MSU students off to quiet start amid pandemic

East Lansing mayor ‘cautiously optimistic’ after low-key Welcome Weekend

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East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens has never seen such a quiet Welcome Weekend at Michigan State University. And he knows that things can get rowdy. It was only three years ago that he was a student there himself, running for election in a shared apartment on Kedzie Street.

By chance, he returned to his old digs on Saturday night, this time as a 24-year-old mayor helping guide a city of nearly 50,000 residents (and thousands more college students) through a global health crisis. Music blared from the backyard, echoing down the otherwise silent street.

“Let’s just hope it’s another house,” Stephens said before he pulled off a rubber glove, shuffled a box of disposable face masks beneath his arm and squinted concerningly into his cellphone.

I invited myself to tag along with Stephens as he patrolled East Lansing Saturday night to ensure that MSU students who still live near campus were off to a safe and socially distant semester. His main purpose: Pass out face masks and remind residents about a new mayoral order that they be worn while both indoors and outdoors across much of the downtown business district.

Stephens pointed out his old bedroom windows as he approached his old house. A swarm of green and white shirts was flowing down the dimly lit sidewalk. The music was growing louder.

“Well, this doesn’t look all too great,” Stephens said, reaching back for his cellphone.

The Kedzie Street home, in addition to its nostalgic charm for Stephens, was host to one of the more conspicuous parties on Saturday. Most of the other festivities were strikingly calm compared to prior years on campus, but a few had teetered on the cusp of complete chaos.

And in a city that’s already been ordered by the Ingham County Health Department to strictly limit outdoor gatherings to only 25 people, Stephens viewed it as his civil responsibility to head out back, reminisce on good times, count heads and hand out as many face masks as possible.

But even the mayor can’t stop some parties. Stephens walked away minutes later, defeated.

“People are generally responsible, but there needs to be education, guidance and more personal responsibility,” Stephens explained. “It’s hard, but safe decisions have to be made. It just takes one big house party to really kick off the spread and set us all back in East Lansing.”

Fewer than 3,000 students are expected to live on campus this semester as MSU shifts to an almost entirely virtual curriculum. It’s unclear how many students are living off campus in East Lansing.

Most of the parties Stephens and I visited were casual affairs, and a major departure from usual Welcome Weekend sidewalk crowds. Several 20-somethings played beer pong in a front yard. A dozen people gathered on a front porch to pass around a blunt. Another group dragged a couch on the front yard to play videogames. Most took Stephens’ advice to keep things calm.

“Thanks for not having a giant party,” Stephens called over to a small gathering as we walked.

But for those who balked? Stephens has Police Chief Steve Gonzales on speed dial. As he strolled neighborhoods, he was also shooting off text messages with addresses of homes with the largest crowds and the loudest music — indications of a COVID-19 outbreak in progress.

Gonzales rolled up Kedzie Street in an unmarked SUV to assure Stephens he would send more patrols. All told, East Lansing cops responded to 77 noise complaints over the weekend. Most of them were fairly small and only a few received citations for violating crowd control restrictions.

Gonzales didn’t have an exact count on the number of citations issued this week, but was comfortable Monday labeling the weekend as “significantly less busy than in years past.” 

“Of course I feel like a narc,” Stephens said as we walked. “It’s not like I want to be here doing this. It’s just too important right now to stress the importance of staying safe and reinforcing good behaviors. None of us know what this could look like in a few weeks or a few months.”

Stephens was elected to his first City Council term as a junior at MSU in 2017 and was elected by the Council as mayor pro tem in November. He was thrust into the city’s top job this summer following the resignation of Mayor Ruth Beier.

Among Stephens’ first mayoral moves was a mandatory mask policy in the city’s Downtown Development District, which mirrored on-campus policies at MSU’s campus this fall. Unless dining, medically exempt, or under the age of 5, those without a mask could face a $25 fine.

No tickets have been issued. Officials — at least for now — are more focused on education. Gonzales said the only documented violations have all been handled with verbal warnings.

And since Stephens made the rules, he feels an obligation to help ensure they’re followed. His nightly buzzkill patrols also included free disposable face masks for anyone who wanted one.

Most passersby happily accepted them and carried on, either because they were unaware of the mayoral mask mandate or simply because they forgot to bring a face covering with them. A group of motorcyclists briefly pushed back about “constitutional rights” that supposedly allowed them to skirt the pandemic-related safety restrictions, but Stephens wasn’t there to pick a fight.

“It’s actually for your safety as well as mine,” Stephens tried to explain as he was dismissed.

One student (who readily identified himself as a Trump supporter) attempted to explain to Stephens how the coronavirus was a “hoax” and that health department statistics were greatly exaggerated. Stephens entertained the conversation, but only by first having him wear a mask.

Another student ignored Stephens’ outstretched box of masks, shot him a skeptical glance and leaned (not-so-quietly) over to his friend as they passed. “Who’s that douchebag?” he asked.

“Well, maybe that part is true,” Stephens laughed. “But I’m just trying to save lives out here.”

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