Health

How a House of 80 Students in Texas Has Stayed COVID-Free Since March

In the middle of an Austin neighborhood designated early on as a coronavirus hotspot, one co-op house has successfully turned itself into a bubble.
September 4, 2020, 3:22pm
The 21st Street Co-Op in Austin, Texas
Photo courtesy of Cecila Melchor
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At the southern end of Austin’s West Campus neighborhood—an architectural hodgepodge of columned, plantation-style fraternity houses and shiny, high-rise apartment complexes—sits the 21st Street Co-Op, a limestone and cedar building constructed in the early 70s that’s home to 100 students (in a normal year) who live together as co-owners of the house.

Even as COVID-19 shuttered the University in March and West Campus emerged as a viral hotspot, and after hundreds of students traveled to Cabo for spring break and came back sick, 21st Street stayed completely coronavirus-free. For nearly six months, the co-op’s residents, who are almost exclusively college students under 30 years old, have maintained a zero-percent infection rate through a series of militant precautions and a general ethos of caring deeply about their neighbors. Even as the high rises and sorority houses next door (plus the dorm halls a couple blocks away on the UT campus) have started reporting positive cases as the new school year starts, 21st Street remains a coronavirus-free bubble.

“We’re in the middle of West Campus, and I know West Campus is bad and probably a problem area, but I’ve tuned it out,” Cecilia Melchor, a 24-year-old resident at 21st Street, told VICE. “It’s like we live in this bubble of a floating island, that happens to be a treehouse, and because of that, everything else is noise. I think that’s how we take it. We know that things happen outside of here, but we also know that there’s so much that we can do.”

A messy room in the 21st Street co-op, before the pandemic.

One of 21st Street's common areas, post-party and pre-COVID. Photo by Laura Ullman.

Years ago, when I was a student at the University of Texas, I lived a few blocks north of 21st Street and went to public parties there regularly. I remember floors covered in the college-party-grime of beer, a chlorine pool no one dared dip a toe into, and cloth couches that didn’t just look lived-on, but like they were hosts to living things themselves. It was grimy. It was a place where people sweated on and touched each other, constantly. It was the first place I remember partying with people who weren’t wearing any clothes or shoes, walking around the beer floor barefoot and unbothered. (At the time, 21st Street was one of a handful of co-ops in Austin that were clothing-optional.)

But for all its party vibes, this co-op doesn’t mess around when it comes to keeping its members accountable: Everyone is required to do four to five hours of labor per week as part of their housing contract, including tasks like cooking buffet-style meals and keeping the house clean. The co-op’s rent of $908 per month, which includes all meals, snacks, bills, and access to a small gym and computer lab, is several hundred dollars below the $1,240 median rent for a one-bedroom in Austin.

“We agreed that we should all wear masks before it was mandated.”

Melchor has been living at 21st Street, known by residents and their friends as “the treehouse,” for three years, and previously served as the co-op’s director. But shortly after COVID hit in March, she stepped down and let two members run and share the position, which she says has ballooned into way too big a job for one person, given all the new rules.

College Houses, the organization that manages the collection of co-op houses near the UT campus, started shutting down common spaces in 21st Street in March, around the time the WHO declared coronavirus a global pandemic, and UT canceled classes for the semester. The house’s gym and computer lab were closed and Melchor, along with other members, started attending two- to three-hour meetings every day on the newly formed emergency response team.

“We agreed that we should all wear masks before it was mandated,” Melchor said. Austin mayor Steve Adler issued a city mask order on March 31, months before Governor Greg Abbott moved toward anything resembling a mandatory mask order for the state as it struggled with staggering coronavirus case numbers. But inside 21st Street, residents were already required to wear masks in any common space—basically everywhere but their personal rooms, the bathroom, and while eating in the dining room.

A bedroom in the 21st Street Co-Op.

A bedroom in the co-op, known by residents as "the treehouse." Photo by Laura Ullman.

Melchor said 21st Street created new labor roles, like two Sanitizer Generals, in charge of cleaning all high-touch surfaces two to three times per day. A few times since March, 21st Street has also brought in a commercial disinfecting service, GermLogic, which comes in with hazmat suits and sprays the whole house down with chemicals.

The rash of initial cleaning and social distancing measures allowed 21st Street to start opening back up the common areas over the summer, as Texas’s case numbers soared to untenable levels and the co-op’s typical residency of about 100 dwindled to about 60. “We reopened with social responsibility in mind, like if you’re using stuff, you should be wiping it down and things like that,” Melchor said. “I think what helped us a lot is we had a lot of conversations [as a house] about how we should be handling it.”

Also around that time, 21st Street instituted the policy that’s maybe been the most instructive in its zero-infection record: No guests allowed. There are limited exceptions for family members with housing insecurity, significant others, and de-facto members who live nearby and are always just sort of around, Laura Ulman, a 19-year-old resident at 21st Street, said.

