By Sarah Limas and Chris Ramos
Kent City Council passed an ordinance during their Oct. 7 meeting, which gives the health commissioner the ability to shut down gatherings that exceed 10 non-household members and issue civil fines.
In recent weeks, Kent State has had to quarantine dorms in response to the increase of cases occurring on campus. Meanwhile, Portage County has remained at level three for the risk of COVID-19 spread.
There has been concern surrounding off-campus housing and large gatherings, which was previously referred to as being the most significant factor in the increase of new cases involving people under the age of 29 by Gov. Mike DeWine.
In the last month, both Kent State and the City of Kent have had testing offered to students and residents as part of their effort to identify and mitigate the spread of the virus.
Passing of the Ordinance
Kent City Council has been working closely with the health department and police department since the onset of the pandemic, said Gwen Rosenberg, City Council member at Large. Rosenberg said the recommendation of gatherings not exceeding 10 non-household members is nothing new and that the parties they intend to curb are ones that attract many people.
“There’s been a concern throughout the summer from folks in the city that large gatherings and large parties could be a spreading type event,” Rosenberg said. “These aren’t subtle parties. These aren’t small get-togethers.”
The health department has tried several times to communicate to residents in the city about the importance of following state guidelines and checking in on bars and restaurants to ensure they have proper safety protocols in place.
Rosenberg said Kent City Health Commissioner, Joan Seidel, has made a note of specific residences that have been consistently dismissive of safety recommendations. Hence, the ordinance allows the health department to have more influence in controlling big parties.
“She’s not peeking in windows. These are situations that are attracting many, many, many people,” Rosenberg said. “And so it’s something that many people have noticed and are concerned about.”
At the beginning of October, Rosenberg said there was a growing concern from health professionals and the health department about Halloween’s tendency to attract party-goers.
During the Oct. 7 city council meeting, the ordinance was passed, with six of the eight members present voting for it. One member was absent from the meeting. Since there wasn’t a supermajority, the ordinance was slated to go into effect on Nov. 7. However, with all council members present at the Oct. 21 meeting, the ordinance was reintroduced.
“It can be brought up again if it’s brought up by a council person who voted in favor of a passing ordinance,” Rosenberg said. “And so after the second council meeting, it passed with enough votes in favor that it went into effect immediately.”
At the moment, there is no end date attached to the ordinance. Aside from concern about Halloween, there is worry about the winter season. The council and health department worry that the cold weather will force residents to keep inside entirely, which would significantly increase the risk of spreading the virus if large gatherings ensued.
Sympathizing with the public, Rosenberg said the city council has been listening to what health experts, the university, business owners, and residents have been saying. Rosenberg cited the lack of federal government guidance as a factor that has forced city councils and city health departments across the state to shoulder more of the burden.
“This has been very challenging, not just for local governments and local health departments, but for our residents. I think we’ve done a good job of kind of taking all of that into consideration,” Rosenberg said. “Kent is the largest city in the county, and in this county, we have one main hospital. And the County is what gets rated, you know, red or purple. So, the city of Kent doesn’t exist in a bubble. The university doesn’t exist in a bubble, our downtown businesses, or hospital or county; none of these things exist in a bubble.”
Part of the fixation on off-campus housing and gatherings occurring off-campus includes the various apartment complexes throughout Kent. University Edge stated that the management team has introduced initiatives such as their “Be safe. Be smart. Do your part” sanitization protocol to keep residents safe, including decreased touchpoints and community signage outlining policies.
“We’re also requiring every resident to sign a COVID-19 personal responsibility acknowledgment for the resident code of conduct,” University Edge said in an email. “This includes a pledge to practice physical distancing, wear a face covering when required, and perform a Daily Wellness Self-checklist to identify any COVID-19 symptoms.”
University Edge’s lease agreement contains a 10-person limit policy for residents to follow, adhering to the recommendations of Kent State and the city of Kent. Warnings will be issued to violators, and it is stated that violation could result in eviction.
Four Seasons at Kent, Campus Pointe, University Oaks, and Kent Apartments did not respond for comment.
Enforcing The Ordinance
“It’s a necessary step to take because we’re continuing to see large off-campus gatherings and our contact tracers can actually derive several of our cases, the vast majority of them can go back to large campus gatherings,” said Michael Anguilano, Kent City Health Departments Accreditation Coordinator. “We do bar rounds to make sure that the bars are in compliance with all of those public health guidelines. We go to those larger parties to see how they look and see if people are following those similar public health guidelines, and they’re not.”
According to Anguilano, the main target of this ordinance is the overall local Kent community and specifically the off-campus housing communities to curb a large number of off-campus gatherings the city is seeing.
This ordinance does not apply or put additional restrictions on Kent bars and restaurants.
“Bars and restaurants already have social distancing requirements in place from reducing their capacity to requiring masks,” said Anguilano. “It’s off-campus parties and large off-campus gatherings that we’re going to be seeing in the next two weeks here with Halloween just about to knock on our door. It’s really for this. Restaurants and bars are not within the city ordinance. This is really focused on the housing portion of the spread.”
Both the Kent City Health Department and the Kent City Police Department have seen the correlation between the increase in COVID-19 cases and the off-campus partying in Kent.
“We have still seen a number of parties that are too high for our liking, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Kent City Police Departments Administrative Lieutenant, Michael Lewis. “We know that large gatherings can add to the spread of the coronavirus. We were hoping to see a lot fewer parties than what we saw this fall. We know that particularly there have been issues with parties at certain off-campus housing complexes, apartment complexes, certain streets.”
As COVID-19 cases rise in Ohio, Anguilano predicts, Portage County will not get out of the red risk level for a while. He said, “this due to Kent State’s continued rise in cases. Kent State accounts for more than 50% of the county’s weekly cases now.”
“On Halloween, we will shut down parties that are in violation of a city noise ordinance,” said Lewis. “The Kent Police Department will not be the ones shutting down gatherings of 10 people or more. The Health Department will still be out doing what they have done on a regular basis investigating any complaints about gatherings that are too large. If the health department needs us to back them up and they are not getting cooperation from any of the occupants or people present at the party, then you might see police backup the health department.”
There are no warnings for first-time offenders. The penalty for having a gathering of more than ten non-household members is a civil fine of $500. Offenders will have ten days to pay this fine; otherwise, it goes up to $750. If the offender has not paid the penalty after 30 days, it becomes a $1,000 fine. If the fine has not been paid after 30 days, it will be placed onto the offender’s taxes to ensure it will be collected one way or another.
While there will be a larger presence from the Kent City Health Department on Halloween, Lewis says the Kent Police Department will have a less visible presence this year.
“In years past, we’ve had upwards of 100 police officers patrolling the city,” said Lewis. “We’re trying to reduce that this year, for a number of reasons. The parties have been down pretty significantly over the past four or five years when it comes to Halloween. Our enforcement activity over the past few years has gone down significantly. We’re hoping that’s going to continue. In addition to that, we’re very cognizant of the potential spread of COVID-19. We are not going to be out in walking teams quite as much as we have been in years past.”
There is a chance that any Kent resident having a large gathering of more than ten non-household members and having unlawful noise that goes beyond their property line can receive a citation from the Kent City Police Department and a civil citation from the Kent City Health Department.
Chris Ramos- Interviewed Gwen Rosenberg and University Edge. Created interactive graphic.
Sarah Limas- Interviewed Michael Lewis and Michael Anguilano.