As college students return to universities around the U.S. for the germiest semester of their young lives, a COVID-19 outbreak at the off-campus Pi Beta Phi sorority house at Oklahoma State University is just the latest in a string of Greek life-linked clusters. As of Monday, 23 members of OSU’s Pi Phi chapter have tested positive for COVID-19; the entire house is now in isolation or quarantine and residents are prohibited from leaving the house, according to the university’s statement.
Similar outbreaks have been tied to Greek organizations at other schools. In June, state health officials said a COVID-19 outbreak in Oxford, Mississippi, was connected to University of Mississippi fraternity rush parties. And University of Washington’s off-campus Greek Row was linked to more than a hundred cases of COVID-19 in early July. Later that same month, a Greek Row at University of Southern California was also linked to an outbreak of 45 cases on the school’s Los Angeles campuses. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Sigma Nu fraternity house, which is also off-campus and reported six confirmed COVID-19 cases as of August 15.
“When you bring back 20,000 students, there will invariably be more cases related to campus,” an Oklahoma State University spokeswoman told The Oklahoman on Sunday. “We've prepared for this for five months and have protocols in place to manage the situation.”
But with all of this precedent, plus patchwork regulations and sisters converging in close quarters (according to The Oklahoman, sorority members gathered in their houses while conducting recruitment virtually with potential new members), the link between an outbreak at Oklahoma State University and Greek life was all too predictable.
Greek life revolves around shared spaces. Facility-wise, a sorority or fraternity house is actually pretty similar to a summer camp cabin—bedrooms might be built for large pods of women (according to its webpage, OSU’s Pi Phi house has rooms that hold as many as eight members), while bathrooms, showers, and the single dining room are all communal. Now imagine summer camp, but it’s filled with 20-year-olds who are kind of selfish, kind of drunk, and whose entire lives are organized around packing their social calendars—and who may have just returned from summers in COVID hotspots.
Beyond the in-house members, there are also members who live elsewhere but still pay for access (and/or are required to be there for meetings), and who introduce even more potential for COVID transmission.
Pi Beta Phi is one of the 26 sororities that belongs to the National Panhellenic Conference, the governing body for traditionally white, affluent sororities. As VICE previously reported, the individual sororities set their own rules for facility safety, and colleges have very little control over off-campus Greek housing, which means that while schools and NPC can hand down guidelines, how they are implemented is up to the sorority chapters themselves (and the corporations that run them).
Greek organizations and the schools that house them must also comply with local regulations—but regulations are spotty in many parts of the country, particularly the Midwest and the South, where Greek life traditionally thrives. NPC CEO Dani Weatherford told VICE that housing corporations—companies that manage fraternity and sorority facilities—along with sorority national headquarters and schools themselves were the guiding force behind the COVID-19 recruitment precautions in place at a given facility.
A look into Pi Beta Phi’s COVID-19 guidelines leads to a string of documents. A June 30 letter addressed to “Chapter House Corporations, Alumnae Advisory Committee Chairs Alumnae Advisory Committee Finance/Housing Advisors, Chapter Presidents, Vice Presidents Finance/Housing, Directors Housing” points those parties toward the sorority’s COVID-19 facility operations best practices. Some of the recommendations:
- “Pi Beta Phi strongly recommends that all live-in members wear masks in common areas, except when dining.”
- “Pi Beta Phi recommends that all facilities temporarily suspend non-member guest
- policies in light of COVID-19, unless deemed necessary (i.e. vendor appointments,
- food service/cleaning crews, move-in/out, etc.).”
- “Overall, it is important to provide at least six feet of space between single beds or bunk beds. For bunk beds, members should sleep in opposite directions to lessen risk of transmission.”
- “Each chapter, in consultation with AAC, can set their own policies around live-out member visitors and should update their House Rules accordingly. Utilizing the chapter facility is a vital part of the overall membership experience. Any decisions to restrict access to live-out members should be made based on the status of COVID-19 cases in your area and mandates related to social gatherings set forth by state/local/university guidelines.”
- “An individual room and bathroom should be designated at the chapter facility for self-quarantining, should your college/university not have self-quarantine options available.” *
The sorority’s facility operations practices reveal a critical detail about COVID-19 safety enforcement: it’s ultimately up to the sororities themselves. In fact, the practices specifically instruct the professionals adjacent to Greek life not to intervene. “Members of the Alumnae Advisory Committee (AAC), Chapter House Corporation (CHC), FHC and local employees are not expected to enforce these guidelines or discipline accordingly but rather are recommended to encourage following these guidelines individually or make chapter officers aware of members who do not follow the guidelines.” [Emphasis VICE’s.]
While “member accountability processes” are a regular part of sorority life, they typically consist of sorority “executives” disciplining fellow members for infractions like (getting caught) drinking in the sorority house or having a man in a bedroom—not flouting public safety rules mid-pandemic. While it’s unclear how strict Pi Beta Phi’s house rules are overall, generally speaking, professional advisors and alumni are known to set and enforce house rules for things as mundane as who gets to use the sorority house wifi or where members can and can’t display their sorority letters. It’s shocking that they are explicitly exempt from enforcing guidelines for literal life or death matters like mask-wearing or guest policies.
At the end of the day, the buck stops with sorority members themselves—perhaps to build character, or perhaps to clear housing corporations of any legal liability for outbreaks, present and future.
The Pi Beta Phi chapter at Oklahoma State has made their Instagram account private. But judging from the Instagram pages of other sororities, like Tri Delta, Alpha Xi Delta, Gamma Phi Beta, the Greek organizations at OSU held their bid days in person, with new members linking arms and hugging their fellow pledges and other members of their new chapters.
Let’s hope these events didn’t transmit anything besides a newfound sense of sisterhood.
Update 8/19/2020 5:10 p.m.: Pi Beta Phi Fraternity forwarded VICE its media statement on Wednesday, which said, in part, that “Following health official, university and Fraternity guidelines, members living in the facility are under quarantine. The facility is closed to guests, including members living outside of the facility, until further notice… at this point, no members have been hospitalized and any who are ill are experiencing minor effects of the virus.”
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