In a Sept. 10 Twitter post, in the middle of the university’s spike in cases, the bar declared it would reopen “after considering the trends in positive cases.”
“We will continue to evaluate how we can be a productive contributor to the community and university’s efforts against the coronavirus,” read the post. “All patrons will be required to present the Safer Illinois app on entry with at least a yellow badge and with bluetooth and location services turned on. Our inside space remains closed, but our large outdoor area will be open. Please be smart, Illini. Wear a mask.”
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District’s contact tracers filed numerous reports on students who were not complying with orders to self-quarantine, according to a complaint to campus officials.
One report, from Aug. 25, described a student who “hung up after arguing about the quarantine period” and “now is unresponsive.”
On Aug. 26, the public health district reported a student who “barely completed the initial interview and would not talk to the contact tracers trying to complete follow-up” and that she “was very rude and told us never to call her again.”
A Sept. 13 complaint from a contact tracer details a student who told the health district he “will absolutely not quarantine and never wants us to contact him again.”
Greek life members contracted COVID-19 at higher rates
Illinois Newsroom reported on Dec. 10 that 1,051 undergraduate students, nearly one-third of the 3,226 undergraduate students who contracted the virus between the beginning of move-in on Aug. 16 and the last day of in-person classes on Nov. 20, lived in private certified housing. which includes Greek houses and other private residences.
Greek houses and other private residences made up only about 13% of the testing population in the first and last weeks of the semester. The university disclosed to Illinois Newsroom only estimated percentages instead of releasing exact numbers, which university officials said fluctuated throughout the semester.
Students in university housing represented 15% of the undergraduate infections, with 483 cases, while making up roughly 22% of the estimated testing population.
Undergraduate students living in off-campus housing, meanwhile, made up the 1,692 remaining cases, while representing roughly 65% of the estimated testing population.
From the estimated testing pool numbers, Illinois Newsroom calculated that about 14% of undergraduates – about one out of seven – contracted COVID-19 before in-person classes ended.
Specifically, according to the same estimated pool numbers, those infected included:
- 37% of students living in fraternity and sorority houses
- 29% of students in other private certified housing
- 11% of those in off-campus housing
- 9% of those living in university housing
Meanwhile, hundreds of students often were in isolation because they were infected or in quarantine because they had been in close contact with infected people.
For example, as of Nov. 6, there were 494 students living in fraternities and sororities that were in isolation.
Describing the situation in his fraternity, one member said there were obvious factors as to why there was greater spread among Greek houses.
“We did everything we could, and yes, maybe some people on week one were being too social, too out there,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s strictly a Greek life thing. I think that goes for everyone on this campus, with few exceptions. The issue is we’re just scaled up.”
“We’re a lot of people living in one place, sharing bedrooms, sharing food, whereas in a dorm you could go sit by yourself in the dining hall or sit outside,” he continued. “We’re all eating from one kitchen, living in shared rooms and it’s just it’s just scaled up. A kid living in the dorms, their network is about 20 people. Our network is much bigger, so I think there’s a lot of things you could say that we could have done better but for the most part, I think it’s the nature of the organization.”
Meanwhile, concern over the spread of infection led about two dozen student demonstrators taking to the Quad to protest the university’s reopening in a “Die-in” protest.
“All I’ve heard since the beginning of this pandemic is excuses, from Donald Trump down to U of I,” one protestor said through a megaphone. “Excuses from these institutions, excuses from the supposed leaders who are protecting the system that continue to work as it was designed. The University of Illinois is no different than any other institution that exploits students for mass profiteering.”
Organized by a group called People Over Profit, the protest lasted for about an hour and concluded with a “die-in” in which all the protestors laid on the ground in silence.
More parties, post-Halloween COVID surge
Illinois had previously estimated that between 35,000 and 38,000 students were in the campus area during the semester, but later on, university spokeswoman Robin Kaler told Illinois Newsroom the number had dropped as students left campus and qualified for testing exemptions.
