For some Michigan college students, coronavirus is a risk worth taking

College students will wear masks on campus if they have to. But once they leave class, all bets are off. (Shutterstock image)

Matthew Mancini had a close encounter with COVID-19.

The soon-to-be junior at Michigan State University hung out with friends late June 20, after those same friends had been to Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub earlier that night.

So far, at least 85 people have tested positive for the potentially deadly coronavirus after patronizing Harper’s, near the MSU campus, from June 12 to June 20. Social media posts from the bar show that few in the college-age crowd were wearing masks.

“[I] got exposed to them and one of the girls that actually worked at Harper’s,” Mancini said. “Once I figured it out, I'm like, ‘I definitely either have [the virus] or I'm just really, really lucky.’”

He and his friends were lucky — none tested positive for the virus, Mancini told Bridge. But even with a college bar-sparked outbreak so large that it has made national headlines, the student said he doubts his peers will be more careful in the future.

“When people come back on campus, there's going to be FOMO (Fear of Missing Out),” said Mancini, who lives in the Oakland County suburb of Berkley. “I'm going to be wanting to hang out with people and stuff.

“[But] I think overall my mentality is going to be in the back of my head: ‘Do I really want to get coronavirus?’”

That’s a question that’s top of mind for colleges and universities across Michigan as they develop plans to bring students back to campuses for the fall semester amid a global pandemic. Schools are taking unprecedented precautions, from moving many classes online to, on some campuses, requiring masks.

But the Harper’s super-spreader incident, and interviews with students enrolled in Michigan colleges, provide a sobering reality check. 

COVID-19 may have sickened 63,000 Michigan residents and killed nearly 6,000 in four months, but for some college students, contracting coronavirus is a risk they’re willing to take to socialize with friends. 

"I think [my parents] are a lot more concerned than I am,” said 

Mikaeyla Connolly, a rising junior at Oakland University. “I'm not as concerned, definitely in part due to my age.”

Colleges and university campuses across the country closed in mid-March to try to stem the spread of COVID-19, switching to remote learning for the remainder of the semester. Most public and private universities in Michigan have announced plans for the fall that bring students back to campuses, but with stringent health precautions.

Oakland University, for example, will hold most of its classes online and use auditoriums and ballrooms for face-to-face classes to allow social-distancing. Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan are dusting off unused dormitories for single-person rooms.

Some campuses will require masks on campus, including the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Michigan State University announced Friday that face coverings will be required for everyone who ventures on to campus this fall, both indoors and outdoors.

Young adults tend to not be as severely affected by COVID-19 as their parents and grandparents, with many having minor or no symptoms at all. But those young adults can spread the virus to more susceptible people, from family members at Thanksgiving break to professors during office hours.

The safety of students, staff and faculty are a priority for university administrators. Take Northern Michigan University as an example where President Fritz Erickson said in a statement, “We will take all reasonable measures necessary to make classes, housing, dining, student events and all university activities safe.”

But universities have little control over what happens when students step out of class.

Isabella Panse, a rising junior at the University of Michigan, isn’t sure that any regulation by her university will make that big of a difference. “I'm excited to go back, but… I think that once everyone goes back, it's unlikely that people will follow up all social distancing and be responsible.”

Yixin Xiao, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, told Bridge, “I’m not super worried about returning to the fall… because even if I do get [COVID-19], I’m certain I’ll be fine, and I think most people will be fine.“ 

Susan Dynarski, professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, imagines a nightmare scenario of a Harper’s super-spreader event every weekend in college towns across America.

“Here’s a scarily plausible chain of events. Colleges bring students back to campus — where they act like college students,” Dynarksi wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times. “They meet over coffee, go to parties and bars, pair off on dates and congregate in crowded dorms. The virus quickly spreads among students, who mostly recover quickly or are entirely asymptomatic.”

“But soon the virus reaches the older, more vulnerable members of the faculty and staff, as well as local residents. Infections surge.”

Masks are a proven tool to curb the spread of the coronavirus and Michian State University plans on penalizing those who don’t comply. 

That’s not an idea that goes over well with students who spoke to Bridge. 

Sarah Shetty, a rising junior in economics at U-M, said she is a proponent of wearing face masks, but has her doubts about how widespread mask usage will be at off-campus gatherings. “I don’t think that you should really ask college students, who are stressed in their own ways about getting a job or getting through their classes to [wear masks at parties],” Shetty said. “It’s up to an individual to decide whether they’re going to protect themselves, or if they're just going to think they can get over the coronavirus if they get it.”

Peer pressure is what leads Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, to be pessimistic that campuses will be able to control the spread of coronavirus. 

