St. Patrick’s Day, the pandemic and partying: students balance choices

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More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and with a second Saint Patrick’s Day in the midst of the crisis, East Lansing partiers weighed plans for the holiday and their worries about the virus.

Street scene from overhead in East Lansing, Micihgan.

Sheldon Krause

Students on Albert Avenue walk by El Azteco.

The coronavirus pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization March 11 2020. This declaration came days before St. Patrick’s Day, when safety advocates across the country encouraged governors to close or limit public gathering spaces before the holiday.

This year, with coronavirus restrictions easing, college students were eager to once again celebrate a holiday popular around college campuses.

Tia Postema, a second-year social relations and policy major, described her worries about COVID.

“It’s always in the back of my mind, for sure,” she said. “I understand the risks of it and I definitely understand the issues with spreading it to people. So, I’m very cautious of the people I see – I only see my friends that I party with and my roommates.”

Postema said that during this semester she began to go out more frequently on weekends, but used frequent testing to help lessen the risk to others.

“I don’t go around my family unless I’ve been tested, or if I were going to go to church or something, I would get tested before that,” she said. “I don’t like to even have the concern of ‘what-if.’”

Postema noted that her friends had already gone to a fraternity during St. Patrick’s Day, and that they planned to visit several bars and/or fraternities throughout the rest of the holiday.

Senior Leah Klassen described how her friend group mitigates the spread if they do get infected.

“We’ve been so careful, just to ensure that not only we wouldn’t get it from inside the community, but we wouldn’t spread it within the community because obviously we’re trying to be as safe as we can, but we’re also trying to protect the community within MSU,” she said.

Klassen said her St. Patrick’s Day celebration was similar to how it’s been in recent years.

“This year was really similar to last year in the sense that we hung out with the same people that we would’ve last year,” she said. “We really tried to hang out in small groups, and the same people that we would always hang out with.”

Klassen also talked about how her senior year is playing into her decisions around COVID.

“It’s pretty difficult because I’m a senior and I have a lot of friends that I’ve made over the last few years, and we try and keep our groups small, but it is pretty difficult because we all hang out with different people in different circles,” she said. “But we have genuinely been trying our best to keep our groups small and to hold ourselves accountable, and I would say that’s been the biggest success overall.”

Brooke Shellenberger, a senior at Central Michigan University, was celebrating in East Lansing for St. Patrick’s Day. Shellenberger, who went to East Lansing bars for the holiday, said individual parties are likely less safe than established businesses.

Lawn parties as seen from overhead

Sheldon Krause

Students gather in front of group rental houses on St. Patrick’s Day.

“Honestly, I think that it’s more of a cesspool at house parties. The bars are the safest bet you can get, it’s like you’re going to a restaurant just like everywhere else throughout Michigan,” she said. “The bars … make you wear a mask. … They’re very on top of their game with requirements. So, honestly, I feel safer at a bar than I do at a house party.”

Shellenberger added that while some of her actions on the holiday may go against local and national health departments warnings, she’s grateful for the work they’ve done so far.

“They are doing everything they absolutely can,” she said. “I really respect everything they’re doing and everything that they’re letting us do. Without them, we would still be in full quarantine, not leaving our house, not leaving past 10 p.m.”

St. Patrick’s Day comes after weeks of improving COVID-19 metrics across the country – however, in Michigan, cases have begun to rise in recent weeks. With the 10th highest rate of case growth in the country, and the spread of new more contagious variants, health officials warn that the holiday celebrations could setting off a powder keg of cases.

On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Michigan reported more than 3,000 new COVID infections, the highest since early January. While hospitalizations also rose, March 17 was also the first day since the beginning of the pandemic with no confirmed deaths in the state.

All this information, coupled with rising vaccinations, can make for complicated risk assessments for those eager to get out. Linda S. Vail, Ingham County Health Officer, made it clear that the Ingham County Health Department is attempting to limit the spread of St. Patrick’s Day cases.

In a March 4 order, Vail limited the size of outdoor gatherings in areas just off campus to 15 people. The health department also noted that 20-29-year-olds have made up 30% of Ingham County COVID cases in the past year.

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