Not long ago, articles about alleged “COVID Parties” in T-Town were featured far and wide. Recently stories about people unsafely gathering near the University of Alabama outside of bars on a weekend were published on ESPN and other sports related sites. Even the the New York Times got in on the act.
A photograph of a large crowd outside of a popular waterhole near the campus was posted on the Twitter account of an University of Alabama football player. Senior offensive lineman Chris Owens asked, “How about we social distance and have more than a literal handful of people wear a mask? Is that too much to ask Tuscaloosa?”
Other images of crowds that were not observing COVID safety orders were posted on Twitter by the photo editor of the University of Alabama‘s newspaper The Crimson White. Hannah Saad also posted images of students on campus who were properly masked.
The large crowds that packed the sidewalks on The Strip, as the part of University Boulevard where many student bars are located has been traditionally called, were due to a confluence of events. Classes were scheduled to begin the next week at the University of Alabama. Sororities had their annual Bid Day event and a naked black man died ninety minutes after being tased by Tuscaloosa Police Department officers.
Bid Day, the Panhellenic sorority recruitment event, had been going just as planned. Bid Day was the culmination of a process that had to a great extent been done online. Co-eds who received bids were photographed in groups while wearing masks. One person who was part of the process bragged on how the University’s police officers helped orchestrate the event. He said that many parents of the co-eds, who were not supposed to be there in the first place, were not wearing masks. UAPD officers politely asked that parents of the co-eds leave the area. Many ignored the request however other parents complied.
Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox, at some point during the day, posed for an image with his daughter who had received a bid from Kappa Delta. He had been in the area for less than an hour and posed while not wearing a mask for thirty seconds with his daughter. Little did he know that the image which was posted on social media would receive a great deal of vitriol from people who resented the local and state mask orders.
In a press conference that took place after the weekend, as reported by WVUA/23, Maddox said:
I think we need to be a little bit disheartened by what we saw on the Strip. There are a large number of people who believe this is a hoax or not really a threat. I’m not asking you not to believe that. I’m asking that you put that aside right now because the standard that we’re dealing with is that people are still looking at the number of cases and the hospitalizations.
Some of the parents who were in town for Bid Day had decided to do what they normally did on football game days–hang out on The Strip. WVUA/23 in its report described the situation. “Bars on the Strip and in downtown Tuscaloosa such as Gallettes Tuscaloosa, Rounders and Innisfree featured long, tightly packed lines outside their doors and few masks in sight.” There was a mix of different ages represented. However many of the people who weren’t observing social distancing and wearing masks appeared to be students.
In his press conference, Mayor Maddox said, “The Tuscaloosa Police Department doesn’t have enough manpower to properly do their jobs” and insure mask enforcement.
This was certainly the case on the Saturday that Bid Day occurred. Some of the TPD‘s officers had been diverted to the West Precinct after a man died. A thirty-one year-old man Kendrell Antron Watkins, who was under the influence of Spice, as synthetic marijuana is called, had shed his clothes in a parking lot.
An account was given by Jason Morton in The Tuscaloosa News of the man’s arrest, where he was tased by police officers. Tuscaloosa Police Department spokeswoman Stephanie Taylor was interviewed by Morton.
The man’s family had earlier called called 911 and reported that Watkins was “losing it.” He was later reported by a woman who said that he was “half-dressed in the empty parking lot of a shopping center off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. An officer responded and spoke with Watkins, asking if he needed assistance.” Watkins told him that he didn’t and continued walking. Morton further reported:
As Watkins was departing, the officer who responded to the 911 call in Cherrystone arrived and realized Watkins was the suspect from the earlier complaint.
The two officers called out and asked Watkins to stop, but he ran away, Taylor said.
“The officers then requested medical personnel as Watkins continued to run while removing his clothing and acting erratically,” she said.
Watkins continued to run along 15th Street, refusing to comply with the officers’ verbal commands to stop, Taylor said.
After deploying the Taser, the officers engaged in a struggle on the ground for around 45 seconds.
Watkins was conscious when he arrived at the hospital but died about 90 minutes later.
Although there had been no conclusion made that Watkin’s death was due to the tasing by police officers, there was a concern about how the community in Tuscaloosa’s West Side might react to the news of a black man who had died after having been arrested. As it turned out there had been no need for the diversion of police to the West Side.
