“We have three highly compromised people in my house,” Dollymore said. “Where am I supposed to go to the grocery store?”
Although most — and in many cases, all — of their classes will be held online, students at District-area universities are still flocking to neighborhoods in and around the city, stoking fears — and questions — of permanent residents who are anxious about young people spreading the novel coronavirus.
“They’re already drinking, maskless, downtown. No one cares,” Dollymore said.
When Asher Price, 21, and his roommates signed their leases two months ago for a pale yellow townhouse near George Washington University, they expected to take some of their classes on campus. Since then, the university has retracted parts of its reopening plan and will conduct the fall semester online.
“In our minds, it’s either go home and pay rent for a year in a place we don’t live in or, at least, live in D.C. and follow the guidelines,” said Price, who is from Houston. He also moved near the university before D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser imposed travel restrictions that require travelers from coronavirus hot spots, including Texas, to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Monitoring the actions of young people in college towns will require collaboration between universities, local officials and law enforcement, said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D), whose district includes College Park.
“Our residential campus is a lot like a cruise ship on land. A high concentration of people who like to socialize,” Rosapepe said. “Before the pandemic, if you live in College Park, you see a good bit of not-very-responsible behavior, and so I think people are concerned about whether the students who come back, as opposed to those who don’t come back, will be on their best behavior.”
Local leaders near Georgetown University hope a compact that asks students to agree to follow public health guidelines — including logging symptoms on a daily basis, practicing good hygiene and participating in coronavirus testing required by the university — will quash any tension between students and residents. The university is providing free tests to students and employees who live or work on or near the campus.
“I really do believe the relationship between Georgetown students living in the neighborhood and the residents is very good,” said Rick Murphy, chairperson of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that represents neighborhoods surrounding Georgetown’s campus. “My expectation is that the group homes we’ve already leased for the academic year will be occupied.”
About 175 houses around the university are typically leased to students and house as many as six people at a time, Murphy said.
Disputes between residents and students are rare, said James Moorman, 82, a Georgetown resident of 35 years. He ended a Sunday afternoon walk through the historic neighborhood by tugging at some weeds in his front yard.
Moorman said he’s not concerned for himself — he’s been socially distant and stays away from nearby restaurants on Georgetown’s crowded main street — but the presence of the virus makes him concerned for the students.
“They’re going to come from all different places. It would be hard to imagine if nobody came back that had an infection at all,” Moorman said about the students. “And, of course, periodically the students go home or go places, and I see it as a problem of how you manage that. How do you make sure that your student body is safe from that one or two persons who comes back and is infected and may not even know himself or herself?”
In College Park, residents have reservations.
“I have as much faith in them as I had in myself between 17 and 21,” Aaron Springer, who has lived in College Park since 2001, said about students. He’s already noticed some students, mostly athletes, around the city. The first day of classes is Aug. 31.
The 51-year-old arts educator admitted he’s “less comfortable” with going to the grocery store. Not just because his neighbors are part of a group that tends to have mild, if any, symptoms upon contracting the coronavirus and are likely to pass the virus to older adults, but also because there will be more people in his neighborhood in general.
“There are more vectors that I could be exposed to,” Springer said. “I’m just concerned that people need to be adequately tested, people need to be adequately wearing masks and social distancing.”
Officials at the university are requiring students and employees returning to College Park — or any of the other 11 institutions within the University System of Maryland — to get tested for the coronavirus within two weeks before arriving to campus. And people who live and work on campuses are being asked to monitor their symptoms daily.
To limit the number of people in the city, Patrick L. Wojahn, mayor of College Park, is asking property owners and landlords to allow students to break their leases.
“I know that landlords themselves are going through difficult and challenging times right now, but I hope they will consider this as a matter of safety and the health of our community,” Wojahn said.
More than 20,000 U-Md. students typically live on and around campus, but that number will be much smaller this fall, Wojahn said. The university housed about 40 percent of its undergraduates — more than 11,000 people — on campus last fall, university data show. That number will be cut roughly in half this semester, Wojahn said. About 80 percent of classes this semester will be conducted online, and the university has limited on-campus housing.
While residents worry too many students will crowd their neighborhoods, businesses that operate near schools are concerned there won’t be enough. In Tenleytown, a D.C. neighborhood that attracts students and employees from American University, restaurants and coffee shops have been suffering since the onset of the pandemic.
“The absence of that student population, the faculty population is definitely going to be felt by our businesses,” said Leigh Catherine Miles, executive director of Tenleytown Main Street, a nonprofit that works with neighborhood businesses. Miles added that businesses typically see an uptick in sales toward the end of August, when roughly 14,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students make their way back to school.
Area businesses, like Seoulspice, partner with AU and accept electronic payments from students’ university accounts. Last year those payments accounted for about 5 percent of the fast-casual Korean restaurant’s Tenleytown sales, said Danielle Wilt, vice president of Seoulspice.
“So we’re just expecting that to not be there at all,” Wilt said.
Joseph Oh, owner of Coffee Nature, said he saw sales decline in March, when AU shuttered and the D.C. government started issuing stay-at-home guidance.
“I’m not sure if I’ll get the customers back to 100 percent by the fall because of covid,” said Oh, who has been in Tenleytown for about eight years. “All the students, most are staying at their homes, and they’re not coming back.”
But college students add more to their communities than their dollars, said Amy Patronella, a rising senior and former resident adviser at GW.
“Many of my fellow college students babysit and pet sit for people in D.C., work in D.C. restaurants and stores or are part of D.C. social groups and athletic leagues,” said Patronella, who recently lost her on-campus housing after GW paused the resident adviser program. “And some even run for local office.”
Patronella, who lives in Houston, said she’s looking for new housing in D.C. Her life is in the District, she said, and she plans to stay after she graduates with a degree in political communication in December.
But she also understands the risk she could pose to the community and will have to self-quarantine for 14 days under the recent city order.
“While I’ve been following social distancing guidelines in Houston, I understand traveling by air and coming from a hot spot for covid-19 cases necessitates a self-quarantine,” she said. “It’s a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, and I would want others to follow the same guidelines if I were in the other position.”
Patronella said there’s “some truth” in images that depict young people as willing to shirk public health guidelines. But the people she knows are more concerned about escaping unsafe situations at home or returning to the connections they’ve forged in the District.
For Price, it was important he not only finish his lease, but his senior year at GW, in the city.
“We don’t go to parties. We don’t usually congregate in groups above eight at any given time,” Price said. “We’re still very mindful of all the precautions.”