Amherst grapples with loud parties over holiday weekend

  • Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2020

AMHERST — Numerous loud parties over the Labor Day weekend, with many hosts and guests possibly flouting COVID-19 rules by not wearing face coverings or remaining socially distanced, prompted police to issue tickets that could total $9,000 in fines.

During the three-day period, officers handed out 30 tickets, each with possible fines of up to $300, for violations of the town’s noise and nuisance house bylaws.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Tuesday that the department is responding to these quality-of-life issues as it has in the past, even though get-togethers with more than 50 people outdoors are prohibited by the state and raise the risk of spreading COVID-19 infection.

“It concerns us that it continues to happen,” Bockelman said of the parties where formal action was taken. “This is not 2019. These types of events should not be happening.”

In college towns across the country, more COVID-19 cases are already being identified. At the University of New Hampshire, 11 infections are being blamed on a fraternity party, while hundreds of infections of students and staff have been reported at the University Kentucky, Arizona State University and Texas A&M University.

So far this semester, the University of Massachusetts has conducted 25,181 coronavirus tests, identifying just 13 positive cases, and none in the past week.

On Friday night, officers issued nine noise bylaw tickets to people at homes on Gray and Pine streets hosting loud parties, and also issued two noise and two nuisance house bylaw tickets to Townehouse Apartments residents holding a loud party allegedly involving underage people playing drinking games.

On Saturday, the enforcement actions began in the afternoon when officers handed out eight $300 tickets at a Pelham Road home where the residents were violating the town’s noise bylaw by holding a loud party. In the early evening on Main Street, four residents were issued $300 tickets for violating the town’s noise bylaw while holding a small party there, and late at night, at Townehouse Apartments, police issued two $300 tickets for violations of the town’s noise bylaw while holding a loud party in a courtyard.

Early Sunday morning, three additional $300 tickets were issued to Lincoln Avenue residents holding a loud party with yelling.

Bockelman said in each instance where people have been identified, the names of those who are determined to be affiliated with UMass will be provided to officials at a weekly debriefing meeting.

“The tickets are the prompt for us to continue the conversation with the university, because that’s the other leverage point available,” Bockelman said.

At a virtual community forum last week in which UMass and Amherst officials talked about efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Tony Maroulis, executive director of external relations and university events, said if any students are identified as having been arrested in town or violating a town bylaw, a follow-up is done with them. This includes proactive outreach and intervention to make sure they comply with community standards.

Most students living on- and off-campus have signed the UMass-Amherst Community Agreement, though this document doesn’t have any penalties associated with it.

Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, said students can be held responsible for egregious violations through the code of student conduct. Although suspension and separation from campus are possible, those aren’t typically the first means of action.

“Leading by punishment doesn’t really solve the problem and doesn’t really get us anywhere,” LaBanc said.

That is different from Northeastern University, which recently dismissed 11 students for violating public health protocols.

In addition to the police responses, the town’s COVID-19 hotline received 38 calls over the weekend, said communications manager Brianna Sunryd. Many of these overlapped with the calls received and handled by police.

The weekend was also the first for six ambassadors, mostly UMass students, who have been hired by the town and trained by police in dealing with the public. Wearing yellow T-shirts, they had 154 interactions with people on the streets, Bockelman said.

The mostly positive interactions included handing out 33 masks — ones emblazoned with the UMass logo for fellow students — and speaking to people about the need for social distancing, washing hands and staying away from large gatherings.

Bockelman said the town is seeking others to hire for this program, which could include high school students and people who speak multiple languages.

In addition to several parties where police issued warnings and took no action, the department received 20 additional calls related mostly to COVID-19 concerns, including one resident who complained a neighbor was holding a tag sale where people were not wearing masks while browsing.