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University-organized fire sparks social distancing concerns


A bonfire social event for first-year students hosted by Residential Life at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) spurred speculation when students started crowding together outside of Christensen and Williamson Hall on Wednesday night. Many expressed concern when photos submitted to The New Hampshire by an anonymous UNH student showed a lack of social distancing and various students not wearing masks. 

The event was held in an effort to allow the resident assistants (RAs) and first-year residents to socialize. The event had an ice cream cart, photo booth and fire pits, which RAs said ran smoothly in the beginning. But toward the end of the event when everyone was supposed to be heading back into their dorms, the students instead began to join their smaller groups together and then congregated in a larger group around the fire pits. 

The Senior Vice Provost for Student Life and Dean of Students Kenneth Holmes said that Ruth Abelmann, the Director of Housing at UNH, has plans moving forward to prevent the same issue from happening at future residential life events. “We’re going to look at all the programming in res [sic] life, and in that case when we know there are two residence halls with large numbers of first-year students,… those events should have been in different areas because when they started leaving they were converging. And all the other events and all the other residence halls went without incident with regard to getting together.”  

In an interview with The New Hampshire, Student Body President Nicholas Fitzgerald said that one of the problems that occurred at the bonfire was that students took off their masks to eat the ice cream served. He said that for future university events, they will not utilize food because it forces people to take off their masks which is a problem during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. “Food means that people are going to automatically take their mask off to eat,” which he explained is why in some pictures people were seen without masks because they were eating ice cream. Holmes echoed the need for a reevaluation of hosting events with food during these times, due to the need to remove one’s mask to eat. 

Fitzgerald spoke with UNH administration after hearing about the crowding at the bonfire and said that UNH did its best to resolve the problem and that the event. The bonfire was scheduled to end at 10 p.m., only got out of hand toward the end when students gathered around the bonfires closer together instead of dispersing.  

Fitzgerald believes the problem occurred due to the first-year students’ excitement to meet new people and believes that the situation has been slightly blown out of proportion. He said “this was a really big testing moment to see how all of the planning in terms of if something went out of control and overall I think it was handled very well, within a half an hour everyone was dispersed. I think the reason it happened at Christensen and Williamson is they’re freshmen, they’re excited, it’s a lot to do with the freshmen dorms. They’re freshmen, they’re excited.”  

He said that it has been difficult for first-year students to meet people with all of the social distancing rules in place. Fitzgerald said that people were “out and about, they all just started joining to make new friends and socialize and that’s how it kind of got out of control.”  

The university follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for determining gathering limits, social distancing, and more. Holmes shared that the limit is no more than 25 people, indoors or outdoors and to socially distance when possible.  

“So right now you have a bubble, but as things change that’ll be different. My goal and hope is to really now that student leaders are back, we sit down and talk about how we work through that because that’s something that’s really important to me.” He emphasized that students are here to have a residential experience but they just want everyone to do that safely.  

Holmes said that there were nine reports on the COVID Incident Report Form from last night about the bonfires, specifically about a large group outside of Williamson and Christensen. He said the goal of the reports were not so that anyone would get in trouble, just to let the university know what was happening. He also confirmed that there would be no punishment in regards to the bonfires last night, and all students that moved into the dorms had negative COVID-19 tests along with the residential staff that attended.  

Holmes also promised that he will be a lot more involved with residential life in scrutinizing the events and activities that go on. He said he was out and about earlier in the day talking about the fire pits, and said after last night, UNH administration and residential life will ask themselves if they have covered all their bases before in-person events on campus. He emphasized that they want to be compliant and adhering to the same rules and regulations that they are asking students to follow.  

Holmes also said that no students should be having large gatherings. He hopes that it is clear that there were a number of small groups originally that then joined into a larger group and when the pictures of that larger group were taken it was towards the end of the event. This was when students were supposed to be dispersing back to their dorms.  

“We have to look at how we enter and leave events so that we don’t have these large gatherings,” Holmes mentioned as one thing that the UNH administration and residential life staff hadn’t thought about enough before the event. 

“The other piece of this is when students are having events off campus that they think about it in the same way but one of the things that my hope is, and I’ll use the masking as an example, we need to all give each other breaks. So res [sic] life staff, residents, directors were just crushed last night and so you know a couple of them were really emotional about what transpired because they understood the optics of it. So I ask that we don’t just criticize them for that because it was just a mistake, but at the same time they understand again what the optics are.” 

Holmes said, “I want us to finish this semester, and when I spoke with the sororities and fraternities that I was able to visit a couple of days ago, they were saying they want to be on campus for the long haul. And my hope is as we do events and programs we pay attention to that, that we’re on campus until November.” 

“This is new to all of us,” Holmes said in regards to the social distancing and mask wearing rules in place. He also explained some difficulties that can arise, where people who live together could be considered a “family,” and therefore do not need to socially distance from each other or wear masks on their property. However, this may be unknown to observers. For example, students who are “getting tested every week so when they’re walking down the street or sitting in front of their house, somebody drives by and they’re reporting to the incident reporting line that there are 20 guys out front, but they live together, you know, they’re family.” 

Holmes said that sometimes he gets criticized for being very student-friendly, “but the bottom line is that you’re back and you want to socialize and I believe those students and I believe the staff in res life. And we say we want to be here and we want to be safe.” 

RAs that were at the bonfire, but wished to remain anonymous, said that they wanted students to be more careful and stay further apart, but they didn’t know how to enforce that. They also said the hall directors were trying to move people apart to a 6 ft distance but it was difficult to get the crowd to disperse. There was a big push to meet people at the bonfires which they believe is what caused the crowd to become closer together. The police were eventually called on the event but by the time they arrived the crowd had already dispersed. 

According to Fitzgerald, an announcement will come out about what happened with the bonfires and the fire pits that were scheduled for Friday have been cancelled. He also encouraged any students with concerns about the event to contact him and the Student Senate, and said that the Senate will have a meeting this upcoming Saturday to discuss the concerns over the event and what will happen moving forward.  

Joey Hitchcock, hall director of Williamson Hall, declined to comment on the matter. Christensen Hall Director Gabby Riviere and Abelmann did not respond to comment. 

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