Editor’s note: The story below has been updated to provide additional context to a quote from a student and to clarify that not all students attended parties to celebrate graduation.
Thursday was supposed to be one of the most important days of University of Colorado Boulder senior Laura Vogel’s life.
But instead of throwing her cap in the air at Folsom Field with thousands of her classmates, the new CU Boulder graduate spent the day at her house on University Hill with her roommates and friends.
The coronavirus pandemic forced colleges and universities across the country to cancel or reschedule in-person commencement ceremonies, depriving countless graduating seniors the chance to celebrate a major milestone.
CU Boulder’s commencement ceremony was scheduled for Thursday, but the pandemic forced the university to cancel and set up a virtual streaming ceremony on May 16 instead. Some of the campus’ colleges also live-streamed ceremonies on Thursday.
While some students living on University Hill celebrated graduation Thursday with their housemates, others chose to attend large parties, despite a countywide stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines.
The reaction to the parties from Chana Goussetis, spokesperson for Boulder County Public Health, was “Holy cow” — and not in a good way.
“Not only is it a risk to people at those gatherings, it’s a risk to everyone around them,” she said. “It’s a risk to our eldely population, who is being hit very hard by COVID-19.”
On the Hill, Vogel still wore her graduation gown and a dress and sat on her front porch with her roommates as music poured out of neighboring houses.
Down the street, dozens of people gathered to party in the front yards of homes near 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It’s a weird feeling because it just feels like a party. It doesn’t feel like graduation, so it doesn’t feel like there’s closure,” Vogel said.
Vogel and her roommate, senior Hannah Wineman, said they’ve been taking social distancing and stay at home orders seriously — but graduation day felt like an exception.
“Today is just one of those days where you just have to let it happen,” Vogel said of other students who chose to gather in large groups.
“None of us have immediate jobs starting, so we’re going to quarantine for the next 14 days,” Wineman said. “But today is supposed to be really special.”
Seniors Chidi Nzerem and Daniel Saesar were walking to a nearby graduation party on Thursday afternoon.
“It hasn’t really settled in yet that because this is our graduation day, we’re done,” Saesar said.
“It’s kind of depressing, because the person we are now is never going to be the same person,” Nzerem added.
Nzerem and Saesar both have friends that got coronavirus after attending St. Patrick’s Day parties on the Hill.
Saesar said he stayed in his house for two weeks after that and never showed symptoms.
“Despite what people think, we have been kind of cautious, but it’s hard when you’re a college student and you’re trying to enjoy the last little bit of college you can,” he said.
Told that some students were dismissing any risk by pledging to now go into quarantine, Goussetis said, “That would be great, although I don’t know what they mean by ‘quarantine.’ Staying at home, away from other people for 14 days, in theory, would help.
“But if they’re ill at the time of the gathering, even if they go and quarantine, if they had been carriers, they may have exposed other people, already.”
The Boulder Police Department was aware of approximately six parties on the Hill with 20 or more people in attendance on Thursday, said Sgt. Tom Dowd. Officers wrote several tickets for alcohol violations. Dowd said officers also issued one ticket for a noise complaint.
“We provided a lot of education,” Dowd said. “We reminded them that there’s certain behaviors that will attract attention, that’s noise and having open containers of alcohol out on the street, and reminded them that they should be wearing masks and practicing social distancing.”
CUPD officers did not look into the parties on the Hill, said spokesman Scott Pribble.
“The Boulder Police Department handles criminal issues on The Hill, even though the people involved may be CU students,” Pribble said. “If a student receives a summons or is arrested, either on campus or off, they could be subject to the student conduct process.”
Camera staff writer Charlie Brennan contributed to this report.