County board of health mulls Greek house guests

No decision was reached at its Thursday meeting, but Monroe County’s board of health wrestled for around an hour with the idea of relaxing somewhat its COVID-19 regulations on communal living facilities.

The board voted to approve a motion to have county health administrator Penny Caudill and county health commissioner Thomas Sharp collaborate with Indiana University officials on a revised regulation.

The revised rule might distinguish between inside guests and outside guests of Greek houses, and would likely still prohibit guests inside buildings and place restrictions on guests who remain outside.

That revised regulation could come to the board for approval at its next meeting, now set for April 6.

The current communal living regulations don’t allow visitors. The rules prohibit “nonessential” guests, who don’t live in the facility. Examples of essential guests are people who are providing a professional service to the facility, such as preparing meals, cleaning, or doing repairs. Guest logs have to be maintained.

The current regulations have been interpreted to mean that even guests who might remain outside the house would be prohibited.

As infection numbers have declined, the board of health has been hearing from students asking regulations to be amended so that guests can visit Greek houses—even if they might have to stay outside. The idea is, as the weather turns warm, people dropping by to visit houses where they don’t live is part of the springtime college experience in Bloomington.

One possibility that was batted about by the board on Thursday was the idea of defining “facility” to mean just the building. That way guests could be allowed on the house grounds, but not inside. The idea was that the city of Bloomington’s stricter limit on private gatherings, which is 15 people, would then apply to any groups outside of Greek houses.

It’s a scenario that county health commissioner Thomas Sharp did not see as problematic. “We’re talking about 15 people on the lawn, throwing a football or whatever they’re doing. …There is virtually no risk in that,” Sharp said.

Sharp pointed to the massive amounts of mitigation testing that the university is doing, which has a current positivity rate of 0.2 percent. Sharp also observed that there’s an incentive for Greek houses to avoid infections: “Fraternities and sororities know how inconvenient that is, to go on quarantine. That’s really a pain in the rear.”

Sharp added, “Whatever we say here is not going to make a whole lot of difference. They’re going to do what they want to do, as you know.”

Weighing in with some caution about relaxing the prohibition against guests was Lana Debeibo, a specialist in infectious disease with IU Health, who attended the board’s Thursday meeting.

Debeibo said, “Houses are still susceptible to infection,” she said. Debeibo continued, “Even with these low [infection] numbers in the community, we’ve had three houses that have been in quarantine in the past few weeks, because of a flare-up of infection there.”

Debeibo added, “It’s just the fact that there are such high numbers of people living in the houses, the way they are designed, is putting them at risk.”

If a guest introduces an infection into a communal living context, Debeibo said, “You see the whole house just light on fire with infections, one after the other, and then we’re trying to stop it.” Allowing guests adds a layer of complexity, Debeibo concluded.

It emerged during the meeting that under current regulations, residents of a Greek house can gather outside the building, still on the property, in numbers that exceed the city of Bloomington’s 15-person limit. The gathering limits apply to people outside a household. And residents of Greek house count as a household.

As Caudill put it, “Whether you have a household of 10, or whether you have a household of 50, that’s a household.”

So, at Thursday’s meeting the board appeared to abandon the idea of redefining “facility” to mean just the building, with Bloomington’s 15-person gathering size limit applying to people outside. That would have been more restrictive on house residents than the current regulation.