COVID ain’t the boss of them — under 30 set struggles to resist the urge to socialize

At least they're outside. Students partied at University of Minnesota fraternity Sigma Chi Thursday night. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Jacques Francis Tchombe, 25, went looking for fun earlier this summer at the Uptown bar Cowboy Slim’s.

“I’m not afraid, I have a very good immune system,” Tchombe said. 

Tchombe, who drives for food delivery service Doordash, said that enough people were still wary of the virus that the Uptown scene was close to dead by his standards. 

People like Tchombe between the ages of 20-29 account for nearly a quarter of all Minnesota cases of COVID-19. And with college students returning for the fall semester, experts are sounding the alarm that the 20-something set’s desire to return to their previous social routine may be driving transmission to more vulnerable populations. 

“Twenty-year olds don’t just have contact with 20-year olds, they have contact with older adults, grandparents, etc,” said Professor Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “What we’re seeing and the big concern is the transmission from that age group to others that are not of that age group but are very highly vulnerable to serious disease and death,” he said. 

Osterholm said he has seen the grim result: “I’m aware of too many situations where some young adult got infected, went home, and now mom or dad or grandpa or grandma are dead.”

Ahead of the holiday weekend, Gov. Tim Walz and Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm advised Minnesotans to stay vigilant Thursday. “Just because we’ve been stable for a while, doesn’t mean we can’t tip over,” Malcolm said Thursday. “The virus is all over the state.”

As case counts continue to rise, both public health officials and young people themselves struggle to balance incentives to return to normal with critical assessments of the risks of socializing. 

Alex M., who declined to give his last name, is a recent University of Minnesota graduate who works security at the Kollege Klub, which was the site of a viral outbreak in June linked to 22 cases of COVID-19.

He said he’s seen a more nonchalant attitude toward the pandemic among many of the bar’s customers, although these days it’s reservations only. He contracted COVID-19 after working the first weekend the Klub reopened and partying there in his free time, and said the experience drove home the importance of taking precautions to avoid infecting others — a lesson he wishes younger adults would take to heart.

“College students…they have a sense (that) nothing can hurt me,” he  said. “A lot of people were willing to risk getting COVID to go out to the bars, see their friends again and have a sense of normalcy in their life.”

The Kollege Klub, which was the sight of a COVID-19 outbreak in June, now requires reservations. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Claims that young people believe themselves invincible to disease and danger are a well-worn trope, but they hold some truth. Data on the rates of hospitalization and death across age groups were widely touted early during the pandemic as evidence of the protections of youth. Although data now indicate that young people are still at risk of life-threatening illness and severe complications, low hospitalization rates relative to the rest of the population has left an impression of invulnerability.

Some young people say that socializing is an exercise in personal risk, and that they’re willing to assume that risk to see friends and have a good time; those worried about contracting the virus, they say, should just stay home.

 “I think especially with college aged, high school aged people, I see a lot of very dramatic divides between people who are clearly not social distancing, who are going to the beach with their friends and posing for photos on Instagram and that sort of thing,” said Macalester College student Helen Feng. “And then there’s the people who maybe are seeing their friends but will keep masks on or stand far enough apart.” 

More than 1,000 colleges across the country have seen more than 50,000 confirmed cases, killing at least 60, the New York Times reported this week

The University of Minnesota is starting classes two weeks later than originally planned, with sharp restrictions in place on students’ movements during the first 10 days.  

At Macalester, though, classes have begun, and there’s fun to be had, no matter the rules or norms, Feng said: “There’s still going to be people who gather and have fun and celebrate and drink and all that sort of stuff,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do to stop that because there’s always going to be people who are going to prioritize that over the greater good.”

Preliminary social scientific research suggests that this individualistic approach to public health — although a deeply embedded American cultural value — is ill-suited to address the challenges of a virus that can be transmitted between seemingly healthy asymptomatic people, but distributes risk unequally. Personal choices quickly become matters of public concern as people come into contact with family, friends, coworkers. 

Northwestern Medicine psychiatry professor Dr. Jacqueline Gollan said the risky behavior can be attributed to what she calls “caution fatigue”: the result of prolonged stress and anxiety wearing down motivation to comply with psychologically taxing safety measures like social distancing. 

Feng said that as the months have dragged on, she lost hope that the pandemic would recede quickly and allow normal life to return.

“I was a lot more optimistic, back when cases still seemed to be going down. It’s harder to feel that way now when you see people blatantly breaking rules in terms of masks and social distancing and stuff,” Feng said. “It’s difficult because I understand the urge to want to go places with your friends and try to do as much stuff as feels normal as possible but it’s just impossible to do right now if it’s in settings that are not social distancing.”

The highly variable nature of pandemic responses between states can also undermine efforts to clamp down on viral spread. Minnesota has implemented statewide restrictions, but rules in Wisconsin have been more lax. 

Mike Woodhouse, a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas, said that the proximity of Wisconsin towns relatively light on regulation was a factor in helping the people in his social circles make the crucial decision of whether or not to party.

“That’s the biggest thing with young people, is deciding whether to party or not. At least around St. Thomas there are lots of parties,” Woodhouse said. “A lot of people go out of state. I’ve been to Wisconsin where they don’t care about it really, and bars are open.” 

For the most part, young people are left to evaluate the risks of daily activities on their own. It should come as no surprise that those judgments are often swayed by the desire for normalcy and social connection. 

Matthew Fried, 28, said that he saw a range of responses to the threat of infection within his social circle. “It’s definitely a mixed bag,” Fried said. “I go out and see people wearing masks and distancing, and then I go on Snapchat and I’ve got friends partying.”

Fried said that he thought the politics of coronavirus response posed another obstacle to compliance.

“It’s become a politicized issue, so when you get into that space it’s hard to know what to do,” Fried said. “It shouldn’t be political.”

Osterholm warned that in order to truly bring COVID-19 to heel, another lockdown is necessary. Although he was careful to note that such a move would only be possible if the government committed to supporting the businesses affected, closing bars and restaurants for six weeks would shift the burden of pandemic decision-making from individuals to policy-makers, and it would drive transmission down to a manageable level and keep it there.

“What we’re talking about is taking the medicine for six weeks to drive case numbers way down and keep people away from each other, stopping the transmission,” Osterholm said. “Then instead of having to fight a super forest fire of coronavirus we’re fighting brushfires.”