Drastic measures to curb COVID-19 at CU Boulder cast pall over campus

An eerie, remarkable scene unfolded across the University of Colorado Boulder’s grassy Norlin Quad on Wednesday: It was a beautiful autumn afternoon with nobody around to enjoy it.

Boulder’s student-dominated spaces looked like a museum to the city’s pre-pandemic self — empty academic buildings and deserted University Hill sidewalks relics to a time when COVID-19 had not altered life in this quintessential college town in nearly every conceivable way.

A gorgeous day on the campus of yore would have yielded slacklines taut with the weight of intrepid youth, flying Frisbees, scholars cracking textbooks beneath shade trees, and friends meeting to plan the weekend’s escapades. On Wednesday, there was nary a human in sight aside from a rare masked student and occasional patrols by university and local police.

“Walking around, it’s like a ghost town,” freshman Ethan Fantl said.

Following a surge in coronavirus infections tied to the university community, the Boulder campus shifted classes online for a minimum of two weeks, beginning Sept. 23. The next day, Boulder County Public Health ordered a two-week ban on gatherings of 18-to-22-year-olds in Boulder, and put more than three dozen properties — largely Greek houses — under a stay-at-home order.

On a visit to Boulder one week into these measures, the CU community remained the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the state with more than 1,500 confirmed cases, though new infections among those in their late teens and early 20s are now trending downward, according to state and local public health data. CU leaders have attributed that progress to an earlier intervention: the recommendation that all students living in Boulder self-quarantine.

Nevertheless, infections among all other age groups continued to rise this week, with local health authorities sounding the alarm that Boulder County was in the state’s “red zone” for new cases — something that could trigger more aggressive restrictions to stop the virus’ spread.

Chet Strange, Special to the Denver Post

A bus makes its way through campus at CU Boulder on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.

“A culture of fear”

Fantl, 19, was heartened by the dropping numbers among CU students, but said he thinks the university will have a tougher time healing its reputation in light of the past few turbulent months.

“For a lot of students, the fear of getting sick is there, but there’s not a whole lot of knowledge about what it will do to someone who is young. Some people think it’s just like a cold,” Fantl said. “But in terms of the punitive measures students could face for breaking public health rules, everyone is really terrified of that, even more so than getting sick. We’re living in a culture of fear.”

Violating the county’s public health order is a misdemeanor subject to criminal and civil penalties and fines, said Shannon Aulabaugh, spokeswoman for the city of Boulder. A violator would receive a summons to appear in Boulder Municipal Court with penalties including up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Students also could be reported