Students flock to bars amid COVID-19

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With UNI students arriving back to campus this past week, local businesses are experiencing a spike in customers—including the bars on College Hill.

This weekend, various social media posts featured photos of bars on the Hill, with students standing shoulder to shoulder in lines that wrapped around in front of neighboring businesses. Very few, if any, students are shown wearing masks.

Those who posted the photos expressed frustration with the students who chose to go to the Hill.

Ben Thessen, a music education major who posted photos from Friday and Saturday evening, wrote in his post that he was “appalled” at the number of students and their lack of masks.

“To every single person who made the conscious decision to go to the Hill tonight, I want to say that you should be absolutely ashamed of yourselves,” he wrote.

Thessen’s post has created a sensation on Facebook with more than 700 shares as of Sunday, August 23.

When contacted for comment by the Northern Iowan, he wrote in an email that he had posted the photos in the hopes of starting a discussion about the importance of safety during COVID-19.

“Seeing such a large volume of people all together like that was almost unreal to me,” he said. “Seeing such a blatant disregard for public safety got me pretty fired up, and that kind of pushed me from ‘Someone should do something’ to ‘I need to do something.’”

He noted that his pictures and post “were not anti-social gathering,” and that he believes a social network and support system are very important during COVID-19.

However, he said, there are safer ways to socially interact.

“I have seen and heard about numerous student organizations that have held events this past week that did a great job of putting on a fun event while maintaining proper mask and social distancing guidelines,” he wrote. “It is when a social group chooses to ignore those guidelines that issues begin to arise, as they are now making a conscious choice to put themselves and others in harm’s way.”

However, when students who went to the bars described their experiences, they focused on the precautions that the establishments took.

Sophomore marketing major Matt DeMouth went to the bars on Friday night and said that the bars had “hand sanitizer at every bar counter” in an effort to encourage bar-goers to keep themselves safe.

A UNI senior who asked to remain anonymous stated that she felt safer attending bars earlier in the evening, rather than waiting for the crowd.

“The staff could be seen cleaning frequently,” she said. “I saw (the staff) clean a few chairs.”

The senior and her group decided to keep themselves distanced as best as possible, staying in sections of the bars with less people.

“The upstairs was also pretty free, so I was a lot more comfortable upstairs than downstairs,” she said.

DeMouth added that some bars were offering deals for attendees who wore masks.

One of those establishments was Social House, which on Friday began offering a fifty-cent discount on drinks for customers who were wearing masks, both at their tables and at the bar. The bar continued the promotion on Saturday night, when they added on their Twitter account that customers could also get a deal for wearing a mask while standing in line or while not at their table.

Social House, along with other popular College Hill bars Little Bigs, Sharky’s and Octopus, did not respond to requests for comment from the Northern Iowan.

“The company does as much as it can,” said a UNI senior who works as a bartender at an establishment on the Hill. “The only problem is the way we would like everyone to do things is almost impossible to meet the demands of all these kids who are coming to the bar. Ideally, we’d like smaller crowds and smarter kids.”

UNI bars are not the only ones drawing crowds during the pandemic.

In Iowa City this Saturday, Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Vanessa Miller posted multiple photos of crowded bars on Twitter. Likewise, students at Iowa State University last weekend celebrated “801 day,” an annual Ames-wide party on the Saturday before school starts, with huge parties and hundreds of students in small areas, according to photos posted on social media by students and Ames residents.

ISU’s president Wendy Wintersteen notified students on Friday that those caught disobeying the safety guidelines could be subject to disciplinary action. Several of those who posted photos of the lines at the UNI bars have called for the UNI administration to take similar disciplinary steps.

For his part, Thessen said that the he feels the UNI administration is doing “a pretty good job” of managing the COVID-19 response on campus. He noted that since College Hill is off-campus, the university’s jurisdiction may be limited.

“With the city of Cedar Falls having not yet instituted a mask mandate, it falls to us, the students, to hold ourselves and our peers accountable for our actions,” he wrote. “How we chose to act these next few weeks will affect not only ourselves, but also our fellow Panthers, their families and the greater community of Cedar Falls.”

A petition calling for a mask mandate in Cedar Falls has garnered more than 1,200 signatures on

KWWL reported that the Cedar Falls City Council voted to postpone the decision on the mandate “indefinitely” at a special meeting on August 19. This means that the council may resume speaking on the topic at any given meeting and is not locked into making a decision at the next meeting.