“My pessimistic prediction is that the college and university reopening strategies under consideration will work for a few weeks before their effectiveness fizzles out,” Steinberg wrote in the New York Times. “By then, many students will have become cavalier about wearing masks and sanitizing their hands.”

Colin Pufahl, a sophomore at Central Michigan University, said he isn’t worried about contracting the coronavirus on the Mt. Pleasant campus. “I think that most students are itching to go back and see their friends again,” Pufahl said. “I’m really not concerned at all about getting COVID. My main concern would be transferring it to my family on a trip home or something like that.” 

Staying home rather than returning to campus isn’t a financial option for some students. Many U-M students in Ann Arbor signed leases for the upcoming school year before the pandemic, committing to pay thousands of dollars for apartments near a campus on which they may take few, if any, classes this fall. 

U-M senior Xiao also feels trapped by the housing situation in Ann Arbor. “We’ll only be back for three months and there’s a chance that afterward we won’t be back at all, and I don’t see the point in coming back for those first three months... I just signed a nine-month lease for my house, and I’m only going to be there for three of the nine months. I’m just like ‘Should I even sign the lease at all?’”

Others, particularly incoming freshmen interviewed by Bridge, remain excited and trust universities to implement proper policies and make decisions based on preserving the health of their students and faculty. 

Rebecca Dick, an incoming freshman at Wayne State University — where they have not announced plans yet — said she believes the university “is not going to allow kids back on campus if they feel that they can’t enforce [health regulations] or if they feel that it’s an unsafe environment for them to do so.”

Evelynne Crumm, an incoming freshman studying finance at U-M, agrees. “I think there’s always going to be some sort of underlying fear, but I personally am not overtly fearful or super-concerned about this,” Crumm said. “I feel like there’s going to be strong enough policies in place and people will wear masks.”

Still, Harper’s Bar remains an example of what could be a common headline on campuses this fall. For MSU junior Celeste Sullivan, the massive number of infections from one bar was a warning. “Knowing that something like that happened so close to campus recently, it's super important to be out and be careful,” she said. 

Alyssa Moore, a rising junior at U-M agrees, “There's a lot of people who aren't being very cautious right now and are going out with their friends and like that sort of thing,” Moore said. “So I think that the university atmosphere does make it hard for a lot of people to actually take those precautions because they don't seem to think that it's necessary.”

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Tue, 06/30/2020 - 8:43am

Or just maybe college age kids make a logical calculation that the risks of catching, taking relative simple precautions or the likely outcome if they did is minor enough that it's worth continuing on with one's life in spite of the virus? Granted individual autonomy is a foreign concept to many people around here.

Matt G
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:26am

If you want individual autonomy, go live on the frontier away from people. If you want to live with the benefits of society you're going to have to deal with people who ask that you care for your community.

Infectious diseases don't care if you made some personal calculation about your own personal risk. The risk is to the community it is spread to. The bus/Uber drivers that get drive college kids around, the cashiers and grocery workers...these are the people who will potentially suffer because you want autonomy in a public health crisis.

Your philosophy is outdated by about 300 years.

Sharper tools
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:16pm

Matt G, you are so right. "Peer pressure is what leads Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, to be pessimistic that campuses will be able to control the spread of coronavirus." There is no way opening the schools with the cavalier attitudes cited in the article. The overwhelming opinions of the students are that COVID-19 poses nothing to fear. Do we really want to rely on the wisdom of college students to make crucial life and death decisions for our society as a whole? Their brains are not fully developed. There is a reason you have to be 25 years old to rent an auto. Sure, they can serve in the military, but that is because they have to follow commands, not think for themselves.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:32am

It’s not about YOU. I’m stunned that so many young Americans only think of themselves during a global pandemic. Come on... look away from the mirror!

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 4:42pm

Have you met many young people? How were you at their age? You should not be surprised.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:40am

As an economist, I completely understand your comment. Economics teaches us that we all make utility maximizing decisions based on the best information we have available at the time. However, no information set is perfect, and while early data suggested that younger individuals typically contracted mild cases, more recent findings have correlated covid cases with cardiovascular complications resulting in strokes, even among younger patients. Maybe there's a cause and effect and maybe there's not, but the fact remains the full extent of disorders resulting from covid may not yet be known, thus providing an imperfect information set.

However, I take exception with your autonomy statement in that economics also teaches us that actions can create externalities for others. Sometimes these externalities are positive (for example, a beekeeper whose bees pollinate crops) and some are negative (such as second-hand smoke). Your right to choose what you want for yourself does not give you the right to impose negative externalities on others, and given that carriers of covid are often pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, not wearing a mask increases the likelihood of transmitting it to unsuspecting individuals, who may have higher risk factors.

