Durham, NH — Fraternity members at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) faced financial pressure to honor their leases – and a higher risk of infection in crowded residence halls – this past school year.
Long stretches of quarantine where no members could leave the house pushed some within the houses into desperation. In order to develop immunity among themselves and escape continuous quarantine, members chose to intentionally spread the coronavirus (COVID-19) among themselves.
Over 2,400 students are active members of Greek life at UNH. They belong to the eight sororities and 13 fraternities officially recognized by the university. Their numbers account for 17% of the UNH student population. Most of those students live in houses just off the UNH campus. They live in rooms that hold anywhere from one to four students. Many houses have shared bathrooms, dining areas and common spaces. These students all faced the question of whether they should risk living in a group setting during the COVID-19 pandemic or remain home.
Many members had already signed their leases before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States last spring. According to a UNH junior and a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), and two other UNH fraternity members, no opt-out was offered by fraternity landlords, and prices remained at their pre-pandemic levels despite the risks of group living. A member who wished to remain anonymous confirmed that he paid $450 a week to live in the SAE house.
With no opt-outs, members had to choose between paying for room and board that they weren’t using or risk living in a group setting during a pandemic. The member said that it was irresponsible for SAE’s Financial and Housing Corporation, the landlord, to hold students to the leases.
Three SAE members said the housing corporation made promises that were supposed to make up for the risk of group living. These promises included an off-campus apartment for members to isolate in if they contracted COVID-19 and additional cleaning services. One member said that SAE went back on the promise of an apartment once they found out UNH would offer COVID-19 isolation dorms for off-campus students.
“I guess they spoke with the university, and the university said that they were accepting … students into their isolation dorms,” said the SAE member. “So, then we were supposed to go there.”
Cases began to spike at UNH in early February. Throughout the fall semester and winter break, active cases at UNH never reached more than 106. When students returned for the spring semester, cases spiked. By Feb. 11, UNH had 266 active cases and would peak at 506 on Feb 19. President James Dean announced that UNH would transition its mode of operation from yellow to orange. This announcement meant that all face-to-face instruction would end and that off-campus students could not isolate or quarantine on campus. With 402 people in isolation on campus, UNH hit capacity. Greek life members were no longer able to leave the house if they tested positive unless they had somewhere to stay.
Before the change in quarantine policy, COVID-19 numbers were contained in the fraternity houses. A SAE member attests that only two SAE members contracted COVID-19 before Feb. 11. Within a day of President Deans’ announcement of orange mode, four SAE members tested positive. With nowhere to go, sick students remained isolated within the house.
It can be hard to slow the spread of COVID-19 within a normal living situation. It was nearly impossible to stop in a fraternity house.
“We live in a group setting,” said one member of SAE who wished not to be named. “We all use the same bathrooms; we all eat in the same area. So, it was pretty much impossible for everyone not to get it.”
Dr. Peter Degnan M.D., medical director of UNH Health & Wellness, said the existing structure for living and sleeping quarters within the houses made an environment that put members at a higher risk than other students.
“We’re aware that both fraternity and sorority houses are not single rooms, but they’re actually often bunk rooms with at least four inhabitants,” Degnan said. “So, when you add to the very close sleeping quarters and then also, to some extent, the social nature of community rooms, and then also dining facilities where it’s very difficult to adequately physically distance in those environments, that makes the risk of spread much greater.”
Degnan said that he personally feels students should have been given the option to opt-out of their leases for those very reasons.
“I mean, I’m not speaking from the university perspective, but personally, my own personal belief is that there should have been provisions made for students to be able to opt-out of contractual obligations out of interest in their own personal safety,” he said.
One SAE member said that he felt powerless due to neither his fraternity’s corporation nor UNH stepping in.
“The lack of communication between the fraternity corporation and UNH kind of left us out to dry, and it put us in a very unsafe predicament and scenario that we had no control over,” he said.
He said he returned home in hopes of avoiding contracting COVID-19. He hoped to wait out the spread through the house and return when it was safe. He also felt that he should be reimbursed for his time at home due to active COVID-19 cases within the house. According to the anonymous member, SAE told him that because the house remained open and cleaning and culinary services were still being provided, that he’d get no financial reimbursement. SAE’s Financial and Housing corporation did not respond to emails sent to its main office seeking comment on this story.
He ended up contracting COVID-19. He believes he was infected just before he left the SAE house. He chose to return to Durham rather than risk exposing his parents to COVID-19. Life in the house for him and his brothers was challenging. They faced a two-week quarantine period if any member tested positive. The two weeks reset if any members’ tests came back positive. While the house was under quarantine, no one could attend classes in person or use UNH facilities.
Even as cases at UNH declined and the campus returned to yellow mode, cases within houses continued to rise. Three other UNH fraternity members said that they felt trapped and confined during long stretches of quarantine that went on for weeks and months on end. Members noted that the cases weren’t all at once but just slowly worked their way through houses, keeping them in quarantine continuously.
“People were getting really frustrated with continually having to re-quarantine and not be able to leave or go to classes or go to the gym or use any amenities of the school,” said one junior in SAE, who wished to remain anonymous.
That frustration led to a decision by fraternity members. Two anonymous fraternity members revealed that the intentional spread of COVID-19 was rampant in UNH Greek life. Most felt that if all or most of the house could contract COVID-19, their quarantine would be all at once, and then they could enjoy the rest of the semester COVID-free.
“It got to a point where I just chose to like try to get it actively because my life was just way worse trying not to,” said a 21-year-old member of SAE, who wished to remain anonymous.
“They [fraternity brothers] were like, I want to just get this over with, be immune for three months and be able to live like normal people,” said another.
Members of SAE said that the spreading was done by relaxing social distancing guidelines, abandoning of masks and in some cases breathing or coughing into another member’s face.
Degnan said he had no knowledge of intentional spread at UNH or in any fraternities. “I do not know if that has actually occurred,” he said. “I understand some of the philosophy and some of the sentiment of that. I have no knowledge as to whether the students actually engaged in that practice or not.”
23 out of 30 SAE members contracted COVID-19 in the spring 2021 semester. UNH administration did not respond to requests for comment or questions about the policies during orange mode or cases within Greek life houses.
Photo courtesy of UNH Sigma Alpha Epsilon.