A “dumpling night” turned into a nightmare as a group of first-year students found out they had potentially been exposed to COVID-19.
The seemingly innocent mid-September gathering ended with a week of isolation in the Statler Hotel for the first-years, who were released only after a series of negative tests. The potential cluster, started in a lawn near the North Campus townhouses, was as surprising as it was disruptive for the first-year students.
“One of our friends said we should have a dumpling night,” said Helen Zhang ’24, “so she organized and invited us and we all just met up. We all ate dumplings on the lawn.”
Six days later, Helen got a call from Cornell Health — she had been potentially exposed to COVID-19.
Matthew Breitman ’24 had been cooking dinner when he got the call. “I thought it was just some random number and when I picked up and they were like, ‘This is the Department of Health, Tompkins County,’” Breitman said.
“They were like, ‘Tonight, tomorrow morning, you’re gonna be leaving for the Statler,’” Breitman said. “And it kind of didn’t hit me until at least like 20 minutes later that I was like, ‘Oh crap, you know, I really got to go.’”
Zhang, Breitman and Coby Sontag ’24 were three of the people present at the dumpling party that the health department contact-traced.
“Most of us walked to Statler together with our suitcases because we all got the calls roughly around the same time,” Zhang said. “People on campus are either running away from us because we’re a large group of people with suitcases, or they’re taking a photo or a video, or they’re cheering us.”
They arrived at the Statler in the middle of the night and were checked in one by one. After they were handed keys, snacks and instructions, they headed to their rooms, alone, for the next few days.
For Breitman, the first couple of days were an “almost a luxurious experience, where you’re getting food delivered to your door, you get to chill in the bathrobe, you get your own private bathroom.”
But after several days, they all started feeling trapped.
“You just don’t feel like you’re at Cornell,” Zhang said. “It feels like you’re on a mini-vacation but not vacation because you’re isolated. When you’re in class, it’s kind of bizarre, especially when people recognize your [Zoom] background.”
Each student found their coping mechanism. Sontag ran 2.5 miles in 440 laps around his hotel room, Breitman spent hours on the phone with friends, and Zhang said she ate plenty of meals over Zoom.
After eight days, they were released after several negative COVID-19 tests and checked out at midnight.
Matthew said he didn’t experience too much trouble readjusting to campus life, but mentioned feeling disconnected from new friends and events.
“It was an awkward time to leave. You’re just starting to kind of acclimate and you’re at this point where you just made your friend group and then you get pulled out,” Breitman said.
However, not all students have had the same positive experiences in isolation in the Statler — especially as each of the three first-years tested negative for COVID-19. One particularly egregious case concerning the treatment of a student who tested positive led to accountability demands through an Instagram campaign.
Now, some of the first-years said they are now significantly more aware of the risk of contagion and the danger of large groups.
“You don’t have to be partying to get contact-traced or to be in the presence of COVID,” Zhang said. “All we did was eat dumplings with the wrong person. It was just circumstance.”