Last week, the National Guard recognized Pullman as one of Washington’s most dire coronavirus hot spots, moving in to conduct mass testing at rotating sites near the Washington State University campus there.
Pullman, home to WSU’s main campus, ranked third on The New York Times’ list of U.S. cities with the most new cases relative to population Friday. On Monday, Pullman ranked first.
Whitman County has had 975 cases total as of Friday, mostly in the college age bracket, the county health district reported. Before Aug. 20, when students started returning, the county had reported 138 cases since March.
While school officials applauded more than 500 students for showing up to get tested when the university set up a testing site on Greek Row, there’s still a critical mass of students who seemed to return to campus “specifically” to party, said Jared Holstad, Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter president.
“It’s their mindset that, ‘Oh, we’re all college students, so we’re fine,’ ” Holstad said. “Something I’ve been trying to drill in is, you might be fine, but when you go to Walmart or Safeway, that’s the same place my parents go to shop.”
And, while a sevenfold increase in cases was enough to top The Times list Monday, the actual number of cases is higher than the reported 975, according to a Whitman County Health District news release. A delay receiving lab results has artificially lowered local case numbers this week, it said.
In a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee seemed to call Washington State University out.
“We need to have a little bit more safety and a little less Animal House,” Inslee said, referencing the 1978 college comedy, before he visited campus Thursday.
Phil Weiler, vice president of communications at WSU, doesn’t know if there’s a simple answer to why WSU — with almost all classes conducted online — has seen a larger outbreak than some universities holding in-person classes.
One of the main factors, he said, is how young the population of Pullman skews. In a typical year, there are more WSU students than permanent residents of Pullman. The town has about 15,000 permanent residents and more than 20,000 students typically, he said. The university set a goal to test every student living in Pullman by the end of September.
At the same time, the town is known for its parties, said Andrew Thomas, WSU’s Interfraternity Council director of public relations.
“We’re out here in a wheat field tucked in some hills,” Thomas said. “Everybody always jokes, what do you even do at WSU? And I think that’s the charm of it. You’re social.”
While fraternity leadership has cracked down on parties, they’re struggling to fight a deeply ingrained party culture at the university, Holstad said.
Holstad knows the consequences. Pullman is his hometown. His parents run a local nursery that was impacted by shutdowns, all of his aunts and uncles live in Pullman, and he’s terrified for his grandmother, who’s turning 90 and lives in a nursing home in town.
“If things get bad here, they can leave,” Holstad said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. This is it.”
Pullman police added pressure on College Hill to stop partying, announcing in August they’d hand out $250 fines on-site for violations of the governor’s orders, but cases continued.
Official fraternity functions have altered completely. Each chapter has moved official gatherings to online spaces, and most fraternity houses have about a third of their normal residents so each student has their own room, Holstad said.
But live-outs, unofficial houses a few fraternity members rent out, are harder to control, he said.
Thomas said it shouldn’t be surprising that students willing to shrug off state orders and county mandates won’t listen to their fraternity leadership either.
“There are people who came to WSU for this experience, they’ve gotten it for the last couple years and they want to keep having it,” Thomas said.
Holstad said he’s frequently heard the argument that climbing case numbers don’t matter as long as hospitalizations are low. But even if people aren’t dying in Pullman, he said businesses are.
Skyrocketing cases could lead to Whitman County rolling back to Phase 2 or 1, and he’s already seen staples of his youth shut their doors permanently this year.
He said the optimist in him sees COVID-19 driving a cultural shift toward the values that he sees as the original purpose of fraternities.
Thomas said it will be easy to see if that prediction comes true by checking the rosters for different frats next year. Fraternities people think of as party frats might lose numbers.
“I think this could be the end of a few fraternities and sororities at WSU. It almost highlights where all energy and effort was put in an organization,” Holstad said. “It’s frustrating because I think there’s a lot more this community can offer. I don’t think a lot of people in the community want more out of it than parties.”