UNH students have officially settled back into campus. The Durham community is responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) risk posed by this significant population increase. Despite concerns, conversations with the community reveal how important it is for the UNH student body to remain on campus until Thanksgiving.
“The worry of course locally amongst residents and our worry as a town was the prospect of 15,000 or so students…potentially bringing the virus with them and creating a hot spot here in Durham,” said Todd Selig, the Durham town administrator.
Selig said that the general consensus is to identify the virus if it exists, isolate individuals who have it or may have been exposed to it, and “stomp out the virus” to prevent it from “spreading widely in our community.”
“Of course, this is not the first time we’ve seen students come back,” said Tom Bebbington, who has lived in Durham for about 16 years. “I think the dynamic was a little different this year…it seems to be a little bit more subdued now that people are back.” Bebbington’s kids noticed how empty the town has been over the past few months. Even as students have returned, they haven’t seen many long lines outside the bars – businesses haven’t been quite as packed.
First-year Lily Doody said that as a Durham community member she understands “the concerns of the town and the fear that we, college students, bring to them.”
“The [community] members of the greater Durham region are really fearful of COVID-19…they want to make sure they’re safe.” said Selig. “They’re just fearful of whether the students are really following the guidelines. It just takes a few missteps to cause a huge problem.”
According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, there were 39 active COVID-19 cases in Durham as of September 22.
“I think there’s a certain risk that everyone has to assume is out there but UNH is doing its best to try to mitigate that,” said Bebbington. “I’m really impressed that everybody gets tested twice a week.”
A cluster of at least 11 positive cases of COVID-19 were reported following a party with over 100 attendees on August 29 at Theta Chi fraternity, according to President James W. Dean Jr. UNH reported in an email to students that a second cluster of roughly 20 cases were linked to the Gables, 10 of which were still active as of September 17. Selig attributes these cases to irresponsible behavior.
Selig said that he hopes that students will “observe these poor decisions” and “choose to act in a responsible manner.” He said this is the only way that the community can remain safe and “ensure that in-person learning continues.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t expect behavior like this. I am definitely concerned about being sent home early,” said Doody. She finds the clusters to be “certainly frustrating”. However, she feels pretty safe on campus. “My RA and [Hitchcock] Hall Director are both very attentive and stern about the guidelines. I think the Durham mask ordinance was a good decision.”
Clark Knowles, a principle lecturer in UNH’s English department, conducts two face-to-face classes a week. He said he’s surprised that UNH hasn’t experienced more COVID-19 breakouts or sent students home yet. “That’s attributed to the work of [administration] for making it happen,” said Knowles. He is “hopeful and trying to stay optimistic” because he undoubtedly enjoys conducting classes in person as opposed to online.
“I know that one cluster probably means there’s going to be more. It’s very difficult to contain,” said Knowles. He is glad that he has been able to “foster a little bit of community” in person before adjusting to a completely remote setting. “I said to my students…I think it’s a better experience if we’re here at UNH. I think that something goes missing when we go online and we’re all going to do our best if that happens.”
On Thursday, September 17, Gov. Chris Sununu said that the average number of COVID-19 tests taken each day has doubled since August. The Declaration of a State of Emergency in NH has been renewed and extended for 21 days, as of September 18, according to a press release from Gov. Chris Sununu.
The number of positive cases in the state appear to be rising disproportionately. This is because of the drastic population increase from students, and due to schools like UNH only reporting positive cases, according to state epidemiologist, Dr. Benjamin Chan.
“Where UNH is running 25,000 or more tests every week, and those tests are mandatory of the entire UNH population…you better believe you are going to start to see a significant up-tick in positive test results,” said Selig. “There’s an irony that on one hand, because we have a mandatory testing program which is testing so many people, we’re getting positive results. But if you look at the percentage of positive tests, compared to how many are tested, it’s a very small percentile.”
Despite these statistics, Selig thinks that “the vast majority of the UNH student body is handling this very well. They’ve been very responsible, they’ve been wearing masks, they have not been gathering in large groups, and they’ve been working to practice appropriate physical distancing.”
