‘You can’t put reins on kids’: Hundreds gather on Redstone Green as cops watch, unsure how to act

A+group+of+students+sit+together+on+the+Redstone+Green%2C+Sept.+11.+Students+had+gathered+in+large+groups+several+days+before+over+Labor+Day+weekend%2C+drawing+UVM+Police+to+the+scene.

Kyle Elms/The Vermont Cynic

A group of students sit together on the Redstone Green, Sept. 11. Students had gathered in large groups several days before over Labor Day weekend, drawing UVM Police to the scene.

As the midnight moon cast down on the Redstone Green Sept. 6, two UVM police officers watched as a group of 150 students openly violated the University’s strict COVID-19 social conduct policy. 

Despite UVM’s Green and Gold Promise which mandates 6-foot social distancing and caps outdoor gatherings at 25, students gathered with friends last Sunday night in large groups, crowding the center of the Green and the sidewalks outside Residence Halls. 

Some had pulled their masks down to chat with new friends. Others unapologetically carried beer cans. 

Two UVM Police Services officers, Kevin DiGiorgio and Peter Czekaj, gazed at the crowd in conversation with a Cynic reporter.

“I mean ideally, we would write down every single person, but there are 150 people out here and you’re not going to be able to identify 150 people, so you’ve got to pick and choose,” Czekaj said. 

When asked about UVM Police Services response Sunday night, Chief of UVM Police Tim Bilodeau said that enforcement is an important element for something that’s a public health risk like COVID-19.

Bilodeau also said that according to the police officers, the groups were not larger than 25 in one area, and ranged from five to 15 people. 

“For the most part people are social distancing across the spectrum. There are little pockets like this weekend where clearly there are some groups that are not socially distancing, but at least from the police side when police officers showed up people socially distanced,” Bilodeau said.

At one point, the two officers confronted a student holding a can of Bud Light, took down his information and had him drain the can. They did not ticket the student, but cautioned him.

I mean ideally, we would write down every single person, but there are 150 people out here and you’re not going to be able to identify 150 people, so you’ve got to pick and choose.”

— UVM Police Officer Peter Czekaj

“You guys just shouldn’t be so blatant about it, you know we’re here,” Digiorgio said to the student. 

When asked if the University condones these gatherings and whether or not the administration feels that the response was representative of the campus community, UVM Spokesperson Enrique Corredera sent the following statement in a Sept. 11 email. 

“The University takes student behavior seriously. We are holding students accountable through the University’s Center for Student Conduct process. Sanctions for egregious behavior range from a $250 UVM fine to suspension. We cannot provide specifics in order to protect student privacy.” 

Members of the UVM and Burlington community can submit an online incident report for violations of campus policy, including the Green and Gold promise.

There have been 35 off-campus and 81 on-campus incident reports so far this year, according to another Sept. 11 email from Corredera. 

When asked if disciplinary action was taken after groups gathered over Labor Day weekend, Bilodeau couldn’t say.  

“They’ve sent COVID-19 [violations to Student Conduct Services], I’m not sure if that was from this weekend,” Bilodeau said. “I know there was alcohol and drug violation from this weekend, and there was a lot of the education component on the group size piece.” 

The two officers said they were at the scene to scatter the larger groups of people because of the gathering mandates. 

“We’ve been here the whole weekend,” said Czekaj. “The largest group is probably right here.” 

Redstone green sits devoid of students and commotion several hours later in the evening of Sept. 11, where students had gathered in large, close groups hours before. (Mac Mansfield-Parisi/The Vermont Cynic)

The two officers said they mainly try to focus on verbally enforcing an educational component for students. 

“We’ve been out here a couple of days and it’s just us, and you have hundreds of students,” DiGiorgio said. “There’s only so much we can do on a campus of what 12,000 students, we’re trying as best as we can really. Ideally, you want people to be in groups of less than 25 but it’s hard.” 

According to an Aug. 26 email from Annie Stevens, outdoor gatherings greater than 25 and indoor gatherings greater than 10 are strictly prohibited per order by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. 

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to observe these orders,” Stevens stated in the email. “If you violate them, the University is prepared to follow through with immediate suspension. It is that simple, and it is that important. There will be zero tolerance for those who ignore the rules.”

A first-year student, Charlie, was out that Sunday night with his friends. 

“I think it’s also really hard for kids that think, like ‘oh college, woohoo,’ you know?” he said. “Everybody wants to go to college and have a good time. If there are no cases then there’s basically a bubble here, then an outbreak probably won’t happen, but if there are cases, then there are, and that will suck for us but it is what it is.” 

The officers said they also sympathized with students for wanting to enjoy the weekend. 

“They’re just sick of being cramped up in the house for months now and want to come out,” DiGiorgio said. “It’s kind of a fine line we’re toeing with all that stuff with people just being out here and having fun, not really being destructive, which they can be.” 

I feel like an outbreak is probably gonna happen — I’m not worried about it but I am expecting it. I do think some people aren’t taking this entirely seriously.”

— First-year Seb Jacobs

It has been really hard for the first years especially, Charlie said. 

“Especially for freshmen, we’ve been dealing with this for so long…” he said. “The freshman got stripped of their senior year, and so at the end of the day you can’t put reins on kids, they don’t have parents here.” 

DiGiorgio agreed, explaining that the officers were not taught how to enforce mask-wearing mandates. 

“I mean it’s tough, it’s just ever-evolving, our job. And especially in today’s current climate where we’re hated by everybody, it’s a fine line you toe,” DiGiorgio said.  

The police officers who were on the scene that night are still uncertain of how things will look for their department in similar situations moving forward, Czekaj said. 

“It’s still one of the first weekends,” Czekaj said. “I’m sure something will probably come from this, I can’t tell you what it is, I don’t know.” 

Some students were unbothered by the situation and the presence of law enforcement. 

“The cops do a pretty good job, they’re really chill they actually just walk around and ask people to put their masks on, that’s all they’ll really say, they’re pretty much just doing their thing.” said first-year, Julia. “If there are cans on the ground they’ll be like ‘hey pick up your can,’ anything really, litter, alcohol cans too, they don’t enforce.” 

Other students were concerned about the size of the groups. 

“[The crowd] seemed a little big, I mean it is outside, but still big,” said first-year Seb Jacobs. “I mean I could be wrong, but it seemed to me like a lot of people out here are under the influence, and it didn’t seem like a lot of people got in trouble, so it seemed like they were a little relaxed.” 

Jacobs also expressed concern about an outbreak on campus. 

“I feel like an outbreak is probably gonna happen — I’m not worried about it but I am expecting it. I do think some people aren’t taking this entirely seriously,” he said. 

Editor’s Note: The headline of this story was updated at 11:12 a.m. 9/17/20 to correct the spelling of “reins” in the headline.