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HEALTH

Seemingly overnight, a college neighborhood has become the epicenter of the coronavirus in Rhode Island

Many Providence College students live off campus in double- and triple-deckers along Eaton Street in Providence.
Many Providence College students live off campus in double- and triple-deckers along Eaton Street in Providence.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Residents of the leafy Elmhurst neighborhood that surrounds Providence College have learned to become numb to the debauchery they witness most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights between August and May.

This is a college neighborhood, after all, so you tend to overlook the party fouls. That means you learn to ignore the red Solo cups that line Eaton Street each weekend morning after a hard night of partying. And you mark it a successful semester when no one throws up on your lawn.

There are times when things get out of hand, like when students lit a couch on fire after the Friars won the national championship in men’s hockey in 2015. Or the time an aggressive group of young people started throwing bottles at police officers who were breaking up parties in 2017. Those kinds of incidents usually require the college’s stepping in, and a ramped-up law enforcement presence, at least for a few weeks.

But after 165 students from the college tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, neighbors are worrying that middle-class Elmhurst has, virtually overnight, become the new epicenter of the highly contagious virus in Rhode Island.

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“The one thing that has stayed consistent is [students] who don’t respect the neighborhood,” said Sandy Winters, an elementary school teacher who lives several blocks from the college. “If they had such reckless behavior before, what makes me think they’re going to be compliant now?”

Following the recent outbreak, the college announced that it was issuing a stay-at-home order to all students until at least Oct. 3, and requiring everyone to participate in remote learning for the time being. Providence College’s president, Rev. Kenneth R. Sicard, issued a dire warning to students, explaining that failing to contain the virus would force officials to close the campus for the rest of the semester.

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“We recognize how serious and difficult these directives are, but this is our last chance to remain together in person for the fall semester,” Sicard wrote in a letter to students and faculty.

A spokesman for the college said contact tracing efforts have failed to pinpoint a single party or event that led to the outbreak, but the fact is, the majority of positive cases involve students who live off campus. The school requires its freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, but juniors and seniors have the option to live in apartments.

On Wednesday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo singled out Providence College — and the University of Rhode Island — for their outbreaks.

“This is hurting people’s businesses in Rhode Island,” Raimondo said. “It’s not a joke. We’re hurting people because of our selfishness. Following the rules matters.”

With roughly 4,000 undergraduates, Providence College is much smaller than Brown University, the Ivy League school across the city. But residents identify with the Catholic college in a deeper way. When the men’s basketball team, called the Friars after the Dominican order that runs the school, is good, the Dunkin' Donuts Center sells out for Big East games. And the team’s success has helped raised millions of dollars for the college, helping to transform the campus in recent years.

Although the campus itself is tiny, the neighborhood has become an extension of the school. Nearly every home on Eaton Street is rented to college students — mostly from Providence College, but also from schools like Johnson & Wales University. City tax records show one company, The 02908 Club, owns 111 properties in the area, often assigning names to the houses like “Friar Pit,” “Boardwalk,” and “Headquarters.”

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Neighbors say they aren’t surprised that the college has been unable to trace the outbreak to a single house, because they say that every weekend, students have their choice of parties on or around Eaton Street. It has the feel of a frat row, except the college doesn’t recognize Greek life.

“It’s like they think they’re immortal, like they think nothing is going to happen to them,” said Darlene Correia, who lives on Clym Street. “I think they forget that there are other people that live in the neighborhood.”

Correia and Winters pointed fingers at the college, arguing that officials need to do more to hold students accountable.

“I love that Northeastern said, ‘You broke the rules, go the hell home,’ ” Winters joked, referring to the Boston school that expelled a group of students who failed to follow its coronavirus restrictions.

Providence College did suspend 17 students last month for violating the school’s coronavirus code of conduct, and other students say the school has set high expectations for those who choose to live off campus.

Sean King, a senior whose semester in London last spring was cut short because of the first wave of the coronavirus, said the college has been working closely with students who support those who fall ill, but also reinforces that they must follow the rules.

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Now signs are posted on lawns up and down Eaton Street, warning students to wear masks inside and outside of their apartments. King said he has 12 housemates in his off-campus apartment, and all of them tested negative for the virus. He said private security now roams the neighborhood to remind students to wear masks and stay inside.

King said that the virus has derailed some of the most highly anticipated moments of every student’s time at the college, like the weekend when they get their class rings and homecoming.

“It’s not like the normal senior year that everyone envisioned,” King said. “But every senior class is different, and I think this is going to have to be our legacy.”

Even if college life can resume under somewhat normal circumstances, the virus has already taken its toll on the neighborhood.

Shelley Peterson, whose lives in Elmhurst and ordinarily sends her children to the St. Pius V Catholic school near the college campus, said she decided to keep her kids home this year for remote learning. Part of the reason: Providence College has students who volunteer at the school, and Peterson didn’t want to take any chances.

“I’m glad that the kids are listening now because it is a life-and-death scenario, unfortunately,” Peterson said.

And Michael Manni, who owns LaSalle Bakery, which has two stores on either side of the campus, said he noticed fewer students the weekend after the lockdown started. He said the bakery normally serves dozens of breakfast sandwiches on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and only “around 10” were served this past weekend.

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But Manni said the college students are a crucial part of his business, and he hopes the school can keep its campus open.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen is to close the school,” Manni said. “I’ll take a two-week hit rather than a forever hit.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.