OPINION: Don’t come back to Claremont this spring

Students sit on a lawn at Scripps College
Los Angeles County reported a seven-day average of 139 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents per day Dec. 19. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

There is no end in sight to this pandemic and the worst is yet to come.

That’s not our opinion. Those are the words of Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County Health Services director, speaking at a county press conference.

“Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight,” Ghaly said at the conference Wednesday. “I have not said this before, because Los Angeles County has not been in this situation in the pandemic before, but the worst is still before us.”

COVID-19 ICU capacity has reached zero in Southern California. There are simply no beds available for people who desperately need them. Care rationing — which, make no mistake, has already killed peoplemay soon begin.

This is a crisis. And a crisis is no time for students to return.

Los Angeles County is in crisis. San Bernardino County is in crisis. The Inland Empire is in crisis. The city of Claremont reported a case rate of 2,985 cases per 100,000 residents on Friday.

This will not resolve this week. It will not resolve by the new year. It will almost certainly not resolve by the beginning of spring semester and likely not even before spring break (heads up for anyone thinking it’s a good idea to buy tickets for a one-week biohazardous fling). We are in for a long few months.

And with no end in sight, returning to Claremont for the spring semester is not just foolhardy but negligent. The last thing the city and county need is an influx of students.

We want to impart some tough love and a hard truth: None of us are the perfectly virtuous, educated and cautious inhabitants we think we’d be (or, in some cases, thought we were this fall), and any sense of exceptionalism is naive and dangerous. All of us are only human and therefore fallible to both viruses and carelessness.

We realize there are some students with nowhere else to go and do not begrudge anyone who is returning because it is their only option. But everyone else who has a choice in this matter needs to think long and hard about what they are doing. It’s selfish, foolish and violent.

As of the writing of this piece, the Instagram account @5c_roomiesss has posts from multiple people looking to move back to Claremont, presumably for the spring semester. We understand people desperately want to have some semblance of a normal year, but now is not the time. It is too dangerous.

One of the authors of this article, Becca Zimmerman PZ ’21, wrote an article over the summer warning students not to move back to Claremont, as she feared that an inability to grasp the science of COVID-19 and its spread coupled with the impulsive decision-making tendencies of young people, would contribute to an inevitable outbreak. 

This fall, following an outbreak that infected 5C students living near Claremont, Zimmerman, as a member of Pitzer’s COVID-19 Task Force, interviewed several 5C students living in or near Claremont to provide first-hand anonymous accounts to other task force members. 

The situation, according to these accounts, was worse than she thought it would be. Multiple students openly admitted to attending parties and gatherings. Interviewees told Zimmerman of gatherings from 10 to as many as 100 attendees.

Students in Zimmerman’s interviews and past TSL reporting spoke of “pods” among multiple households. In a first-hand account given to Pitzer’s task force via Zimmerman, an interviewee spoke of a “pod” — or “bubble” — of 30 people.

There exists a complete ignorance to the science of transmission, or the magnitude of risks in having “pods” of multiple households, sometimes with dozens of people. 

To be extremely clear, 30 people is in no way a “bubble.” A massive sense of entitlement accompanies wild miscalculations that a large pod socializing between households is safe, especially when admitting to lax precautions. It’s unacceptable.

We also question what students who are choosing to move back really expect. Spring semester will be more of the fall. Classes will be online, campus will be closed, outbreaks will occur. There will be no pre-pandemic normal. 

And for anyone thinking of moving in with folks they don’t know well, or complete strangers, think again. In the aforementioned first-hand, anonymous interviews, many students said they did — and some pairings worked out great, others not-so-great. 

While this is all fine in a regular year, interviewees spoke of undergoing house swaps and shacking up with folks in different houses, inevitably leading to an expanded “bubble.”

We have reached a point at which any return or influx of students without explicit county direction and approval via the proposed waiver program is a terrifying prospect. LA County is over thirteen times the waiver threshold of 10 new cases per 100,000 people per day, at a seven-day average of 139 new cases per 100,000 people per day, as of the publishing of this piece. And if the 5Cs want to have any chance of being included in the waiver program, students need to stay away for the time being. Returning to Claremont, especially in large numbers, will only increase the case counts and strains on the system.

For those already living in or near Claremont, stay there. Don’t travel for the holidays, don’t go to see friends and don’t leave home except for essential activities. Traveling means potentially infecting other people — and even a negative test result is not a free pass.

