The Tuscaloosa City Council had been unprepared for an item on its November 10, 2020 Council agenda. The Council had been called upon to approve a special events license for the field party, called the Farm Party, that the University of Alabama‘s Kappa Delta sorority has traditionally held each year. Sororities at the University of Alabama don’t have the facilities to stage big parties so their events must be off-campus.
In previous years it would have been a routine vote, but in 2020 the Covid pandemic had put the party, to be held on fourteen secluded acres of farmland, in the spotlight. Party goers would be transported the six miles from the University to Black Warrior Farms on several buses.
There is a cottage industry in T-Town that has served the University’s Greek community. It has involved everything from custom tee-shirts for parties to providing alcohol for events. In the case of the Farm Party it almost seemed as if the event was organized with a one-stop shopping service.
The application for the license was made by Downtown Entertainment LLC. Its registered agent is Brandon Hanks. He owns The Booth which is a bar that has been a popular hangout for Greeks and other students. The Booth was featured in a documentary on The Strip that Mark Hughes Cobb wrote about in the Tuscaloosa News.
The Farm Party was put together by Special Events Management whose Vice President is Casey Johnson. Special Events Management is affiliated with Music Garden, which lists itself as the “Southeast’s most recognized entertainment agency.”
Music Garden’s Tuscaloosa agent is Nick Wright. He is also the President of JNJ Apparel, which has the same address as Special Events Management. JNJ Apparel claims to offer “the largest collection of Greek Apparel, Gifts, Accessories, and more for over 100 Greek Sororities and Fraternities.” ( It can be found online at FindGreek.com ) Wright is also listed as the agent/organizer for Special Events Management by Open Corporates.
Both Brandon Hanks and Casey Johnson appeared before the Council to plead their case for the special license for the Farm Party.
The party was scheduled as an outdoor event where the body temperature of participants would be digitally scanned as a precaution. Katie Kerwin McCrimmon of UCHealth explained that “Studies show that at least 40-to-50% of people who test positive for COVID-19 have no symptoms.” Party goers who didn’t have a high temperature could well be super-spreaders at such an event.
The University of Alabama does not require sentinel testing of its students, although other schools have mandated testing for Covid infections. The University of Notre Dame, as CNN reporter Allen Kim wrote, is requiring all students to be tested. “Students who fail to appear for testing or leave the area without their results will not be able to register for the spring semester or receive a transcript.”
The University of Alabama has had social event guidelines that limit the size of gatherings. “Outdoor events with more than 100 attendees and indoor events with more than 50 attendees are impermissible, absent special approval from the Vice President of Student Life or their designee.” Plans for the Farm Party involved gatherings of 200 students.
At an event where a loud band is playing, the likelihood of mask wearing and social distancing is not very great. Also, when people are drinking they are more likely to exhibit risky behavior. The Farm Party may end up resembling the concert that took place at Rhythm and Brews that received national publicity because of unsafe behavior. However, what goes on at the farm may stay at the farm, unless there are social media posts.
During the Pre-Council meeting, when the license was first brought up, two City Council members expressed concern. Lee Busby and Eddie Pugh questioned whether approving the party would would be consistent with the city’s order on Covid safety. Busby raised the question of fairness to the businesses, who have observed occupancy limits and followed state Covid orders, if an event were to be allowed to exceed those limits.
Busby said, “Two or three months ago one of my concerns was, as the University has gone to great lengths to shut down its large party events, that we not end up in the position of simply reopening that box down at this end of University Boulevard or even further down. Do we have any idea of what kind of supervision over the site or inspection that an event like this has?”
Chief Compliance and Enforcement Officer Vincent Brown replied that charter buses were being used for transportation.
Busby said that that might end problems with drunk driving.
Brown replied, “We hope so. They don’t allow them outside of the event area. They have it cordoned off to make sure that no one comes in or leaves the event area. They have food and beverages and usually a band and they just party.”
Busby said, “I know.”
Council President Cynthia Almond asked, “I thought the University doesn’t allow big events, on or off campus?”
Brown replied, “That is what the University has said. Initially when officer Burkhalter [Code Enforcement Officer David Burkhalter] spoke to someone at the University, they said they were totally against it. The applicant then talked to the University and informed them that they’d been doing this event for the past two years. They haven’t had any issues or problems. Then the University said okay. They’d allow it. Officer Burkhalter has spoken to the University again but I have not spoken to him since. He hasn’t called me and said that the University says ‘no.’ So I’m assuming it’s still on.”
Busby said, “I’ll talk to the University some time this afternoon just to retake their temperature reading.”