Technically, members can be charged with a no-show (the equivalent of an extra hour of labor or a $10 fine added to rent) if they violate the guest policy, but for the most part, no one tries it. “It’s a social accountability thing, where you can get fined or have hours designated to you if you break that policy, but mostly it’s just that people will look at you and be like, What are you doing? _Why do you have someone here, this is a pandemic!_” Ullman said.

Both Melchor and Ullman mentioned that 21st Street is home to a few residents who are immunocompromised, which has been a major motivator in the level of precaution, and the seriousness with which the rules are taken. The co-op’s members mostly communicate through the messaging platform Discord, which works just as well for organizing (virtual) house meetings as it does occasional and necessary public shaming.

Ullman described two incidents over the summer when a couple of guys from the co-op were spotted out at parties, giving themselves away via their own social media posts. “We caught them and then sent pictures, asking them to explain and told them to quarantine,” she said.

While the house can’t tell members, explicitly, not to go to parties, both Ullman and Melchor both said most people don’t really need to be told. “I don’t think anyone’s going to parties anymore; the two people who did that aren’t in the house anymore,” Ullman said. “We have this culture around accountability and safety. It’s mostly people just using their best judgment and trying their best to stay safe.”

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A mural on the wall outside 21st Street. Photo by Laura Ullman,

The exceptions for leaving 21st Street and going out are generally reserved for errands and work. But even in cases where someone works in an essential job, Ullman said they usually come home, strip out of their clothes, and immediately take a shower.

Ullman moved into 21st Street last year, after living in a nearby private dorm that “was mostly a Greek-life kind of deal” that she hated. “I essentially went to the exact opposite and ended up finding a home in the cooperative living space,” she said. She stayed in 21st Street  throughout the summer, where she’s been in charge of the food and the changing meal service.

One major advantage the co-op has is a contactless food delivery service, meaning residents don’t have to go to the store if they don’t want to. The food is delivered several times per week and put away by a designated labor team, and then meals are prepared by a “skeleton crew” kitchen team, who wear masks and gloves and sanitize as they go. Meals used to be served along a buffet, but now a designated distributor serves everyone’s food. Spread-out tables are limited to small groups of three to four. Members can also eat outside on the decks that sit between the co-op’s buildings.

A fire dancer on the deck at 21st Street, pre-COVID-19. Photo by Laura Ullman.

A fire dancer on the deck at 21st Street, pre-COVID-19. Photo by Laura Ullman.

Residents who feel sick, have been in contact with someone who’s sick, or in any way feel insecure about dining around others are also able to have their meals dropped off by their room in a clamshell. All of these jobs are now built into the co-op’s typical labor system. In the few cases where someone has had to quarantine (waiting for a test that, so far, has always come back negative), they stay in their room, use the bathroom within their room suite, and eat all their meals in their room.

Reviewing the co-op’s detailed Google Doc of COVID-19 precautions, Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, said they were “good strategies they employed for communal living,” particularly the no-guests policy, and masks in common spaces. Popescu worried that strict shaming around socializing outside the co-op could lead house members to be dishonest about activities that are actually safe, like outdoor socially distant picnics. (The co-op explained that their reactions to these incidents in the past have been due to members’ failure to follow safety guidelines, not the fact that they were socializing outside the co-op in general.)

“I’m curious if they are truly COVID-19 free or if they have asymptomatic cases,” Popescu said. If asymptomatic cases were to blame, those cases have failed to show up on any of the tests household members have taken since the start of the pandemic, and have seemingly not infected infect any of the more at-risk members.

The affordable rent, the cooperative style of living, and access to delivered food were what ultimately drew Geo Vazquez Fowler, 20, to the co-op. They moved in on May 30, after the house was already in full-swing COVID-mode, and was recently elected as one of the Sanitizer Generals. Vazquez Fowler came to 21st Street as a student at a community college, where most people commute and there’s no real sense of community. They nearly changed their initial plan to move in as the pandemic rolled through Austin, but ultimately decided that this felt like the safest way to be social, and have food affordably delivered throughout the coming months.

“The constant reminders of community, safety, and love are what keeps us all accountable.”

“It’s a lot safer to be social in a closed circuit, because everybody lives in the same building and people aren’t really leaving,” Vazquez Fowler said. “This was a way to live somewhere and fulfill the social aspects that I need, while keeping the lowest risk possible.”

The lack of necessary errands helps (house-designated “gophers” run errands for members upon request), but the idea that the house keeps to and cares for itself is likely the thing that keeps 21st Street so safe. Earlier in the pandemic, Ullman said she visited a friend who lives in a nearby apartment building, one of the tall ones with an elevator.

“The people in the building don’t wear masks; we’ll be in the elevator and the people won’t be wearing a mask,” she said. “It’s scary, and I think they feel like they’re not endangering anyone because they don’t live with people who [they know] are immunocompromised, or with a lot of other people, and they’re more concerned about themselves than their community. I don’t mean that as a harsh generalization—I do think there are a lot of people who care, but I think we care so much about our community. The constant reminders of community, safety, and love are what keeps us all accountable.”

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