Inside Denton Hall, one week after UMD ordered “enhanced health precautions”

Joshua Hilton in his room on Sept. 25, 2020. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

At night, Mary Kay sits in the grass outside Denton Hall with her boyfriend. The weather has been nice lately, and it’s good to get some fresh air.

She watches as groups of people walk in and out of the building’s doors. Some wear party clothes, others struggle to walk in their stilettos. Kay sighs.

It’s been over a week now since the University of Maryland placed Kay’s dorm under “enhanced health precautions” after 23 students tested positive for COVID-19 and nine others had direct exposure to someone who tested positive. Although the school has been adamant that the approximately 200 residents of Denton are not under isolation or quarantine, officials have urged them to stay in their rooms as much as possible, and avoid attending in-person classes or visiting public areas such as Stamp Student Union or Eppley Recreation Center.

Most people have been following these guidelines, Kay and two other students told The Diamondback. They spend the hours in their rooms watching Netflix, talking on the phone, coloring. But some aren’t taking the precautionary measures the school has pleaded them to follow. And others in Denton say they haven’t observed anyone enforcing these restrictions, which they worry could leave them — and their classmates — at risk of exposure.

After receiving reports that some residents were not abiding by the enhanced safety precautions, the university’s Department of Resident Life sent out an email to all Denton residents.

“It is critical that all residents continue to limit their activities through October 2,” the email read. “We appreciate students holding each other accountable for these expectations. We are all in this together and your compliance with these expectations is essential to our ability to keep our Maryland community safe and return to regular operations in Denton Hall.”

But a university spokesperson did not respond to a question about how these expectations are being enforced. And in Denton’s lobby, no one is sitting at the front desk, students said. Residents can come and go as they please. 

“It’s kind of all on the honor code,” Kay said. 

[Read more: With more than half of quarantine housing filled, UMD prepares to add three more dorms]

In the weeks leading up to the announcement, there was talk that there were some positive cases in the building, Kay said. But things still felt normal, and her floor didn’t have any known cases until the first day of in-person classes on Sept. 14. 

But by Sept. 18, rumors were going around in different floor group chats that a shutdown was going to happen. One resident assistant messaged their students that they should expect an email soon regarding health precautions. Another told residents not to panic.

Still, when the announcement was finally made, Kay said, she wasn’t expecting it. 

“We were all kind of bummed and shocked,” Kay said. “We didn’t know it was that bad.”

Though some students have continued on with their social lives, others — like sophomore mechanical engineering major Joshua Hilton — have been more cautious.

He only leaves his room when necessary. If Hilton does leave the building to get some fresh air, he carries disinfecting wipes with him. As he walks around the campus or goes to the social distancing circles on McKeldin Mall, he makes sure to wear a mask and stay away from people.

In his room, he reads, codes and watches baking videos to pass time. He might start coloring, too — the university left some coloring books for them.

“It’s kinda boring,” Hilton said. “But I understand where they’re coming from because there are so many cases here.”

And it’s disappointing to see some people not following the rules — it could mean an extension in restrictions, Hilton said.  

Although elevators are only supposed to carry three people at a time, Hilton says he has seen way more squeeze inside on multiple occasions. He has also seen groups of people dressed like they were going to the bars. And he’s watched groups of residents clamber into cars and drive away.

Kay, a sophomore English and secondary education major, has been careful as well. She hasn’t used the building’s elevators, and only goes to the bathroom if there are less than three people inside. Mostly, she says, she stays in her room, doing coursework, watching Netflix and talking with her mother or boyfriend on the phone.

“You’d think that people would take it seriously when they said how we need to lock down,” she said. “It’s disappointing to see people still leave the building and hug their friends.”

[Read more: Lack of communication surrounding UMD’s COVID-19 tests has left some feeling unsupported]

While the public health school Dean Boris Lushniak said he wasn’t consulted in the university’s decision to put Denton under enhanced health precautions, he said he thought officials made the right choice.

The world is undergoing unprecedented times, Lushniak said, and so is the university. Under guidelines dictated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who test positive should isolate, and direct contacts should quarantine. Students living in Denton don’t fit either of these categories, Lushniak said.

“We’ve not had Denton Hall situations before,” he said. “It sort of sounds like quarantine, I admit, but … it’s a higher level of being careful.”

In addition to encouraging students to stay indoors as much as possible, the university has deactivated Denton residents’ ID cards, so they are only able to enter Denton and Oakland halls. Residents have 45-minute blocks reserved for them to go to 251 North and grab breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

The residents were given stickers to put on their ID cards, said Justin Levine — a Denton resident — and they need to display the sticker in order to enter. 

Initially, meals were delivered for residents. But after hearing student feedback about the process, Dining Services and Resident Life staff decided to designate meal pick-up times exclusively for Denton Hall residents so they could choose their own food, according to a university spokesperson.

“It’s been nice to be able to at least somewhat pick my own options for food instead of having whatever they drop off at the lounge,” said Levine, a sophomore computer science major. “And just an excuse to get out and move a little bit.”

Still, the timing can be a little less than convenient. Breakfast starts at 8 a.m., and Levine has class at 8. Lunch starts at noon; he has class at noon. The only time he can make it is for dinner, so he usually takes extra food for the next day.

Prior to the enhanced health precaution announcement, Levine said he felt nervous about the rumors going around about the building shutting down — he didn’t know what they meant.  He was expecting the university to double down on the guidance it has long been issuing – stay safe, keep wearing masks, and things along those lines. He didn’t think the university would actually be changing policies for his building.

But the floor has been quieter lately, Levine said. He keeps the door closed most of the time, but he hasn’t seen people walking around as much. Generally, he feels safe.

“It’s just a little scary to see all this stuff is apparently necessary,” Levine said. “Why this building specifically?”

Meanwhile, students are counting down the days until Oct. 2, when hopefully — if everything goes according to plan — the restrictions will be lifted. 

And hopefully, Hilton said, “we can go back to some sense of normalcy.”

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