“My broader concern is this is for a sorority group where, by definition, three quarters of the people there are under the legal age of drinking. And in an environment, where we are busting the TPD for them to check masks, social distancing and house parties, it gives me pause to ask some harder questions about events where we as the City Council are sanctioning it, with the city event license.”
Council member Eddie Pugh said that he agreed. “We’re monitoring bars and restaurants and we’ve done bailouts. Now we’re going to send a bunch of people right outside the city limits to do something we don’t allow in the city.”
Assistant City Attorney Scott Holmes said that the city had been unable to enforce the state safety orders that apply to social distancing. If the prohibition against unmasked people from different households being closer than six feet apart were enforced, that would not allow bars and restaurants to operate. Therefore, as a compromise, the city created occupancy limits. He said that the Alabama Beverage Control (ABC) had a “million different restrictions.” New ABC orders have now placed liability on the licensee for failure to enforce mask wearing. Formally citations could only be issued to individuals. In any event the Tuscaloosa Police Department would be the supervisory body regarding the state orders.
The following is an account of what transpired at the Council meeting, when the approval of the special license was considered. Although Mayor Walt Maddox‘s daughter was a member of Kappa Delta, he remained neutral and said that any decision would be up to the Council.
In the hours between the time the Pre-Council meeting occurred and the time of the Council meeting, Casey Johnson had spoken by phone to Council members.
Council member Lee Busby: “So Downtown Entertainment is the applicant? Then I assume that is Casey… You’re the one who called me. Your organization’s role is…?
Casey Johnson: I’m with Special Events Management. We are a vendor here in town that works with Greek organizations across the University campus. We help them plan their events. We work with about 25 venues in town. We also provide busing for them. We are an agent of a business called Music Garden which provides entertainment.
Council member Sonya McKinstry said that she was “very concerned about Covid. But I want to thank you for organizing it in a certain way…and breaking it down so that you have three different shifts…that you limit the numbers to to two hundred and that you’re going to be enforcing the masks…and the buses are going to be cleaned.
“So, hearing that, it gives me confidence that there are not going to be a thousand kids out there with no responsibility. So I want to thank you for taking all that into consideration and trying to comply.”
Casey Johnson: “I want to make sure that the Council understands that this is not a group of 600, 800 or a 1000 people at the event at one time. This will be done in shifts. So we will have essentially a six hour party. They will sign up for three different shifts. They will load up on a bus. They are not allowed to come in any other way to the venue.
“They will come in at one shift at a time. They will be there approximately for an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes. There will not be more than 200 people at a time on the premise. In talking about the size of the venue…”
Brandon Hanks: “It’s fourteen acres, a large, large area.”
Casey Johnson: “And I think that’s something that has not been communicated. We are breaking this up. We are trying to do everything that is possible so that it will be a safe environment for them. we have a certain perimeter. They will not be able to leave that perimeter. Before they go on to the bus their temperature is taken digitally. And there are are things that Kappa Delta has put into place. they have to follow ADPH, the CDC, what the University has put in front of them and steps that their own national organization has made them take.
“So by doing that, we are doing everything that we can to break up those events while sanitizing and keeping things on the buses clean so when they are transported back and forth they are put into contact with something that we can’t take care of with quick sanitation.
Busby asked Hanks who would provide “supervisory oversight.”
Hanks: “I’m present at all of the functions that happen at Black Warrior Farm and we use multiple sources on the security side of it. There are about three local companies. We get them out of Birmingham as well. At the site, when they first come in, the sorority will have them check their ACT cards. They have to scan in make sure they’ve left the facility, have gotten to the facility and are allowed to be at the facility.
“At the same time, we’ll be checking IDs to see if they are above the age of 21. We also have our own staff of ten or more people to walk the perimeter and make sure no one is trying to leave the confines of the bicycle route we have set up. It’s pretty much that and the bar staff that is associated with the responsible vendor program.”
Busby: “So the ACT card allows them to come in. The ACT card, unlike the out of state drivers licenses, is a tough one to forge.”
Hanks: “A lot of times they’re going to send somebody… send a monitor, so that as they come in, they will tell you, ‘No, she’s definitely not above 21’ and they’re ‘X’ed out and can’t come back in. We keep a continuous bus flow going out as well as going in. If somebody sees someone with a drink, it’s discarded and they’re put back on the bus. They’re headed back. They’re done.”
Busby: “How’s an event like this insured?”
Hanks: “We actually have not only the property owner, who has a full blanket policy, but we have a blanket policy through our provider, the Fitts Agency, for the alcohol side of it. And then every single vendor has its own blanket policy, covering everything from the Porta Potties, the security, the stage, the tent company…everybody has to have a full policy.
