Miami University has reported 2,320 cases of COVID-19 since the start of classes on Aug. 17. This is the second-highest case total among universities in Ohio – about 1,500 behind Ohio State University, which enrolls about 45,000 more students.
The spread of COVID-19 on Miami’s campus can be attributed to a number of factors, but the city’s lax enforcement of two key ordinances – the mass gathering ban and the mask mandate – has not helped curb the virus’ spread throughout the Oxford community.
As of Nov. 17, the Oxford Police Department (OPD) had issued 15 citations for the mass gathering ban. City officials also report zero citations for the mask mandate – largely because of confusion surrounding who should be enforcing it.
Mass Gathering Ban
First-year Evan Gates was scrolling through Instagram when he came across two images that he said filled him with complete disgust. In the photos, posted Nov. 8, crowds of people were waiting outside Uptown businesses Fiesta Charra and Bagel and Deli.
“I'm just really disappointed,” Gates said. “It's definitely a culture that I'm seeing really strong with the freshman class as a whole. They just kind of throw their hands up in the air and [don’t] really care what's going on.”
Gates said, as a first-year, he notices his class violating restrictions more than others. However, he believes first-years were influenced by the behavior of upperclassmen.
“[Freshmen] kind of came in unsure,” Gates said. “They looked at the upperclassmen and the upperclassmen were kind of playing it fast and loose with the regulations, and the freshmen said ‘Hey, this is OK.’”
Despite the crowds not socially distancing, it did not appear from the photos that there was any police presence. But Gates said he’s not surprised at the lack of enforcement.
“When I realized that these big crowds near Skipper’s or Bagel and Deli or just Uptown were right next to Oxford PD, and they weren't doing anything about it,” Gates said, “I went, ‘This isn't gonna get enforced.’”
OPD Chief John Jones wrote in an email to The Miami Student that he wasn’t immediately aware of these gatherings, and by the time an officer arrived at the scene, the crowds had dispersed.
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He also wrote that the city followed up with Fiesta Charra after the incident and told the restaurant to be more mindful of the lines outside the building.
“We have responded to other businesses as well and requested management manage their lines,” Jones wrote. “We are doing our best to assist in visiting these [places] when we can between our other calls for service.”
During City Council’s Oct. 20 meeting, City Manager Doug Elliott said, according to his research, mass gathering events drive most of the COVID-19 cases across the country.
“I think you can witness that with the large parties we have had with students here,” Elliott said.
Oxford’s mass gathering ban, which was passed in August, mandates no more than 10 people who are not living in the same household congregate at one time. Violators can face a $500 fine for the first offense and $1,000 for repeat citations.
On the city’s website, city officials created a Google Form community members can fill out to report complaints about COVID-19 violations.
However, community members and students are unsure of where the information submitted to the form ends up.
“The first time I filled it out, I thought it was actually going to City Council,” Oxford resident Jenny Witt said.
Junior English education major Erin Bingaman found the form through Miami’s Healthy Together page. She used the form three times this semester after seeing multiple large parties near her off-campus home.
She wasn’t sure who the form was going to or who would see it.
“My assumption would be student services,” Bingaman said. “Or I know that [Miami officials] have made a specific COVID impact team or whatever.”
She left her contact information on the form each time but never heard back from anyone regarding her report. Bingaman said that, so far, the neighbors she reported have stopped having parties.
While there is confusion among community members about where the Google Form responses end up, the process of what happens to the information once it's reported to the city is also complicated.
When responses to the Google Form are filled out, they are added to a spreadsheet managed by Seth Cropenbaker, assistant to the city manager. The form also includes Cropenbaker’s email for all photo or video evidence to be sent.
Cropenbaker said the form was originally intended for community members to report concerns they had about businesses and private citizens not following COVID-19 procedures but was never meant to be a substitute for calling OPD.
“There’s already a set standard way to reach the police – either calling 911 or the non-emergency number,” Cropenbaker said. “This is really just a secondary measure.”
When Cropenbaker receives responses to the form that include contact information, he reaches out to the reporter and, if necessary, asks for additional information about the incident. Cropenbaker also has a three-step process he uses to respond to reports made against businesses.
For a business’ first offense, he calls them and makes sure they fully understand the city’s COVID-19 guidelines. For the second offense, he sends the business a letter and for the third offense, he gets OPD involved.
Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene said only a few businesses have reached the second step.
Greene said the city recently edited the form to include OPD’s non-emergency number and urged community members to call that number for “a more immediate response.”
Cropenbaker also sends some of the information he receives, including photos or videos, to Miami’s office of community standards. However, he said he has not received many photos — only about a half dozen.
He said some residents have been reported multiple times; these are the people he reports to Miami or OPD.
“[My role is] making note of those and, as it becomes appropriate, sharing that information with the right players,” Cropenbaker said, “whether that's folks in the city, folks with the Oxford police or folks at Miami University.”
Greene said the city struggled with following up on individuals’ comments and questions because the form allows for anonymity.
“It was meant to be a way for [the community] to report any kind of concern that they wanted to address and look into,” Greene said. “Then, if they left their contact information, we would get back to them. But a lot of people who made comments didn't leave subsequent follow-up information.”
The city provided The Student with the spreadsheet containing all the form’s responses submitted between Aug. 5 and Oct. 14. Of the 257 responses to the form made by community members and OPD officers, 193 were reports of mass gatherings — 75% of all responses.
OPD does not have access to the spreadsheet, and OPD Lieutenant Lara Fening said the department doesn’t investigate every COVID-19 tip received from community members through phone calls.
“In general, I just hate to say that, ‘Oh we investigate every one,’ because there's always going to be circumstances that it just doesn't make sense,” Fening said. “I'm sure there are circumstances that we wouldn't, because it just doesn't make sense to go.”
Greene said there have been cases when calls to OPD to report mass gatherings have been unfounded.
Although Fening said OPD does not have access to the spreadsheet, Greene said every response that includes contact information is investigated by the city.
Among those that fill out the Google Form are OPD officers. Greene said officers fill out the form so the city can keep track of incidents OPD has responded to.
“We had our officers, regardless of how the call came in, start to enter their data into the form as well, so we had a record of how our police are responding to COVID-related issues,” Greene said.
Some of the entries made by OPD officers include instances where officers observed large gatherings but didn’t cite residents with the mass gathering ban.
“[An officer was] dispatched for a large party inside residence [on] Tallawanda Road,” one report reads. “Upon arrival, I observed no noise violation and approximately 10-15 people. Residence [sic] were advised to disperse any remaining non-residence [sic] and keep noise down.”
Jones wrote that OPD only cites people with the mass gathering ban if it’s clear there are more than 10 non-residents present at the gathering, and that it’s often difficult to determine who does and does not live at a residence.
“The mass gathering ordinance is a new, untested-in-court civil offense that officers have never enforced before,” Jones wrote. “The language is not always clear.”
In addition to Oxford’s reporting form, Miami has created its own form for students to report on-campus COVID-19 violations.
Responses to the form are sent to Ann James, director of community standards, who then reviews the reports to determine the next course of action.
Jillian Gruber, a first-year psychology and premedical studies major, has filled out Miami’s form multiple times. She said she never received a response to any of her reports, except one email from James telling her to stop filling out the form because Gruber hadn’t included the names of the people she was reporting.
“[Providing the offender’s name] was listed as optional, so I just assumed they would be comparing the photos to IDs or something,” Gruber said. “I didn’t know any of the people I was reporting – I would just be passing them on the street or in a building.”
James said many of the reports she receives aren’t actionable because they don’t include enough information about the offender, including their name.
“There’s really no way for us to follow up [if the student’s name isn’t included],” James said, “because I have this picture of this person, and I don’t know who they are.”
Gruber expressed frustration at the response she received from James because she felt the form didn’t make it clear enough what information was needed.
“I was shocked to read [the response] because I would have thought they would have noted that [names were necessary] on the form,” Gruber said.
James said she understood Gruber’s perspective, as it can be difficult for a reporter to get an offender’s name if they don’t know them. But it’s simply too difficult to follow up with the offender if their name isn’t known.
“I mean, I get it – I don’t want to go up to some stranger on the street and be like, ‘Put your mask on,’” James said. “But in order for us to be able to follow up with that person, we just need a name.”
James said another problem the university has is students who report others may not be willing to be a witness during a disciplinary hearing.
“Some students, they're just not comfortable doing that,” James said. “And so, if they're not willing to serve as a witness, and they also don't have any kind of information to indicate what happened, then we can't proceed with conduct.”
