Yale and the City: A pandemic and a plan
Looking out onto Chapel Street from behind the closed Vanderbilt gates, a quarantined Yalie might spot off-campus students enjoying ice cream from Arethusa Farm Dairy, buying a gift to send home from Ten Thousand Villages, or emerging from Sushi on Chapel with takeout rolls ready for dinner.
To many Yale, city and state officials, this would be evidence that the University’s reopening plan is working the way it is supposed to — limiting viral spread in New Haven while benefiting the city economically.
Still, one thing remains invisible to the naked eye: the coronavirus that necessitated the closure of Old Campus in the first place.
In interviews with the News, Yale administrators and public officials remained cautiously optimistic about the University’s reopening plan and students’ return to campus and the Elm City at large. Many pointed out the economic benefits of the students’ return to New Haven, including increased support for local businesses in Downtown New Haven and the resumption of regular employment for many Yale staff members.
The reopening itself, albeit partial, was the result of much coordination and planning between the state of Connecticut, the city of New Haven, and universities — public and private — throughout the Nutmeg State. All parties to those negotiations said that communication and consistent reopening criteria have been critical to the reopening going ahead mostly as planned since early July.
Some concerns remain, however, mostly regarding the testing of staff members and the decision-making process behind the plan.
“I think there’s definitely some concern among other folks in the community about people bringing the virus back to New Haven, especially because we’ve seen such a solid decline in cases over the last few months,” Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 told the News in an interview. “A lot of folks are also excited to have a lot of the young folks who bring so much energy and life to New Haven back. From a dollars-and-cents perspective as well, there are a lot of folks in our city who are employed by Yale and various other colleges.”
“I think there’s definitely some concern among other folks in the community about people bringing the virus back to New Haven, especially because we’ve seen such a solid decline in cases over the last few months. A lot of folks are also excited to have a lot of the young folks who bring so much energy and life to New Haven back.”
—Eli Sabin '22, Ward 1 Alder
INITIAL PLANS EMERGE
Planning for a fall reopening of Connecticut colleges and universities began at the state level in the spring, according to Josh Geballe ’97 SOM ’02, chief operating officer of the governor’s office. On April 23, Gov. Ned Lamont announced the foundation of the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, co-chaired by former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi SOM ’80 and Yale School of Public Health department chair of epidemiology Albert Ko.
The Education Committee of the advisory group, co-chaired by former Yale President Rick Levin and former Yale Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives Linda Lorimer, was tasked with building criteria for higher education institutions to reopen safely. Geballe emphasized the role of Yale alumni, experts and administrators in the success of Connecticut’s pandemic response.
“Governor Lamont, throughout this whole pandemic, has understood that public health considerations have to come first. Our view is there’s no way to truly reopen the economy if you’re in a situation where the virus is running rampant,” Geballe said in an interview. “Our priority was to establish criteria for our colleges and universities to reopen safely and ensure that each of them, including Yale, were putting the necessary steps in place to reopen safely.”
Connecticut was the first state to produce such guidelines when Levin and Lorimer published a report on the necessary steps for university reopenings in early May. Presented to Lamont, the report recommended schools have robust plans to contain the coronavirus if an outbreak occurred on campus and plans to shut down again if necessary.
Levin said that Lamont thanked the committee for the report. Levin has not been involved in subsequent decision-making about reopening plans for Yale or other Connecticut colleges, he said. He declined to comment any further for this story.
Yale President Peter Salovey has been in regular contact with Lamont and Mayor Justin Elicker about the University’s plans for the fall semester, Salovey told the News in an email.
“Both the governor and mayor have been thinking a lot about higher education during the pandemic,” Salovey wrote. “They support going back to teaching and learning to the greatest extent possible while safeguarding the well-being of everyone on college campuses and in the surrounding communities.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Salovey convened a public health advisory group as well. After initially advising about the shutdown of campus in the spring, that group turned its attention towards the University’s reopening plans starting in June, according to Yale Health Director Paul Genecin, who serves on the advisory team. The team worked with a host of other Yale bodies to make sure the reopening plan was logistically sound, including Facilities, Yale College, and all of the professional schools.