Busby asked City Attorney Glenda Webb if there was any “coordination between your office and the University in line with their policy?”
Webb: “At this point, we don’t have any outstanding issues.”
Busby: Your understanding is that this gathering is in compliance with the University student guidelines?
Johnson: “Yes sir. Everything that we did to provide information to Dr. Pope [Myron L. Pope, Vice President, Student Life Leadership Team] and to his office was gathered from all of us. It was a collective effort to answer all of the questions that were pertaining to this event. On the 28th of last month, it was requested by his office that Kappa Delta go ahead and put this on, because it had been approved for them to have this event.”
Busby: “Just an unofficial suggestion…given the current environment and the uncertainty…I think this being the first one we’ve had come before us, unlike previous years where they’re more or less routine, I think we would’ve been better served for you to do some early coordination prior to showing up here for a vote. It seems like a lot preparation went into this. I think earlier, informal coordination would better serve you in the current environment.”
Council member Eddie Pugh: “What do you do if you have rain or bad weather?”
Hanks: If it’s lightning, then it’s probably over and we would move it toi a later date. If it’s just rain, we have a large 40X100 foot tent and some smaller tents as well.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever had to cancel one due to weather but if there’s any lightning in the area, it’s done. It’s over. We’ll have to call it and move it down the road.”
Pugh: “We’ve never had these guidelines before from the state.”
Hanks: “No. Absolutely not.”
Pugh: “Will there be room to socially distance and do all that…”
Hanks: “With 200, yes. With the normal ones we’ve had in the past, we wouldn’t be able to get those kinds of numbers in the tent and also social distance.”
Council President Cynthia Almond: “I was just going to comment and say this is a difficult thing for me. Like Mr. Busby said, I know a lot of hard work and preparation has gone into this. Kids want to have a good time. I want to support that. But we have recently shut down businessses and not allowed this kind of activity. Today we’ve had a report that our numbers locally are increasing. We have more people in the hospital and more people with Covid than we’ve had in the last few weeks. That’s pretty concerning. And I have a real concern about the ability of these kids, these young adults, to socially distance. I don’t think they will. They won’t wear their masks or stay six feet apart while they’re at this party. I’ve got a real concern about that.
“And then they’re going to go home for Thanksgiving. That’s a safety and health concern that I have. I have a lot of friends who will be upset with me about that. So I won’t do it lightly.
“I do hope that, in the future, if you want to do things like this that we can coordinate more upfront in a way in which we can all feel comfortable.”
Hanks: “I understand that. Moving forward into the Spring we’re going to come back in the same boat that we’re now in. I feel that if you guys should actually take a look at it and see one of the parties. I think you can’t find a better facility, if we break it up, as far as being Covid friendly.
“Everything I’m doing right now with my businesses is outside and I’m still running into problems. Covid is basically hitting us at every single angle but we’re doing all we can. But I hope you guys give a little thought to this: Coming this Spring, the kids are going to be coming back and I don’t know how long we can continue to keep them coming back if they don’t have a college experience.”
Busby asked Tuscaloosa Police Department Deputy Chief Sebo Sanders about TPD’s role.
Busby: Do we normally make an appearance at one of these?
Sanders: “It all depends.”
Busby: “Because we discussed at the Pre-Council if it’s out of city limits…”
Sanders: “It’s in the police jurisdiction. It all depends on the traffic or complaints that we get coming in.”
McKinstry said she’d vote for the license but that she wasn’t happy. She said that she wished the University would have taken more responsibility and not have put the Council in a bad position. She said that she hoped the Council could “put some brakes on” any events in the future.
Johnson: “I’d like to speak to that.” She said that the parties were “extremely, extremely, extremely expensive.”
“They have put people back to work who have not been able to work for the past 6 or 7 months. We would have loved to have worked with you.”
Busby said that normally license approvals are routine.
Council member Kip Tyner said that he’d been at high school football games every Saturday night. He brought up the financial crisis he routinely mentions when any Covid restrictions are discussed.
Pugh said that, if the University had given the go ahead for the party, it was disappointing since the University had asked the city at one time that restaurants and bar be shut down. He said that the Council had not been kept updated on University policies, and that the University was “putting the load on us so that we would be the bad guys.”
Johnson: “The driving force is for these venues to be to able to be back in business–for these musicians to be able to have Christmas gifts for their kids. All of these things are going to be put in jeopardy.”
Mayor Walt Maddox said that he’d have the city staff reach out to Dr. Pope’s office to “see what scale and scope the city would be seeing in the future.”
The Council voted to approve the license for the November 17, 2020 event, with Busby and Almond casting the only no votes.