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Police ramping up COVID patrols for off-campus parties at Wisconsin university

The move comes amid concern over student behavior during the pandemic.

As schools crack down on parties during the coronavirus pandemic, one university is looking to stop large gatherings before they happen.

University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee officials said this week that its campus police are ramping up patrols of large off-campus parties.

"We're trying to prevent the large gatherings from happening in the first place," UWM Police Chief Joseph LeMire said during a press briefing earlier this week. "The message for students wanting to attend large parties is don't do it. That has to be the message."

The move comes amid concern over student behavior during the pandemic. The Milwaukee Health Department said it has received complaints from college students worried about safety, and it was alarmed by activity over Labor Day weekend.

"We have seen a number of videos of parties and things that had occurred over the weekend," Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik said during the press briefing. "And we, again, just want to appeal to our community that we all have a responsibility here for reducing the risk of COVID-19."

Kowalik did not name specific schools, though Milwaukee Fox station WITI recently shared cellphone video shot by a neighbor who witnessed a crowd gathering outside a home near UWM over the holiday weekend.

Kowalik stressed that it is especially important to follow safety guidelines with events such as homecoming approaching.

"Let's just do it the safe way, remind one another to keep distance, refrain from the handshakes and high-fives and all that, and wear your mask," she said.

UWM "strongly discourages" in-person social gatherings with people outside the same household if social distancing cannot be maintained and face coverings cannot be worn. It advises students to review the current Milwaukee COVID-10 orders, which limit gatherings to half the total occupancy of the location, one person for every 30 square feet of floor space or 250 people -- whichever is the lesser amount.

LeMire said the department is planning to intervene with gatherings of about 10 to 15 people in the afternoon and early evening, "before it gets larger than that." Later in the evening, it is working with the Milwaukee Police Department to monitor crowds, he said.

"It's an educational process," the chief said, noting that the department plans to reinforce social distancing and mask-wearing. "We're intervening at a lower level, a more educational level, talking with them, explaining with them, helping people understand that this isn't just about you."

The school has "processes to hold them accountable if they violate those standards," UWM Dean of Students Adam Jussel told Milwaukee ABC affiliate WISN, though any punishment was not specified. The campus police will also be enforcing underage drinking as state charges, while the Milwaukee Police Department will enforce city ordinances such as noise complaints, the station reported.

Students take health and safety training "to know what's expected of them," UWM Chief Student Affairs Officer Kelly Haag said during the press briefing. The school is also increasing messaging. Last week, the UWM Student Association put out a video "really reminding students what's at stake for us if we don't all abide by our pledge to support campus health and safety," she said.

"We also have to think about the activities that we're doing off campus," Student Association President Emma Mae Weber said in the video. "Because what we do off campus impacts whether our campus is going to be able to continue functioning as a community. So the next time you're thinking about going out, ask yourself, is it worth it?"

"For just one careless and thoughtless act, it can end up ruining so much for everybody else," she added.

A cautionary tale can be found at a fellow state university. The University of Wisconsin, Madison announced on Wednesday that it will be shifting to remote instruction for two weeks and quarantining two residence halls after positive test rates in students were over 20% for the past two days and it noticed a "sharp increase in certain residence halls."

UWM has been testing symptomatic students since March. Starting Monday, it will begin testing all students who live in residence halls at least once every two weeks.

"Case counts at UWM have been low, and the goal of the testing program is to monitor for outbreaks and isolate students who test positive," the school said in an update Friday.

The Milwaukee campus, which started classes on Sept. 2, has reported 61 student cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 3, according to data on the university's website. About half of those were in the past week.

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