For those planning to return in the spring, please, don’t. There is no nuance to this point. There is no push-pull. For the sake of the entire Claremont community, for the sake of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, for the sake of the Inland Empire, don’t return. The safest way to not spread the virus is to stay where you are.

It is easy to discount the horror of the pandemic, especially if one has not personally seen its effects. The estimate that one in 80 people in LA County currently have and are transmitting the virus, while astonishing and terrifying is, after all, still just an abstract number. It is easy to think, especially as a young, healthy college student, that even if one contracts the virus, one will not suffer greatly.

But nothing is guaranteed, especially in a county in crisis. Even in the best-case infection scenario — asymptomatic infection or very mild symptoms — one can still develop long-term effects. If you’re thinking about having kids, or if you know your family is prone to a certain kind of illness, you should be worried. And there is still plenty we don’t know: for example, whether people who contract even a mild case will have complications years afterwards, as happened with SARS, another disease caused by a coronavirus. 

If a student who moves back to Claremont for the spring semester ends up in the hospital, that’s a bed, staffing and medicines that could have gone to a permanent resident of the county. That’s a house or apartment full of roommates who now need to quarantine and may not have the means, knowledge or willpower to effectively do so

All of this must be contextualized with new data revealing that COVID-19 is more deadly for young people than scientists originally thought. And most importantly, even if one does recover quickly and easily, one still risks infecting others who will not, including the very medical staff caring for them.

Let’s be extremely clear about the power and privilege involved in voluntarily packing up and moving away from home to be with one’s friends in a college town: If you are a high-income, able-bodied white person, you are both relying on and perpetuating the very systemic inequities (racism, ableism, classism) that many of you so fiercely post about on social media. It has been well established that the intersecting oppressive forces of environmental racism, inequities in health care and rising economic inequality all increase the risk and harm that the most vulnerable people in the United States must face. 

By moving to Claremont, you will most certainly be contributing to an already disastrous spread, and taking medical resources away from the local community (e.g., tests, PPE) solely to fulfill social needs while folks in need of non-COVID related medical care are unable to safely access that care. By moving to Claremont, you are directly prolonging the pandemic and inflicting harm on communities of color, undocumented immigrants and workers, low-income people, uninsured people, older people, disabled people, essential workers, migrant workers, the list goes on.  

If you’ve learned about the “tragedy of the commons,” the post-Halloween Claremont outbreak (and rising infection levels since) provide a perfect real-world example. Don’t move to Claremont. It is racist, classist, ableist and entirely preventable. Spare us the mental health argument — if you are justifying a move to Claremont in the name of “self-care,” then it is likely that your conceptualization of self-care is inherently exclusionary. There are ways to safely socialize and engage in sustainable mental health practices without endangering the vulnerable populations around you. 

Yes, the vaccine is finally rolling out. That is a triumph of medicine to be celebrated, and returning to campus and returning to “normal” will be a reality once we reach herd immunity. But it will likely be summertime before most college students can be vaccinated. We cannot, and should not, count on a vaccine in the coming months.

We understand how desperately students want to return, how everyone wants to see and hug and hang out with their friends again, how so many long for Friday night parties and events to resume. Far be it from us to condemn people for wanting human companionship. We, too, want to once again be with people outside our immediate households. But it is not safe now, and the more students return in January, the longer it will be unsafe for us all to return.

For the majority of us students, it is incredibly rare that we need to make a personal decision — such as where to live for the semester — that also has life-or-death consequences for other people. Luckily, the moral “dilemma” in deciding where to live this spring is actually not a dilemma at all. Many of us foresaw the dangerous consequences of students moving to Claremont, and they were very concretely demonstrated over the past several months. Now the stakes are even higher.

Please. Stay home, wherever that is. If you’re already in Claremont, don’t leave, but if you’re planning on returning, don’t. Maybe we will be able to come back to campus in some limited fashion after spring break, but for now, it is foolish, negligent and dangerous to return.

Donnie TC Denome CG ’21 is a former opinions and managing editor for TSL and a masters of public health student from Sunnyvale, Calif., who is very tired of being told “well, you sure picked a relevant field!”

Becca Zimmerman PZ ’21 is the president of the Pitzer College Student Senate, a member of the Pitzer COVID-19 Task Force and a combined political studies and economics major. She fully recognizes the irony of deciding against designing the public health major she described in her Pitzer application.

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