Within 24 hours of news breaking on Wednesday, April 1 that 44 (now at least 49, by the latest counts) students from the University of Texas at Austin who traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico over spring break were infected with COVID-19, calamity broke loose online.
More than 200 students appear to have blown off the advice of public health and university officials to avoid nonessential travel, and other UT students quickly swarmed to identify those who’d gone to Cabo in the middle of a global pandemic and started calling them out on social media. News reports and the internet got worked up over the particularly on-the-nose detail about a chartered plane some of the spring breakers used.
But UT students who stayed put in Austin were furious that their peers were bringing back COVID, whether by private jet or by plebeian commercial airline. They started criticizing the spring breakers, through social media, only for anonymous defenders to fight back, to the point of threatening them with legal action.
The conflict has been stewing online for over a week, and now at least one parent of the spring breakers has sent furious late-night DMs to the 19-year-old critics, going as far as threatening to contact university officials, family attorneys, and even the Austin Police Department in the pursuit of justice for their tanned, adult children.
Things ultimately escalated to the point that sage and film professor of practice Matthew McConaughey, for some inexplicable reason, got involved, issuing a twangy lecture to students and perhaps the entire world that it’s time to start accepting coronavirus as, “reality, man.”
More specifically, much of the criticism has centered on members of several Greek life organizations at UT who were among the 200-plus students who’d gone to Mexico on the ill-advised spring break. One sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta (commonly referred to as just “Theta”), quickly emerged as an easy scapegoat after its members posted #springbreak photos to the official @texastheta account.
“When stories came out about students on a chartered plane to Cabo, everyone was like, ‘Who the hell are these people?’” Sarah, a 21-year-old UT student who asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons, told VICE. “And then someone was like, ‘Hey, Texas Theta just posted all these pictures from Cabo… It's them!’”
Using tagged photos from public Instagram accounts (which have all since gone private), UT students who didn’t travel for spring break and had nothing to do between their Zoom classes started publicly criticizing at anyone who appeared to have just been in Cabo (including those who “cleverly” attempted to throw people off the scent by tagging their location as… “Not Cabo”). The general feeling, several students told VICE, was that those who chose to travel—instead of canceling their spring break plans as many others did—made a selfish decision that put the health of their peers and the public at risk.
“We had a lot of students who canceled spring break trips; I canceled mine,” Sarah said. “It seemed very clear that we shouldn't be flying, for our own safety as much as other people's safety. Seeing those Instagram pictures of people in Cabo, it's just like, compounding the issue.”
The Texas Theta Instagram account went private after screenshots of its tagged posts, which gave names and faces to some of the Cabo 44 cohort, went viral among other UT students on Twitter. Jonathan Valadez, 18, was one of the people who shared his outrage online. He was at his parents’ house in San Antonio on April 1 when he saw everything unfolding, and fired off a tweet he thought was innocuous enough.
“At 7:32, I tweeted out, ‘2020 sucked A-S-S, then Texas Theta and their selfish members decided to exist’," Valadez told VICE. Though Valadez isn’t a student at UT, he said many of his friends go to the school, and he knows people with underlying health conditions that put them at risk for severe COVID infection.
That was when the threats started. “Later that night, at 9:42 pm, I received a DM, but it was on Instagram, which I found really weird,” Valadez said. “Show your face!!,” the message, seen in a screenshot shared with VICE, reads. As best Valadez could tell from the account’s profile, the sender appeared to be a parent of one of the sorority members. The DM seemed hyper-focused on debunking the outlandish chartered-plane aspect of the story, ignoring the much bigger issue of traveling at all while coronavirus was spreading. “We have contacted the Austin police and our attorney!!! These Theta girls DID NOT CHARTER A PLANE!!! Our daughter has been in quarantine for 13 days now.”
Valadez’s initial reaction was fear. “I live in the inner city of San Antonio, my parents don't have a lot of money, we don’t have connections to the legal world or criminal justice world,” he said. “So I did feel a little uneasy, but at the same time, took it lightheartedly.”
Earlier that day and a hundred miles away in Austin, Chad, a 19-year-old UT student who asked only to be identified by his first name over harassment concerns, saw the same @texastheta screenshot and clicked through to the profile of one of the sorority members who was tagged. At the time, her account was still public and showed recent photos with a Cabo location tag. “I go to the comments, and already there's a dozen UT students who have left [negative] comments on it, and I had an idea for a joke,” Chad told VICE. Riffing on the photo’s caption, he commented, “…besos and bringing back corona.”
