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Florida universities try to control large gatherings on campus

Most university officials are working with local law enforcement agencies to enforce social distancing guidelines.

TALLAHASSEE — He knew there was risk returning to Florida State University’s campus amid a global pandemic, but Trey Martin was drawn back for one reason: to hang out with his friends.

“I’ll be completely honest, a large part of it was to see my friends and have that social life back,” he said. “It was the freedom, because you know, when you’re home, our parents are the ones to say you can’t leave the house.”

The 19-year-old’s parents were concerned he would get sick on campus. But the marketing major eventually talked his way into living in an off-campus apartment in Tallahassee with three roommates. He wore a mask and avoided large parties.

Then came a small gathering with friends at his apartment. Next, the tests.

“We all tested positive,” Martin said. “There’s probably 10 people in my friend group and every single one of us, boys and girls, we all tested positive.”

The situation at Martin’s apartment underscores a growing problem on campuses across Florida as university officials try to navigate a safe reopening, while many young adults crave the quintessential college experience amid the pandemic.

In recent weeks, various university campuses have reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases as university officials have tried to clamp down on large gatherings and threaten students with suspensions if they defy social distancing guidelines at parties or football games.

Related: Coronavirus cases add up at Florida universities. How are they responding?

“It’s wild here,” said Alana Gomez, a senior at the University of Florida, where 650 students and 47 faculty and staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19. “No one seems to be taking it seriously.”

The uptick in cases among young people in college towns is a looming threat for older people who live in the communities that surround campuses. Most university officials are working with local law enforcement agencies to enforce social distancing guidelines.

But the state has no plans to help universities crack down on large gatherings and non-compliance in college towns.

“Of course we would like to see university students behave more responsibly, but the state will not utilize valuable resources to serve as an enforcer to prohibit young people, who clearly want to and will continue to socialize, from doing so,” DeSantis' spokesman Cody McCloud said in a statement to the Herald/Times.

Related: Should Florida raise tuition at state universities? It's being discussed

The governor’s office added that young adults between the ages of 18-22 are at “an extremely low risk of getting sick or being hospitalized from COVID-19,” a message he has repeated numerous times as he pushed schools and universities to reopen in the fall.

It is that message that has prompted some university students to let their guard down in social situations.

“That narrative that young healthy people aren’t going to be affected was a huge driving factor” to return to campus and hang out with a group of friends indoors, Martin said.

Natasha Harwood, an 18-year-old freshman at FSU, added that the state’s lifting restrictions on bars sends mixed signals to students. She said the decision to allow bars to reopen at 50 percent capacity earlier this month is “almost like you have the government behind you to keep going out and keep being social.”

“I think what the governor realized was that people are going to hang out anyway and they are going to party anyway,” Harwood said. “I think at this point, it’s more of a money thing, where you might as well open up and help the local economy because they’re testing positive.”

When asked about the students' perspective, the governor’s office said that “students are taking that calculated risk into consideration when making decisions, and they are personally responsible for their actions.”

Most state universities required students to get tested for the virus prior to settling into their dorm rooms.

At FSU, all students living off campus and employees were “strongly encouraged” to undergo testing if they planned to be present on campus. At least 1,402 students and 26 employees are known to have tested positive for the virus at FSU as of Monday.

UF’s testing plan includes mandatory testing for all students who are asymptomatic or are in contact with patients in a clinical setting.

Universities have set aside rooms where students can stay in order to isolate due to a positive diagnosis.

UF officials say students are provided “food, sundries, counseling and other services as needed” when isolating.

FSU has set aside 80 beds for residential students who test positive for COVID-19.

Harwood, whose roommate tested positive for the virus and was quarantined last week, said FSU is very strict about restricting students' access outside of their isolation rooms.

Meanwhile, counties with major universities, such as FSU, the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, reported on Monday that a large chunk of new cases stemmed from people who are between the ages of 15 and 24.

On Monday, for example, 67 percent of new cases in Alachua County, home to UF, fell under that age group. In Leon County, where FSU and Florida A&M are located, 53 percent of the county’s new cases were also people in that age group.

Syd Kitson, the chairman of the state university system’s Board of Governors, said last week the uptick in coronavirus cases on some campuses is a reminder that “the pandemic is far from over,” and urged state officials to hammer to students the message of “personal responsibility.”

FSU President John Thrasher on Friday sent a campus-wide email in which he once again threatened to suspend students who defied COVID-19 measures. He also said students would be suspended for at least one semester if they are caught socializing after testing positive and ordered to isolate.

Martin said that when he tested positive for the deadly illness, he stayed home and that a headache was the worst symptom he experienced. But some of his friends, he said, tested positive and ventured out to pool parties and the gym, Martin said.

As of Monday, at least 1,402 students and 26 employees have tested positive at FSU. The infection rate on campus is 8 percent, double the state’s positivity rate on Monday.

FSU spokeswoman Amy Farum Patronis said at least 46 students have been charged with student conduct violations but would not say how many of those students have been suspended.

At the University of Florida in Gainesville, Gomez said she has regularly witnessed clusters of maskless students in Midtown, an area with bars and restaurants just north of campus.

“No one seems to be taking it seriously from what I see every night across the street,” Gomez said. “It seems just as busy as any other fall here at UF.”

Gomez returned to campus but is not taking in-person classes. She wanted to come back to campus because she could not concentrate on her studies as clearly when at home with her family. She fears getting sick, so she is not going out and socializing.

“I will say it is very lonely,” the 21-year-old said. “And I had not considered that.”

Another cornerstone of the college experience, college sports, has been a point of contention as the sports resumed this month. It is something the Republican governor has strongly pushed to resume in the fall.

“Not just football, which is very important in the state of Florida, but all of our men’s and women’s sports,” the governor said Aug. 2. “These students work their whole lives to be able to get to this point and they shouldn’t have their season taken away from them.”

Major universities like USF, UCF and FSU have already started the football season. The Seminoles play the University of Miami this Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, but UM is not allowing students to attend.

FSU’s first football game caused outrage when images of maskless fans and a crowded stadium popped up on social media, prompting university officials to say new guidelines would be forthcoming.

Most recently, Florida Atlantic University on Saturday canceled its season-opening game against Georgia Southern in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak that was reported among the Owls' football team.

Miami Herald writer Karina Elwood contributed to this report.

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