According to a report Greene gave at the Nov. 3 city council meeting, as of Nov. 2, Miami had found 77 students responsible for violations of the university’s code of conduct relating to COVID-19 safety measures. As a result, those students received either disciplinary probation or suspension for the remainder of the fall semester.
Greene said there are 62 more students still waiting for their disciplinary hearing outcome.
In late October, Miami senior Katie Sciales was enjoying a night with friends on her front porch when an OPD officer pulled up to their house. Sciales had already received two noise citations, so she thought she knew what was next.
The maskless officer told her to come off the porch and into the yard where he was standing. Sciales went into the house to grab a mask before approaching the officer.
When she asked the officer to put on a mask of his own, he refused. The officer said he was socially distanced from her, though Sciales remembers it differently.
“We were clearly not six feet apart from him,” Sciales said. “He was standing right next to us.”
The officer told her he was exempt from wearing a mask because he was “enforcing public safety.”
OPD Lieutenant Lara Fening confirmed that officers aren’t required to wear masks when responding to issues of public safety.
“There’s lots of cases where the circumstances are such that a quick response is necessary,” Fening said. “If I’m going to a domestic [violence call], or I’m going to a fight, the last thing I’m thinking about is a mask.”
Fening also said OPD always emphasizes the need to wear a mask in public — both for public safety and the department’s public image.
“We tell our officers it's really important if you go into a public space … it's important that you wear a mask,” Fening said. “Not just for the sake of wearing one, but for public perception.”
Sciales said, when it comes to cracking down on the spread of COVID-19, OPD officers should practice what they preach.
“People who are having parties [with] over 10 people are getting suspended for it because it's a health violation,” Sciales said, “but [police officers] can't even take the most basic precaution of simply wearing a mask.”
Oxford’s mask mandate, originally passed by City Council in July, mandates that community members must wear a mask in public spaces and where social distancing isn’t possible. Violators can be fined $100.
City Manager Doug Elliot asked during the July meeting that OPD enforce the mandate for citizens who refuse to wear a mask inside businesses or businesses who don’t have proper signage.
“Our plan is to only enforce this for the most egregious offenders,” Elliott said during the July meeting.
Community member Jenny Witt spoke during City Council’s Oct. 20 meeting and said she’d seen an Oxford Township police officer in a convenience store without a mask.
She also said she’d never seen anyone enforce Oxford’s mask mandate, including OPD. Witt reached out to Seth Cropenbaker, assistant to the city manager, for an explanation.
“I asked [Cropenbaker] how many citations had been given for the mask ordinance, and he said zero, and I was just appalled,” Witt said. “Why have an ordinance if it’s not going to be enforced? The pandemic is getting worse, not better.”
Yet, there seems to be confusion between city officials and police on who is to enforce the mandates put in place.
Fening confirmed OPD has not issued any citations for Oxford’s mask mandate. However, Fening said OPD is not responsible for the mandate.
“We’re not investigating that,” Fening said. “That's through the city manager's office.”
Cropenbaker, however, said city employees at the city manager's office don't have the power to enforce the ordinance, which is considered a civil citation.
“I don't believe that anyone outside of the police department has any capacity to write a citation,” Cropenbaker said.
When asked for further clarification, Fening did not have a clear answer as to who enforces the mask mandate.
“I’m at a loss; I’m not quite sure,” Fening said. “My last understanding was that the city manager’s office was taking on the mask ordinance enforcement.”
Witt said the communication she received from OPD confirms Fening’s belief.
“The first time I had a concern about the mask ordinance, I actually called OPD,” Witt said. “They told me, ‘We’re not dealing with this. You need to fill out the form on the city website.’”
During council’s Oct. 20 meeting, Elliott said the city is relying more on education than enforcement.
“I still believe that encouragement and education is the way to go,” Elliott said.
Junior English education major Erin Bingaman said she can’t fault Oxford for struggling to contain the pandemic, as it has simply been following guidelines put in place by elected officials.
“I would say [Oxford] has done a decent job, considering the circumstances,” Bingaman said. “I think my criticism would more fall on the national level because the city of Oxford and Miami were both just following the recommendations of the administration that was handling the pandemic, so I can't pass any judgment specifically on Miami or Oxford for that.”
Witt still sees a need for improvement in the city’s response.
“I think that if the police started enforcing it and handing out citations and made their presence really known,” Witt said, “people may take notice.”