Amherst officials hear concerns on student partying

Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 04, 2020

AMHERST — College-age people coming together for parties and cookouts at off-campus rentals are a regular occurrence in Amherst during the weeks of mild weather at the start of the fall semester.

But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the possibility of as many University of Massachusetts students living in town even as most classes are taught remotely, both the police and inspections departments are preparing for a surge of complaints from residents concerned about the spread of infection.

In part, what they are preparing for is based on the experience so far this summer, where what would typically be vacant homes have either been occupied or used for weekend parties, including one that occurred recently in a North Amherst yard turned into a beach-like setting with slippy slides and tables for drinking games.

During an online community conversation Thursday, code enforcement officer Jon Thompson said that he has already held follow-up virtual meetings with residents at three locations about community expectations.

“They come back and have parties at their houses,” Thompson said of those he has spoken to so far. “It looks dangerous. As a 65-year-old man, I’m afraid to be exposed to that.”

Bill Laramee, the community liaison officer for the police department, said he anticipates police being in a good position to address issues as they come up, though officers may deploy more broad use of the noise and nuisance house bylaws than they typically have.

But he is also aware that many in the community recognize that parties can be super-spreader events for the virus, and even if noise is not a problem, the lack of social distancing and following rules to protect others from exposure, such as wearing face coverings or masks, may not be happening. “I think we’ll see a lot more calls,” Laramee said. “If 10 or more are gathered, we’re getting called.”

Laramee said prior to the pandemic, officers used discretion during their responses as to whether someone would be arrested, get a ticket or only be warned.

There could be some eroding of the progress made on student behavior in recent years, through programs such as the Party Smart registration that has allowed students to receive a courtesy call if a party is causing a disturbance. That has helped reduce the number of arrests and tickets, and improved relations between students and police.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Laramee said.

While the town has also set limits to four unrelated housemates in any home, Thompson said there is a likelihood of some students scrambling to find places to stay, in particular who might not want to remain at their parents’.

“I think they’ll be bunking with their buddies,” Thompson said. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the measures that will be used are about promoting safety for both students and residents.