PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence College officials have issued an apology to the community after students poured out of off-campus housing and flouted coronavirus-related social distancing mandates this weekend.
Video shared on social media captured throngs of students lining Eaton Street in Providence on Saturday. Many were seen gathered in groups larger than five and not wearing cloth face coverings, defying two of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s executive orders.
Steven Maurano, a spokesperson for Providence College, said the gathering was the result of a parent-organized parade meant to be a congratulatory send-off to seniors living in the neighborhood. The college’s actual commencement ceremony has been postponed to October 31, but students will get their degrees on Sunday.
“A parent called the college earlier this week to ask about organizing the parade and we told her that the college could not be involved in the parade nor could we sanction it,” Maurano told WPRI 12 in an email. “We asked her to contact Providence Police if this was something parents wanted to do.”
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said they have officers assigned to PC who have been trying to break up large gatherings over the past week.
“We did go and break some of them up,” Pare said in an interview Saturday evening. “It’s been a constant challenge.”
Students who spoke with WPRI 12 said they didn’t know if police could successfully contain the crowds.
“Obviously, right to assembly is important but it’s also important to keep your distance during a pandemic,” said Paris Morgan, a graduating senior. “It’s obviously problematic because everyone wants to have a good time, but it is what it is.”
“People work hard for four years and they just want to let loose,” Morgan added. “People are over the whole quarantine.”
Paré said most of the groups have dispersed when police arrive, but he said it’s been difficult at times to keep up.
“You break one house party up and then there’s a dozen others,” he said.
As of Saturday, officers have yet to issue any citations or fines to the students, according to Paré. He said police would prefer to avoid issuing civil penalties, but he said if the behavior persisted, officers would have no other option.
“These are not bad kids, they just have cabin fever and now they’re outside and they’re holding large gatherings which is irresponsible and dangerous for them to do,” he said.
Maurano said while it is understandable that these students and their families were looking for a way to celebrate their graduation on Saturday, “they did not exhibit good judgement or the appropriate respect for the local community by disobeying Governor Raimondo’s executive order regarding how to behave in public during this pandemic.”
“On behalf of the college, I apologize to the Elmhurst and Smith Hill communities for their behavior,” Maurano said.
City Councilman David Salvatore, D-Ward 14, who represents the PC neighborhoods, said Saturday morning he was shocked to see images of students disregarding state orders.
“We have empathy for all of our college students whose lives were transformed in a day – the rites of passage of graduating, spending that last night with their friends at their favorite college bar, the chance to have those last moments of freedom before they end this chapter of their lives were taken away,” Salvatore said in a statement. “Yet, we were all young and many of us thought we were invincible. What we know of this virus is that no one is invincible – not even young healthy college kids.”
He added, “As our younger residents wind down their time here in Providence, I ask them to think about their neighbors, the families they are returning home to, their futures, and their health.”
City Councilwoman Kat Kerwin, D-Ward 12, took to Twitter to call the scene on Saturday “horrific.”
“I am disgusted by this behavior and I look forward to an apology from these students and a conversation with the college about how they will remedy this hurt that they have caused Smith Hill and my neighborhood,” she wrote.
City of Providence spokeswoman Emily Crowell told WPRI 12 the city has been collaborating with PC on enforcement, and the school has paid for additional police details.
“There is work to be done to remind folks the importance of social distancing and hygiene norms during this time, but everyone should follow guidelines included in the Governor’s recommendations,” she wrote.
Paré said police are recommending that the students be disciplined by their school, but Maurano said after tomorrow’s graduation, PC will no longer have jurisdiction over them.
“I don’t know that there is anything we can do within that short time frame,” he said.