“We cannot escape the fact that we will have some COVID cases at Yale. Our goal is to prevent uncontrolled spread in this community,” Genecin told the News in an email. “Yale has created a unique system for its students and we will try to contain the spread of any infection through a series of behavioral expectations, changes to the environment, biweekly testing for students, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.”
Genecin added that all of the elements of the plan need to function properly and in unison in order for it to be successful.
Representatives from Yale New Haven Health have also been at every meeting of the advisory group, Genecin said. Representatives from YNHH were unavailable for comment on this story.
ELM CITY COLLABORATION
“My overall feeling is that the university and the city coordinated quite well together. In general, we have been cautiously optimistic about Yale coming back in-person.”
—Mayor Justin Elicker
After Salovey announced Yale’s fall reopening plans to the University community on July 1, the University, along with other local colleges and universities, explained its plan in webinars and meetings with city officials. On July 15, Yale and other colleges presented their fall reopening plans to alders on the Human Services Committee.
“My overall feeling is that the university and the city coordinated quite well together,” Elicker told the News in an interview. “In general, we have been cautiously optimistic about Yale coming back in-person.”
However, Yale and City Hall have not been on completely amicable terms since the pandemic started. Back in March, Yale initially declined Elicker’s request to use dorm rooms to house New Haven public safety officers if they were to be exposed to the coronavirus. After the University declined, Elicker called University of New Haven President Steve Kaplan, who agreed immediately to house first responders there. At a press conference the next week, Elicker criticized Yale for declining the request — a day after the University set up an emergency fund to aid the city’s response.
A day later, the University reversed its decision and pledged to open up 300 rooms for use, more than double the original request.
The next week, during a Board of Alders budget hearing, multiple residents called on Yale to contribute more to the city’s coffers.
For the reopening plan, though, Elicker told the News that, when it comes to “the nuts and bolts of what we need to get done,” Yale and City Hall “work together.” He added that he still thinks that Yale needs to play a much more significant financial role in the future of New Haven, including by helping to reduce systemic income inequality by investing more in the city.
On Aug. 12, Yale representatives participated in a webinar hosted by the Economic Development Administration about local institutions’ return plans and how to ensure students and New Haveners stay safe. Representatives from Albertus Magnus College and Southern Connecticut State University also attended the briefing.
Leadership from each of Greater New Haven’s six higher education institutions — Yale, Albertus, Southern, Quinnipiac University, the University of New Haven and Gateway Community College — also participated in a conference hosted by the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce last week in which they discussed their schools’ plans and implementation thus far.
THE ECONOMIC ARGUMENT
Local businesses, especially those immediately surrounding Yale and in Downtown, have suffered immensely from a lack of students and Downtown commuting workers since the pandemic began to affect the Elm City in March.
Recent closures include Clark’s Family Restaurant and Freskos on Whitney Avenue and The Beer Collective and Duc’s Place elsewhere in Downtown.
“Yale University Properties has worked in close partnership with its retail and restaurant tenants throughout the pandemic to support them through these difficult times,” Associate Vice President for New Haven Affairs and University Properties Lauren Zucker told the News in an email. “We know that the New Haven business community greatly appreciates the support of the Yale community and that appreciation is mutual.”
City officials and business owners hope the arrival of students will help to boost local businesses and the wider Greater New Haven economy. In addition to 1,821 undergraduate students living on campus — or about 36 percent of the University’s normal capacity — there are about 1,530 enrolled students living in off-campus housing in New Haven, according to Yale officials.
“I think it’s great to have the students back, enlivening the town, once they complete their quarantine,” Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the News in an email. “Everyone’s priority is the safety and well-being of our students, staff, faculty, and the New Haven community.”
“Having students back is only going to be a positive for the economy locally. It’s going to take some time still. It’s not going to be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got students back, everything is normal,’ but it’s a good first step.”