Marcia Wainwright
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:18pm

Jim, thank you for putting this in terms we can all easily understand.

Robyn A Tonkin
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:28pm

I always enjoy Matt's comments. I think he envisions the "American Way", to be exemplified by the image of the lone frontiersman, rifle in boot, 10 gallon hat on head, galloping westward across the prairie, on a nice fast horse. You know, what I saw on "Gunsmoke", "Have Gun, Will Travel" and "The Rifleman" when I was growing up. Actually, these frontiersmen settled down pretty fast, became cattlemen, or (gasp!) sodbusters, brought in a schoolmarm on the noon stage to teach their unruly children in the one room school they had built, and banded together in benevolent societies and burial societies, in order to have some protection for widows and orphans, and to be buried someplace other than Boot Hill when they went to their reward. Americans historically banded together to act for the common good ever since Europeans came to these shores. Acting unilaterally and selfishly, actually, is not our historic norm. Many, many people today want to get all choked up about bomber crews during WWII, but want to forget how the entire society rose up in union to assume a war footing, willingly, gratefully, glad to have a role to play. My 55 year old grandfather, a victim of type I diabetes with a failing heart, drove way into Detroit every day to work at a Detroit Edison power plant, drove back home (no freeways, mind, on surface streets) put on his air raid helmet, and drove around town with my grandmother policing the neighbors' black out curtains. What if he, and millions of other Americans, had said, "gee, this fight isn't my fight"? Covid 19 is all of our fight. I stay home and sew masks, because I am retired and can. If you have to work, do your part. If you're young, don't assume you will not have a fight on your hands with covid 19, or that someone around you who is older or sickly won't. Time to grow up.

God is Love
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 12:35pm

You like Matt's comments???? I like your response and prefer more of your wisdom. Hopefully Matt learns a thing or two from you! Thank you, Robyn!

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 8:50am

What these young people and for that matter, many people do not get, is that masks protect others. If I wear a mask, it is saying I care about you, not I care about me! A massive media campaign is needed to get this very idea across. We are so used to thinking of me first. It is the staff at these universities, bars, and restaurants that are at risk for these young peoples' carelessness.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:36am

Agreed. It does make me wonder though where their parents were in developing a sense of community In their children when they were young. A lot of younger people worked for me and I can tell you, I got a little sick and tired of training “team” over “me”. Mom and dad have a part to play here. Better late than never.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:25pm

It's kind of like trying to get your children to eat vegetables. They'd rather eat potato chips. That's why we have such unhealthy children and adults in America. We are a country of whiners and no one, not even parents want to deal with the whining. We give up and say, "It's your life, do what you want." Now the chickens are coming home to roost. Our country is a mess, where childish behavior abounds, from the bully president on down. I think things went downhill, starting with the spoiled baby-boomers, but now the greatest generation is dying the most from covid. It's the same virus, but the US is objectively failing more than any other country.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 9:08am

I’m sympathetic. If I were college age, I’d probably behave the same way. But sadly, these students, while probably avoiding serious illness themselves, will go on to infect the bus drivers who drive them around, the store cashiers who ring up their purchases, the professors who teach their classes. If there was ever a time to remember that we are not islands, this is it.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:42pm

Maybe the folks who consider themselves at most risk should take extra precautions above a piece of coth of they want to be out and about? Biohazard suits, Level 2 or 3?

Golden Rule
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 12:38pm

I can't tell if you are being snarky or serious. My guess is serious, but my hope is snarky.

George Hagenauer
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 9:44am

Of course one of the things that has not been determined yet is whether many of the serious incidents turning up later in healthy asymptomatic or minor symptom Covid19 cases- the strokes, kidney problems etc. in young people are indeed linked to the virus. If so the idea that you are young and healthy and thus only gt a mild case may not be accurate. A percentage may later be facing more serious health problems.

Henry McAdams
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:32pm

Exactly, that careless young clown Golbert has no sense of smell to this day and why are we undermining the dangers of those young people who do get seriously ill or die? We have no idea how many could be seriously affected because the virus can mutate and given the shutdown. How many of these carefree students even have health insurance?

Lisa Patrell
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:18am

Where are the University plans to protect the communities into which they will be 'importing' a number of laissez-faire potential carriers? These communities, and I live in one them, have adhered to Gov Whitmer's directions and we have lost a number of locally owned businesses and we have consolidated households due to job loss. Our communities are not doormats for the profit-focused machine too many universities have become.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 11:11am

As a parent, I think staying alive and healthy is the most important consideration!
Parents (who are more mature and experienced in life matters) should decide for their children what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. After all we are responsible for them on many levels. Discuss the facts with your children and teach them what is the #1 most important thing.

