Inside the Summer of the Sorority Quarantine

Inside the Summer of the Sorority Quarantine

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)

The Pi Beta Phi house, a squat building just outside of Oklahoma State University’s campus, was one of the first sororities to make national news. The sorority, which favors haloes and wings and banners that say “ring ching,” had, like most Greek organizations, done the majority of its recruitment online. Members stayed in the house, which can sleep eight women in a single room, and vetted potential new members on Zoom.

On the Friday that ended rush week, members of the sorority posted a truly dizzying number of Instagram photos of themselves crammed together outside the house, grinning and maskless, wearing matching white-and-blue outfits and throwing up Pi Phi signs with their hands. Addison Price, a member who also happens to be Miss Oklahoma 2019, posed hugging her sisters wearing a fuzzy white halo and a small pair of wings. “Stay tuned for the behind the scenes look at my college life,” she wrote on her official Miss America account, and what “online/in-person/socially-distance [sic] classes look like.”

Barely a day after the end of rush, college staff announced 23 members of the group had tested positive for covid-19 and the facility was locking down.“Due to the nature of the situation, the entire chapter house is in isolation or quarantine and will be prohibited from leaving the facility,” the statement read. “One member of the sorority who lives elsewhere is among those who tested positive and will also remain in isolation.” The statement spread through the campus, and then up the chain to the national news: The chapter’s Instagram went private, campus joke accounts posted about Pi Phi’s “herd immunity,” students speculated on how seriously members were taking the school’s demand: “The day the news broke, I saw at least two to four Pi Phi girls on the strip going out to eat or whatever else,” says one.

A week later Addison Price, allegedly in quarantine with her sisters, posted a photo of herself in her hometown an hour away, working out with a boxing trainer. A few days after that, she was at a concert venue and restaurant in Oklahoma City. Price didn’t respond to requests for an interview, and it’s possible she’d been tested and cleared, or that an exception had been made for the state’s reigning queen. But the episode was only the first instance of an avalanche of high-profile and rather messy Greek house quarantines that are ushering in a novel back-to-school routine: First you move into the house with your sisters, then you lockdown.

There are scores of Greek houses currently quarantining across the country, the performance of intimate sisterhood, in a single house, between people who’ve recently been scattered across counties and states being a pretty obvious climate for a virus-spreading event. If Pi Beta Phi’s prolific photographic output is any indication, sorority life involves a lot of physical contact and open-mouthed cheers. And given that the benefit of living in a Greek house is generally understood to be access to carefully curated communal space, it makes sense that universities would assume that if one sister is exposed, everyone else will be too.

At the University of Wisconsin, nine houses are quarantined at the direction of the local county’s office of public health. At Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, 30 out of 40 houses are closed. The school recently reported Greek houses have a covid-19 positivity rate eight times what it was finding in residence halls. Nearly every day brings a new lockdown initiative: As I was writing this blog, three University of Central Florida houses announced that they, too, were starting in on their 14 days.

These quarantines, like most of what’s happening in colleges this fall, are rarely smooth: One student from the University of Nebraska told me one of the sororities at her school had to quarantine for a second time after a member broke the rules and left the house, and the University of Maryland recently mistakenly locked down—and subsequently released—a Sigma Kappa chapter based on a faulty covid-19 test. In some cases, students are asked to leave the Greek house and quarantine at home because there isn’t enough room.

Which isn’t to mention that college students will be college students. When asked if students on her campus were breaking quarantine, one 19-year-old University of Texas student had an immediate answer: “Oh yeah, for sure. Plenty of people have been leaving self-isolation to go party, because they aren’t really being monitored.”

Given that members can often be split between the chapter house and off-campus apartments, it can be hard to, say, quarantine an entire Greek organization right after a big event. One Texas A&M senior named Erica, a former sorority member, says she was among the first to report to the school that bid day celebrations weren’t adhering to CDC protocol: She describes gatherings of 75 to 150 people inside and outside the Greek houses, some chapters “slightly better than others” when it came to mask-wearing but most of them flaunting the college’s rules or only taking precautions when it came to official photo-ops.