On Oct. 20, Chancellor Jones sent out an email update threatening that students “who host or attend gatherings that violate state or local health and safety requirements are subject to student discipline, while noting that the university had already disciplined “more than 1,000 students.”
But the campus area still saw another wave of parties during Halloween weekend, including one at Midtown Lofts that made waves on Reddit.
There was another Halloween party in the common area at Lofts 54 on Chalmers Street, which featured dozens of maskless, line dancing attendees all dressed in costumes. At one point, a Snapchat recording shows partygoers in a mosh pit, while dozens of onlookers gaze on from upper levels of the complex.
In the days following, Illinois reported 310 new positive tests from Nov. 2 to Nov. 6, the largest spike in cases since the initial surge in early September. The 80 cases on Nov. 2 and 4 remain as the largest single-day totals of positive results since there were 81 new cases on Sept. 8.
When outbreaks began popping up at popular off-campus residences, such as West Quad, 212 East Green and 309 East Green, Illinois began to increase testing requirements to “every other day to try to catch infections earlier and reduce transmission,” said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs.
The residences of concern typically added to the list were defined as recording “three or more cases in seven days or two or more cases in the past three days” and would continue until the “trend is corrected and reversed,” Kaler said.
Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 12, the list of residences of concern more than doubled, increasing from 16 to 33 residences, including six fraternities and sororities and 10 dorms. During this time period, CU-CitizenAccess reported a spike in graduate student and faculty COVID-19 cases.
After reaching all-time testing highs — as many as 17,000 in early September — the testing dropped to a range of 3,000 to 7,000 per day when classes resumed after Thanksgiving. With lower testing numbers, the university still had an uptick of cases immediately after Thanksgiving.
The campus positivity rate, which is always low because of the massive testing volume, darted up to 0.89% on Nov. 28, two days after many students left campus, with 33 new cases in 3,717 tests. According to Kaler, at least 1,000 students remained in university housing or dorms after Thanksgiving, with the majority being graduate students.
Illinois announced 173 cases in the next five days, and they hovered in the 20s and 30s in the early days of December.
County cases dramatically increase
Champaign County had less than 2,000 total cases when students began moving in on Aug. 16.
Since students returned to campus, and as COVID-19 has spiked throughout Illinois and in the Midwest, Champaign County has reported more than 10,500 additional cases, hundreds of hospitalizations and more than 60 deaths.
During a record number of 70 hospitalizations at Carle Foundation Hospital on Nov. 12, Champaign-Urbana Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said the university was not at fault for the community’s rising spread.
“These are not cases coming from the U of I,” Pryde said. “These are cases transmitting within our community. We have a record number of hospitalizations, and in the past week alone, we’ve reported eight deaths.”
The county had to go back to restricted operations for businesses and restaurants after the state decided to exclude university saliva tests for the region’s positivity rate, which was several percentage points higher than the other cities in the region. Champaign County is a part of Region 6, and the state updates regional metrics daily including U of I tests and without.
As students wrapped up finals and headed home for winter break, the area saw hospitalizations continue to rise to new levels, with 94 hospitalizations on Dec. 12 and 13.
Students are scheduled to move back to campus again on Jan. 17, when residence halls reopen before classes begin on Jan. 25.
One million tests
On Dec. 15, the University of Illinois announced it has processed more than one million COVID-19 tests since it began testing faculty, students and employees in July as a part of the SHIELD program.
That same day, Chancellor Robert Jones declared the reopening effort a success in an email update to students, faculty and employees.
“It hasn’t always been smooth,” Jones said. “We’ve had to constantly learn and adjust. But we ended the semester successfully.”
“We saw no COVID-related hospitalizations among our students, faculty or staff, and no evidence of spread in classrooms – or to our employees from our students,” Jones continued. “Local hospitals and medical providers braced for a swell of COVID-19 cases among our students, but that didn’t happen.”