Rachael M
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:39pm

Sandy, as a parent with kids in high school and college, I completely agree with you. Here is the problem: Alyssa Moore, a rising junior at U-M agrees, “There's a lot of people who aren't being very cautious right now and are going out with their friends and like that sort of thing,” Moore said. “So I think that the university atmosphere does make it hard for a lot of people to actually take those precautions because they don't seem to think that it's necessary.”

Also there is the whole social media Fear of Missing Out dynamic that seduces students. The only solution is a shutdown, online classes, until there is a vaccine. We see that too many people are treating this like a joke or a hoax.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 11:24am

As 1 Harper's bar incident shows, infections will spike quickly. Students from all over the world attend Michigan colleges. There's no doubt that some will arrive already infected or quickly become infected. When Universities make the decision to close and send everyone home, we'll ALL be at risk.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:44pm

"When Universities make the decision to close and send everyone home, we'll ALL be at risk." Exactly, not "if", but "when", closures will be inevitable and more students will already be stuck with long term leases. It seems like we are just trying to find a way to subsidize slumlords in college towns with student rent, adding unnecessarily to already burdensome loans.

J Hendricks
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:25pm

We wear masks because we choose to. But it could be argued that those who might be adversely affected should be the mask wearers and let he rest run free. This might even set up a herd immunity. I note that none of the bar patrons ended up in the hospital.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 3:17pm

Well maybe this is due to the fact that in general their age groups are not affected by it.

Wed, 07/08/2020 - 12:46pm

Or maybe they believe the president who says it's like the flu and will just disappear.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 4:57pm

I wish that this article included some basic facts to rebut the (incorrect) statements that are quoted. The only statement on the effectiveness of masks is "Masks are a proven tool to curb the spread of the coronavirus" -- it's as important to note how they work. They work by preventing an infected person (who may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, but still contagious, unknowingly) from infecting others. They aren't, as Sarah Shetty claims, a personal choice for the protection of the person wearing them. They are a choice to protect everyone around you!

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 10:52am

The situation is impossible. My son will be a senior at U-M. He has 2 more lab classes to take, which will be in person for part of the semester. He is renting an off-campus apartment with 2 other students. As stated in the article, they had to sign a lease and now will be stuck with paying the rent, regardless of what happens. Given his student loan debt, he doesn't have much choice but to try to get through and graduate on time in the spring.

In addition, my husband is at high-risk for hospitalization from COVID, so if my son wants to come home for the holidays, he will need to quarantine for 14 days. It's sad that he may not be able to come home for Christmas, but it is what it is. Even if my son is extra-cautious, there are no guarantees on his roommates' and classmates' behavior.

A Yooper
Thu, 07/02/2020 - 12:02pm

Not knowing what his labs are, would it be possible for him to work in those lab "settings" with a company, corporation, etc, and UM could grant credit from this experience? I read nursing students were given credit for labs when they went to work in hospitals to alleviate the the pressure there. Just a thought. Good luck.

Wed, 07/08/2020 - 1:02pm

Judy, I hear you. My daughter is a grad student who finished the academic year online and came home to quarantine with us, but she's still locked in a lease for an apartment that sits empty. Her roommate from out of state went back to be with her family for months. They are still paying rent and shared building utilities even though they are not there, just because they think they will have to return to classes in the fall, if only part-time. It's a windfall for slumlords in college towns. This is an undue financial burden caused by people who want us to believe everything will be normal this fall when we know it won't. November can't come fast enough. I so want leadership again for our country. Our national covid response is such a complete international embarrassment. This push to open universities is an appeasement for the Michigan GOP, even though the universities will close within weeks because of outbreaks. You son will be stuck with more unnecessary rental debt and online classwork. Labs will be postponed to some unknown date in the future...... I wish our leaders would stop the economic hemorrhaging that will burden our college students who already face a dismal jobs outlook.

Liam Thomas
Thu, 09/17/2020 - 8:30am

Thank you for this article and for sharing the situation on campus. My university also wanted to back students for this fall term, but we are still will have distance learning. Must say, that I support the decision to stay home for a while, as it would be really risky. As you say in the post, I also have doubts that students will be more careful in the future. But also, I remember my previous distance term in springtime and must say it wasn`t easy. We have so many assignments to do, so every day from morning to late night we were writing paper, I even got help from to complete my project presentation. I have never used speech writing service before, as I like to prepare it on my own, but there was a lack of time and huge numbers of other tasks I was supposed to do. I also have read many articles on about distance learning, it was said that many students felt a lack of motivation as they have not enough time to learn, but only to write paper by paper(