In late August, A&M quarantined two sororities following exposure to covid-19, and Erica says that while the people that live in the houses might be making themselves scarce, the off-campus members certainly aren’t: “These girls that don’t live in the houses are going out to eat in restaurants, grocery shopping, and still going to bars and frat parties without masks,” she says.

The media attention attracted by Greek house lockdowns, which, unfortunately for members, is objectively pretty funny, has apparently inspired some salty feelings from sorority members who already feel under attack.

One A&M student and chapter alumnus showed me an email they said was circulated through the community along with university leaders’ contact information as an “example of a wonderfully worded strong letter” to send “if you are frustrated with the way Greek Life is being treated by the university right now.” It opened with a recitation of Texas A&M values—leadership, loyalty, that sort of thing—along with the assertion that those values had been “disregarded by releasing the names of two unsuspecting sororities to hundreds of thousands of people across the country, without warning the members of these student groups.”

The letter continued in kind:

“As a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, I experienced firsthand the shock of discovering that I was required to quarantine for 14 days, at the same time that the rest of the country found out that I was.

I could describe to you the panic that groups of 19 year old young women felt when they looked out their window to find the media on the lawn of their home, taking photos and asking them questions to which they do not have the answer because the University chose to release private information pertaining to them, without giving their leadership the chance to appropriately inform them.

I could describe the anxiety hundreds of members felt as we switched our social media accounts to private, removed Greek letters out of our bio, and tried to hide any affiliation with our sorority for fear that the media will ambush us, or people with a pre-existing grudge against Greek life now have a new reason to verbally attack us.

I can describe to you my mom, a medical professional’s, shock upon hearing that my university compromised my privacy in a near HIPAA violation by releasing the names of these organizations.”

Unfortunately, that may be the most that we hear from Kappa, as Erica, the former sorority member, told me most people involved in sorority life were convinced that if they spoke about the Greek houses on campus they’d be found to be breaking the bylaws and be fined.

In some schools, it should be noted, sororities are being quarantined far more often than frats, a tendency one University of Nebraska student, Hailey Showalter, described as a “double standard”—which, given what one might imagine fraternities are up to, definitely checks out. “Sororities come forward with cases and quarantine as per CDC guidelines,” she says, “but frats are the only ones who put on parties and inevitably have cases too. But we as students have only heard about one frat with any cases.”

And at NYU, where Greek life revolves more around campus residence suits and off-campus housing, a student named Fletcher Peters who lives above fraternity members says she can hear them throwing parties through the floor. In-person recruitment has been suspended, she says, but she’s hearing consistent rumors about “underground” parties, invite-only events to complement online rush. She can hear all those frat guys talking about recruitment quite clearly during their weeknight ragers right below her feet. But she’s grateful for the covid-19 compliance email address where she can at least report the violation: “Normally,” she says, “you’d just report them to 311.”

A previous version of this story mistakenly identified a chapter of Pi Beta Phi as being affiliated with the University of Oklahoma rather than Oklahoma State. 

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

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DISCUSSION

I work for a certain east coast university that had one of the most high-profile outbreaks following a pretty disastrous (and well-publicized) re-opening. I think here it was the frats that got shut down more quickly than the sororities, but both got hit.

While there is certainly some blame to be heaped on young people for disregarding best practice, it’s worth noting that a) these same young people generally have not yet developed good risk assessment capabilities because their brains are still developing, and b) the system set them up to fail by boring ahead with a re-opening despite warnings from the county public health department. It’s been interesting seeing the administration blame students for their failures rather than acknowledging that they didn’t set them up to succeed int he first place. It reminds me a lot of the way the media tends to talk about pedestrian crashes. “Well, this person wouldn’t have been hit if they weren’t trying to cross the street there.” No, they wouldn’t have been hit if the city had invested in adequate crossings and not asked them to walk half a mile to the nearest intersection when the bus stop is right across the street.