Bebbington said he “commends” the UNH students. “I don’t think that [they] are necessarily any more likely to expose you to the virus than anybody else…I’m not seeing tons of egregious examples of students behaving badly,” he said. For the most part, he has seen “people trying to do the right things.” He knows how important it is for students to have an in-person school experience. He said he “can certainly understand UNH’s desire to bring everybody back to campus if at all possible, even if they have to make serious changes.”
Bryan Bessette, the owner of the Freedom Cafe downtown, could not recall a situation in the last few weeks where someone wasn’t wearing a mask when it was not appropriate. The town’s stricter COVID-19 guidelines for students have made him confident. “I feel safer going into Hannaford than I have since COVID started,” Bessette said.
Bessette actually wants the students to stay on campus for as long as possible because the success of his business is “contingent on the student population.”
“The pandemic’s been very difficult for the local businesses in Durham,” Selig said. “They’re small businesses, and many of them rely to a large degree on the university community coming down and shopping there…people just coming to town to do business at UNH in some way or another and who then stop to shop in Durham.”
Selig said at least seven local businesses have closed since the start of the pandemic. He said that the fate of the current businesses relies “largely in the hands of the students.”
50% of all drink sales at the Freedom Cafe support programs to help end human trafficking, according to Bessette. The Cafe takes on many projects with aims to raise money and awareness, encouraging consumers to be more conscious. Bessette said the Cafe was “cruising” on a project aiming to raise $5000 for Bridgette’s House of Hope when COVID-19 hit. “Currently, [our programs are still] working to address human trafficking, but our grant fund is on hold until 2021,” Bessette said. Although the Cafe has had an increase in coffee shipments due to the pandemic keeping consumers at home, they’ve seen a 30% decrease in revenue. “I don’t see that being recovered in the rest of this year,” said Bessette.
Bessette said that Durham businesses are “oriented around the needs of students.” When the student population disappears, a large portion of their revenue is lost. He said, “if something were to happen and the student population had to leave again…The Freedom Cafe would definitely be at risk for closing.”
Since students have returned, Bessette feels encouraged by their presence and cooperation. “It feels great to have that energy back,” he said. The Cafe’s “Perform for Freedom” music events on Wednesdays have served to replace some live music that’s been lost due to the pandemic. Bessette sees audience members “paying attention” to the pre-show announcements about their goal to eradicate human trafficking. He notices most students are happy to meet new people and have them join their “safe zone.”
“It’s kind of great for our programming,” said Bessette. “We’ve already seen more people sign up to take our human trafficking 101 program from listening…It’s accomplishing a lot for our mission.”
Bessette said he’s “really impressed with the respectfulness of students. I think [they’re] very excited to be able to get out and do something…It’s a really nice microcosm of how this can work.”
The press release from Gov. Sununu said “although there is a continued need to take significant precautions, New Hampshire’s actions to date appear to have succeeded in stabilizing the rate of increase in cases of COVID-19.”
Bessette hopes that students and locals continue respecting COVID-19 policies to keep everyone safe. He thinks that this situation can help the community to recognize its interconnectedness. “It’s not about you, it’s about us together,” he said. “Freedom is a freedom to respect the people around you, to have self-care and also compassion and dignity…I’m hopeful that maybe that element will be reset in our communities.”
According to the UNH Police, community members and students are encouraged to report irresponsible behavior that may pose a COVID-19 risk to the public. Further details are available on the Police Department’s website.
“I think it is a learning curve for all of us…but it has definitely become our new normal,” Doody said. “I would like to remind the students at UNH to wear a mask and follow COVID guidelines. It is difficult now, but the sooner we fight this disease, the sooner we can go back to doing the things we love.”
Selig looks for the silver lining in the face of adversity. “It makes us stronger; it makes us more resilient. It forces us to be adaptable…We have to be thankful for small things, at least students can be back, in town, learning in person,” said Selig. “But that’s a privilege, it’s not a right, and students will have to continue to follow the best practices to ensure that in-person learning can continue.
“I appreciate the efforts that students are making, and I hope that they keep making those efforts and we can all stick together and be there for the whole semester,” said Knowles. “We would be a complete success story of big universities…let’s do it and show the world how awesome we are.”