County board of health turns recs into regs after university imposes quarantine on Greek houses due to “alarming” number of COVID-19 cases

After peaking at around 20 in the third week of July, the 7-day rolling average of positive cases in Monroe County dropped to about half that by the first week of August. Now, in the third week of August, it’s reached around 20 cases per day again.

Two and a half weeks ago, on Aug. 5, Monroe County’s board of health issued a set of recommendations for residential and communal living facilities, to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic virus. The recommendations also applied to Indiana University Greek houses.

On Friday, the county board of health voted unanimously to give the county attorney and the health officer the authority to convert the recommendations into something stronger—regulations, which can be enforced under county ordinance.

For example, the previously recommended occupancy for a communal living facility was a range from 50 to 75 percent. Friday’s action will cap the occupancy at 75 percent, and that will have the force of a regulation. Based on the discussion at Friday’s board of health meeting, the regulatory cap means some sorority and fraternity members will need to move out of their Greek houses.

The recommendation allowing “essential” guests but prohibiting “non-essential” guests, among other previous recommendations, will also become a regulation.

Violations of a regulation issued by the county board of health is a Class C ordinance violation, which carries with it a possible $500 fine.

The board’s action came after Indiana University announced the previous day that it had directed all Greek houses to suspend “in-person organizational activities” other than dining and housing for live-in members until at least Sept. 14, 2020.

The university’s action came after an “alarming” number of cases was identified in some Greek houses, and a letter was sent to some of them by the county health department.

IU’s news release also reported that for eight of its 40 Greek houses, Monroe County’s health department gave “notice” that members “must quarantine,” which meant that for those eight houses, all members have to stay in their houses for 14 days. The houses under quarantine are: Alpha Delta Pi, Alpha Sigma Phi, Beta Theta Pi, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Phi, Gamma Delta, Phi Kappa Psi, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and Theta Chi.

Based on the capacity cap, some of the Greek houses will need to “de-densify” by having some members move out. Leslie Fasone, who’s IU’s assistant dean for sorority and fraternity life, said at Friday’s board of health meeting that some of the sororities and fraternities had taken the board’s earlier recommendations on capacity limits and implemented them, and would likely not be affected by the board’s Friday action.

Other houses will see an impact. Dave O’Guinn, IU’s vice provost for student affairs said a couple of the Greek houses were at 100 percent capacity. One group has over 122 students living in one house, which O’Guinn called “a massive amount of students together.”

O’Guinn focused on capacity as the main issue, as opposed to behavior. “I’m not sure…our students are are doing something wrong per se. That’s not really what I’ve been telling. What I am saying is congregate living…is just not good with COVID.” O’Guin said sororities and fraternities are best at congregate living in its purest form: “It is gathering in large groups, having folks together and, and hanging out and being together and sharing brotherhood, meals, sisterhood, life.”

The wording in the health department’s communication to affected Greek houses was a smidgen weaker than the “must” wording described in the IU news release. That’s based on a substantial portion of the letter read aloud by county health administrator Penny Caudill during the board of health’s Friday meeting:

Unfortunately, numerous positive cases of COVID have been reported in your house. … Based on the elevated number of positive cases in your house, the close contacts, and potential for additional unidentified exposures, the Monroe County Health Department formally requests that your house immediately implement house-wide self-imposed quarantine procedures. The time period for which this house-wide self imposed quarantine will last depends on the health of the members during the quarantine period. Of course that is unknown at this time.

The “elevated” number of positive COVID-19 tests described in the letter was called “alarming” by IU’s news release.

Asked to hang a number on the description “alarming” at Friday’s weekly press conference, which was held a couple of hours before the board of health’s meeting, IU officials were not able to say.

Aaron Carroll, associate dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine said, “I don’t have an exact number to relay, but you can be sure it was more than in the [Greek] houses that are not under quarantine. Because of course, if we’re seeing more cases, then those are the houses that we want to work with the county on, to try to take measures to keep everybody safe.”

Carroll also attended the county board of health’s meeting. Joining Carroll, Fasone, and O’Guinn at the board of health meeting was Kathy Riester, IU’s associate vice provost for student affairs.

Board of health member Mark Norrell, who’s a senior lecturer at IU’s school of public and environmental affairs, led off Friday’s meeting by saying the board should give the university credit for doing mitigation testing—also testing those who are not showing COVID-19 symptoms. The university has launched a massive testing program that aims to do 10,000 tests a day.

Norrell said, “I mean, they’ve they have raised the flag, right? I don’t think we’d be here otherwise. But they’re the ones who recognized what’s going on.”

The meeting was bookended with Norrell’s praise for the university’s mitigation testing effort. Around 4:15 p.m. towards the end of the board’s meeting, Norrell said, “We’re playing the game the way, it needs to be played, right? And so we’re all kind of on top of this.”

Norrell added: “Very coincidentally, at 3:55 p.m. this afternoon, I got an email from Indiana University that says I’ve been selected for COVID-19 mitigation testing.”

In procedural terms the board of health recessed, as opposed to adjourned, its meeting. It will resume at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 15.