—Garrett Sheehan, President of Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce
However, Connecticut rules in effect to curb the spread of the coronavirus — including the mandatory 14-day quarantine for students and travelers arriving from hot spot states and continued restrictions on indoor dining and live events — mean that any economic benefits offered by the return of students will remain muted for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a positive first step, but, with the way restrictions are, it’s obviously not going to be the same,” said Garrett Sheehan, the president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. “I feel confident that they’re putting in the best process possible and hopefully that works… Having students back is only going to be a positive for the economy locally. It’s going to take some time still. It’s not going to be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got students back, everything is normal,’ but it’s a good first step.”
Outside of effects on local businesses, 24 percent of the job base in the region is related to academic services, said city Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli. Having students back and paying tuition at all six colleges and universities ensures that many New Haveners will still be employed by the schools themselves.
In March, the University continued to operate critical campus functions with the support of 2,000 staff members. Now, thanks to the gradual reopening of research functions and other operations, there are about 9,000 faculty and staff with authorization to be on campus, Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart told the news in an email.
Other parts of the New Haven economy will take a little longer to bounce back, though, including tourism. The Omni Hotel remains closed, Yale is not running campus tours and Ivy League football will not happen this fall.
“Right now and through the pandemic, in addition to school coming back into session, it’s really important to start to rebuild hospitality, tourism and reopen the museums,” Piscitelli said. “Yale is an essential part of the Downtown restaurant and retail base. The students, the faculty, the vibrancy the university brings to our downtown are very important pieces to the puzzle… The meaningful nature of the work the students are doing is equally important.”
The return of students to New Haven has additional benefits for the Elm City. Piscitelli mentioned that many undergraduate and graduate students are contributing to ongoing research in the development of therapeutics and vaccines for the coronavirus. Throughout the pandemic, Yale students have contributed to the city of New Haven’s response through Yale Emergency Support-New Haven, and individuals worked for local nonprofits over the summer through programs like the President’s Public Service Fellowship.
Still, some have concerns about the return of students, the decision-making process behind the plan, and the message it sends to New Haven community members.
“I definitely think the conversations were framed around how we can get students back safely and minimize the risk to New Haven, not necessarily maximizing the safety of New Haveners and questioning if it would benefit the city for students to come back at all,” Yale College Council President Kahlil Greene ’21 told the News in an email. “Conversations were, in my opinion, very Yale-focused.”
Greene served on the University’s Academic Continuity Committee, where he helped to hammer out details in the return plan. Other YCC members also served on college-level task forces concerned with the delivery methods for teaching. Greene warned there could be “severe consequences” for the Elm City if students do not “follow the rules and comply with testing” requirements and quarantine procedures.
Every Yale official who spoke with the News emphasized the responsibility the student body has to prevent an outbreak on campus and in the city and the importance of following the University’s rules on gatherings, masking and social distancing.
The lack of a coherent and mandatory testing system for graduate students, faculty and staff remains a concern for other members of the community.
Ben Oldfield, chief medical officer of Fair Haven Community Health Care, said his experience with the Yale plan comes through speaking with Yale staff members that are patients at the clinic.
“Recently, we have seen a lot of patients who have concerns,” Oldfield said. “The nature of the concerns are reasonable, but sort of general. What I’ve heard is, ‘Well, gosh, there’s going to be a lot more people at my place of work.’ … I do feel like it’s a well-thought-out plan and so I have had conversations with patients in the clinic where I’ve tried to explain the fact that I think this is a well-thought-out plan.”
Oldfield said that the Yale reopening plan was subject to health disparities between students living in New Haven and staff working alongside them on campus. The Yale student body skews healthier and younger than the staff who work in Yale Dining or Yale Facilities, for example. As such, staff — many of whom come from communities of color like Fair Haven and the Hill that have been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus pandemic in the city and nationwide — are more likely to have higher incidence of comorbidities like diabetes or asthma. These health realities, when paired with less stringent testing for staff, contribute to a “milieu where outcomes can be worse” if a staff member were to contract the virus, Oldfield said.
Yale officials made it clear that the University was not infringing on city health resources with its testing program. