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The Cornell Interfraternity Council has urged chapters to “keep activities to a minimum” this weekend.

September 9, 2021

Delta Tau and the Delta Variant: Greek Life’s Response to Rising COVID-19 Cases

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After a surge in campus COVID-19 cases last week, with the highest daily record of 57 cases on Aug. 28, some Greek Life organizations are pressing pause on the social semester they anticipated. 

“We were expecting to do in-person mixers and registered events, and Code Yellow has put a serious roadblock in our way,” said Ben Feldman ’22, a member of Delta Tau Delta.

“Everyone’s sort of hunkered down,” said Phi Kappa Tau member Scott Siegel ’24.

That attitude contrasts the week before classes, when students, including Greek members, threw jam-packed Collegetown parties. In an Aug. 30 email, the University associated the COVID-19 spike with “informal, off-campus gatherings of groups of undergraduate students.”

“A lot of apathy has built up … people were rushing to normal,” said Alex Siegenthaler ’22, president of Beta Theta Pi. “That means you could walk College Ave. and see 20 parties going on.”

In an email to all fraternity presidents Thursday afternoon, the Cornell Interfraternity Council urged chapters to keep activities to a minimum this weekend. It said it would not allow organizations to register or host events. 

Presidents received a similar email on Aug. 27 acknowledging a rise in COVID-19 cases within Greek organizations. The IFC told chapters to seriously consider canceling social events. 

In previous years, according to Kara Miller, director of Sorority and Fraternity Life, Greek organizations could hold registered events the first weekend of the semester. 

According to Siegenthaler, Siegel and Feldman, their respective fraternities followed the University’s moratorium on social events last year, haven’t thrown parties yet this semester, and to date said they have never housed a COVID-19 case.

But now fraternities hosting parties find themselves in a gray area. While campus is 95 percent vaccinated, the continued spread of COVID-19 is leading to inconsistent messaging from the administration, according to Feldman. 

“If the University were so truly concerned about the spread of COVID,” Feldman said, “I think it’s impossible to ignore the O-Week parties that were going on every night and insist instead that the solution is outdoor masking.”

While the University urged students to postpone informal gatherings with more than a small number of attendees on Aug. 27, the administration received public criticism for its lack of arrival testing and overcrowded, unmasked dining halls. 

“To lay the blame when also nothing has been done puts this whole situation in the hands of kids, or of students,” Siegel said. 

According to Feldman and Siegel, the University and IFC failed to specify safety offenses and punishments. Siegel expressed that their general messaging — and the threat of social probation — may scare some chapters into compliance. He did not notice many large Greek gatherings over Labor Day weekend.

Miller said those found in violation of the social pause may receive conduct interventions. 

But many think fraternity parties will keep happening. Feldman said the University should mandate prior COVID-19 tests for party attendees, which may curb virus spread more effectively than expecting masks indoors. 

“I can tell you for a fact, no fraternities that threw parties had people wearing masks indoors during those events,” Feldman said.

Members of Greek life are surveillance tested twice a week, compared to once-weekly testing for most other students, according to Miller. 

In February and March 2021, the University explicitly linked COVID-19 clusters to Greek life in emails to students. It didn’t blame them in last week’s correspondence. 

As the semester continues, questions persist about the future of Greek life events. As COVID-19 cases decrease, event registration could be possible again. The question also remains if Greek-affiliated Homecoming events will return from Sept. 17 to 19.

According to Miller, if campus returns to level green, registered events will be allowed with recommendations such as limited attendance and food, socializing outdoors and tracking attendance. Miller added that OSFL will continue to direct Greek organizations to the latest University guidance as cases fluctuate. 

“It’s much more of a wait and see approach,” Feldman said. 

Update, Sept. 10, 6:30 p.m.: This post has been updated to include information from Kara Miller, director of sorority and fraternity life.