But that diversion had created a shortage in manpower that was needed to deal with the crowds of unmasked people near the University of Alabama.
Articles about the crowds ranged from stories about the impact on college football to how Greek life was responsible for Coronavirus infections.
ESPN‘s Sam Khan Jr. and David M. Hale welcomed readers to “college football’s next big challenge: the return of the student body to campuses nationwide.”
For avid college football fans, the images and testimonials hitting the social media circles were nearly impossible to miss.
Dozens of mostly maskless fans lined up in close proximity Sunday on “The Strip” in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The New York Times article “‘Frats Are Being Frats’: Greek Life Is Stoking the Virus on Some Campuses” by Amy Harmon, Frances Robles, Alan Blinder, and Thomas Fuller took on fraternity life:
The big bouquets of roses. The towering signs spelling out the letters of each house in Greek. And the hundreds of rushees clutching their acceptance envelopes as they run through campus together.
Bid day at the University of Alabama, when sororities decide which pledges will join their sisterhoods, is cause for celebration.
But this past weekend, women at the school, which has one of the biggest Greek systems in the country with 11,000 members, were warned not to party following their invitations to join any of two dozen sororities because of the potential spread of the coronavirus.
That did not stop all of them.
The bars and sidewalks along the Strip were crowded on Sunday as sorority members and other students reveled in their return-to-school rituals, sparking criticism from public officials, the fury of university officials and worries from other Tuscaloosans.
To most observers of the crowds the fact that many standing on the sidewalks weren’t students was clear. But the crowds doubtlessly were present because of campus activities associated with Greek life.
The article said that “fraternities and sororities have been especially challenging for universities to regulate. Though they dominate social life on many campuses, their houses are often not owned or governed by the universities, and have frequently been the site of excessive drinking, sexual assault and hazing. That same lack of oversight, some experts say, extends to controlling the virus. Even on campuses that are offering online instruction only, people are still living in some sorority and fraternity houses.”
Many people in Tuscaloosa remember how in 2013, Greeks staged a successful campaign to unseat a popular member of a local school board. Limo rides to the polls and free booze were promised for votes. Al.com‘s Melissa Brown‘s article “Sorority offered free drinks to members to vote in Tuscaloosa City Board of Education race” gave an account of the campaign.
Tuscaloosa residents remember how The Machine once ran a popular pizza joint out of business because the owner’s son ran for President of the Student Government Association (SGA) as an independent as well as other stories about the secretive Greek run society.
For people who already had an antipathy towards the Greeks on campus, fairly or not, the New York Times article may well have resonated. And guilt by association may cause some people to think that all students are as bad as the worst Greeks on campus. That’s simply not true. The current SGA President Demarcus Joiner who ran as an independent seems well qualified to offer leadership during the pandemic.
Safe Retun UA is a campus organization of faculty and staff members that has been very concerned about reopening the University. During a recent Zoom conference, concern about the accuracy of COVID testing at the university was expressed. The Faculty Senate at the University of Alabama recently voted in favor of a resolution calling for administrative transparency on data and closure plans.
Just as Notre Dame did, the University of Alabama released information about the low positivity of student COVID testing. Of course in the case of Notre Dame, because of a spike in COVID cases, nine days later the university shifted to remote learning. Notre Dame is not alone among schools that are shutting down because of the Coronavirus.
Two of the major college football conferences The Big Ten and PAC 12 have cancelled their seasons. The Southeastern Conference did not join them. The University of Alabama‘s football plans include no tailgating and a 20% stadium capacity, according to NBC/15.
Even under those conditions, where most of the usually over 100,000 football fans will have no reason to come to T-Town, the ability of the TPD and UAPD to enforce state COVID orders is questionable.
As AL.com‘s Carol Robinson has reported, Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox said, “We are desperately trying to protect (the city of Tuscaloosa) – We are trying to have a college football season. We have been running details for 3 straight nights. (Tuscaloosa PD) is stretched thin between COVID-19 and these details. We will be requesting daytime help from UAPD.”
With the TPD “depleted and exhausted,” as Maddox has described it, will the residents of T-Town have any reason to expect a safe Fall?