“I leave my comment, and I don't think anything else of it,” he said. “The general attitude, I feel like from most people online, was that these people were kinda the bad guys, anyway.” (VICE has seen screenshots of the photos and Chad’s comments.)
Later that night around 10 p.m., Chad was “just chillin’” on the couch in his apartment in West Campus, a densely populated Austin neighborhood where most of UT’s palatial sorority and fraternity houses are located. He opened Instagram to see a message request from the same person who contacted Valadez, a woman whose previously public profile showed pictures with the same spring breaker tagged in the @texastheta post, and whose photo Chad had commented on. “Are you aware that is [sic] was not the Texas Theta girls that chartered a plane to Cabo? Are you aware that none of the Theta girls have tested positive for corona,” the message, shared with VICE, reads. “We have sent all the texts to Austin police.”
Like Valadez, Chad was immediately confused and a little panicked. All he’d done was join in the online chorus of public shaming, and leave what he thought was a fair, if critical, comment on a public photo. “I understand mothers being protective of their daughters, but I find her reporting me to the police over an Instagram comment—that wasn't particularly threatening or insulting—a bit overkill,” Chad said. There’s no proof that she actually reported Chad to the police or that police would take this report seriously; it may have just been an empty threat intended to scare him.
Valadez and Chad later learned that they were part of a group of people who received swift and angry backlash from the spring breakers (or their parents). One takedown DM was sent to so many students that they started creating their own parody TikToks, videos and memes, incorporating its language:
“Hi. I hope you know that what you are tweeting about Texas Theta is completely wrong and will be reported for cyberbullying. We are already in contact with UT officials and have your tweets screenshotted. I’m not sure if you think this is some kind of joke but for you to feel like you can post things like this and spread false information then you are 100% in the wrong. You should really think before you post something online because you never know how it will effect [sic] others. During this time no one should be trying to bring down ANYONE. Hopefully you will learn from this mistake.”
(The student who sent this DM did not immediately respond to request for comment, and while the Texas mom who sent the DMs to Chad and Valadez initially responded to messages from VICE, she eventually stopped replying to repeated requests for comment about the situation.)
Chad said he also received hostile DMs from two friends of Texas Theta members, both of whom leaned on the apparent party line that it wasn’t just Theta girls who traveled to Cabo. “I could not care less if they were in Texas Theta, or Alpha Phi, or Alpha Chai Tea Latte, like it’s whatever,” Chad said. “My only problem with this situation is that students went to Cabo, and that somebody’s mother threatened to have me arrested or whatever.”
Since the police haven’t come knocking down Chad’s door in the nearly two weeks since he got this vague threat in his DMs, he’s relaxed a bit. “I mean, I already have mild anxiety issues, so all the different possibilities were coming to my mind, and that was something I thought about a lot,” he said. “But I feel like if something happened with the university, I would've heard by now, and even if they do press charges, you would have to bribe a judge a ridiculous amount for them to hear a case on a fairly innocuous Instagram comment.”
Chad’s biggest concern at the moment is the threat the 200 or so spring breakers pose to public health in the area around his apartment. Within days of the Cabo 44 news breaking, Austin mayor Steve Adler named Chad’s West Campus neighborhood a “hot spot” for COVID-19 infections in the city. The area is a primarily a mix of columned Greek organization houses—which have the unmistakable look of Southern plantation homes—and high-rise student apartment complexes. Less than 20 percent of UT students live on campus and were sent home as part of the recent dorm closures. The rest of the school’s more than 50,000 students live off—but still very near to—campus, and that is where many, like Chad, are self-quarantining.
“The best thing to do is to stay at my apartment in Austin instead of going back home to Fort Worth; my mother is elderly and immunocompromised, and I don't feel comfortable being around her right now,” Chad said. “But now the coronavirus is two blocks away from me.”
Sarah, one of the other students who tweeted angrily about the spring breakers, lives just north of West Campus, but visits the area frequently for mutual aid work. “The same day I found out about all of this, I was delivering food to this kid in West Campus who is just locked inside of his room because he's like, ‘I have symptoms and can't go anywhere, and I don’t have income,’” Sarah said. “I’ve been in communication with low-income students of color who are self-quarantining because they have symptoms and can't get tested. But then these students [who traveled] who don't have symptoms can get tests, because they're more well-connected and more likely to be insured and have more disposable income, more likely to be supported by their parents. It's just a stark contrast.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.