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Florida Universities Try To Stem Coronavirus Cases

John Thrasher
News Service of Florida
The Florida Channel
FSU president John Thrasher says he is concerned students defied university health guidelines by gathering without wearing masks or social distancing.

Florida university officials have started suspending fraternities and punishing students who flout coronavirus-safety measures, as schools grapple with cases of the virus at the beginning of the fall semester.

University of Miami President Julio Frenk said students have already been evicted from their dorm rooms and suspensions have been initiated for violations that could potentially put other people at risk of getting sick. 

“We will not hesitate to enforce disciplinary procedures when measures aimed at protecting university students, faculty and staff are flouted,” said Frenk, whose private university has had 96 coronavirus cases since classes resumed on Aug. 17. 

Florida State University President John Thrasher on Tuesday said he was “deeply concerned” that clusters of students were defying the university's health guidelines by holding house parties and participating in large gatherings without wearing face masks or social distancing. 

One “open house party” held on Sunday led to the arrests of seven students, Thrasher said, adding that “those students will be held accountable by law enforcement as well as face disciplinary actions by the university.”

Florida Gulf Coast University President Mike Martin announced Monday the school suspended two fraternities for throwing parties on Friday night.

Martin said the apparent violations of health guidelines could pose a “serious and direct threat” to the safety of the campus community and said they could prompt the university --- which has had seven cases since Thursday --- to shut down and shift classes entirely online.

“At this stage, we cannot determine whether closure will be needed for safety reasons,” Martin said. “Be assured, however, that there will be serious consequences for those who choose to exercise very poor, dangerous judgement.”

Students were sent home from university campuses in March as the coronavirus pandemic hit state and were forced to finish the spring semester in online classes. University administrators spent months drawing up plans to allow on-campus learning in the fall.

But as students throughout the state have returned to campuses and moved into dorms and apartments this month, hundreds of coronavirus cases have popped up. The situation has mimicked events in other parts of the country, where colleges experienced an uptick in infections days after students returned to campus. 

At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, 188 students and 13 employees have tested positive for the virus this month. 

UCF reported that 162 student cases surfaced during the move-in process over the past two weeks. The universities required students to get tested for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, prior to settling into their dorm rooms.

At Stetson University, a private school in DeLand, 52 coronavirus cases had been confirmed as of Tuesday, according to data posted by the university on its website.

Florida State University officials reported Monday that 62 students and six employees had tested positive for the virus since Aug. 2. 

While individual universities are disclosing the number of coronavius cases, the state has not regularly released a breakdown of school-related COVID-19 data. 

Florida Department of Health officials on Monday published a report that said 90 students and 61 employees at universities, colleges and trade schools had tested positive for the virus, along with four “unknown cases,” over the course of two weeks. 

But hours after the report was published, Department of Health spokesman Alberto Moscoso said it had been released by mistake and noted the data on the report remained under review. 

The report has since been taken down from the department’s website. Moscoso assured on Monday that school-related data - once verified - will be released to the public in the coming days and weeks. 

But some Democratic lawmakers were skeptical of the department’s response.

“How do you publish data ‘inadvertently’ this late into a pandemic. You think our state would understand the importance of data and data transparency,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, posted on Twitter on Tuesday.