In Depth

How will the University of Maine System enforce its new social distancing rules?

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Do you remember this spring when we were told to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19? To close our businesses, pull kids from school, reschedule medical appointments and never leave home unless for an “essential” activity?

Not long after that all began, the killing of George Floyd occurred which resulted in nationwide protests amidst the throes of a pandemic. Soon, the public health “experts” were telling us that not protesting social justice was more dangerous than the virus itself. Seemingly overnight, we abandoned social distancing in favor of social justice, and millions of Americans – including some here in Maine – packed into crowded streets to yell, scream and chant with their neighbors.

Normally I would have no issue with this. Our inherent, inalienable rights should be respected always, even when there’s a perceived public health emergency. But when you start selectively enforcing rules that limit the individual rights of some but not others, it doesn’t take long for me to become agitated.

History has an odd way of repeating itself, and I have a feeling this backwardness will be replicated all across the University of Maine System (UMS) this fall.

The Bangor Daily News last week reported that the University of Maine suspended one student and punished seven others for not following social distancing rules at parties, according to the University of Maine’s Dean of Students, Robert Dana.

The seven students who were punished for attending the gathering were placed on deferred suspension – otherwise known as double-secret probation – meaning further violations of the student conduct code will result in their suspension.

The UMS announced on August 21 that students who host or attend large events that exceed the state’s limits on gathering sizes, or otherwise violate social distancing guidelines, could be suspended or dismissed from their universities.

In a notice titled “Student Conduct Code Sanctions for Hosting or Attending On or Off-Campus Events Prohibited by State or University Group-Size Limitations”, the UMS lays out a number of requirements that students must adhere to across its eight campuses in order to host or attend gatherings this school year.

The rules have been adopted as part of the UMS Student Conduct Code, which applies to all students regardless of location “in cases of conduct when the alleged incident or conduct seriously threatens any educational process, the legitimate function of the University, and/or the health or safety of any individual.”

As stated in the notice, indoor events must adhere to a 6-foot physical distancing requirement, outdoor events must accommodate 5 people per 1,000 square feet of space and cannot exceed 100 attendees, and face coverings must be worn in public when physical distancing is not possible.

The document lays out a number of sanctions for hosting or attending events that are prohibited by Gov. Mills’ executive orders, which can be read here:

Interestingly, the policy outlines a specific carveout for students to retain their right to peacefully demonstrate.

“Rights to Peaceful Demonstration: University community members retain the right to participate in peaceful demonstrations. Organizers and participants are expected to adhere to public health mandates regarding face coverings and social distance guidelines,” the policy reads.

As a recent graduate of the University of Maine, I can assure you it is inevitable that students will gather on campus this semester to protest perceived social injustices, climate change or some other far-left cause. When these events occur, the question ultimately becomes: How will new social distancing rules be enforced?

I reached out to the University of Maine System seeking further clarification about their new policy. I asked pointed questions about how the UMS and its affiliated schools intend to enforce the August 21 notice as it relates to “peaceful demonstrations”, since numerous students have already been punished for hosting or attending gatherings that do not meet the new social distancing requirements.

The answer I received was much what I expected: mealy-mouthed, and offering no confidence that the new rules would be applied equally based on which prohibited activities students participate in this fall.

I asked a member of the UMS’ public affairs team how the system and its universities intends to police events when a student goes through the proper channels to host an outdoor gathering. With enough space, 100 students can gather outdoors this fall to peacefully demonstrate on whatever issue they choose.

But who will be there to stand guard and enforce social distancing when the 101st student shows up to demonstrate? Who will be present to ensure masks are worn and students stay within their own 200 square foot bubbles at all times? Will a member of the University of Maine Police Department be present at each event with a tape measure to ensure all rules are followed?

In short, no, they won’t. These issues won’t be addressed unless some sort of formal complaint is lodged against whatever activity may or may not be violating social distancing rules.

But if the policy is in fact violated, how can the university effectively reprimand those who participated? How will the university know who was present and who was not? Will just the organizer be punished, or will all 100 participating students be punished when the 101st person shows up to protest?

Unfortunately, I could not get any of these questions answered.

That is because, in reality, it’s very unlikely students will be punished for violating outdoor gathering rules when it comes to protests. Unless the university is proactively policing these gatherings, the rules will be violated and no one will be punished.

When a UMS school catches wind of a group of five or 10 friends drinking beers on a Friday night, those students will be punished if they weren’t social distancing. But when hundreds of students gather to protest social justice issues, nobody will be punished — just like what we saw this spring. Mark my words.

Ultimately, it will be up to the professional staff at each UMS school’s student affairs office whether or not an activity violates the new social distancing rules within the system’s student conduct code. Based on my experience with these individuals at the University of Maine, I have no confidence the rules will be enforced evenly.

I smell a lawsuit in the making.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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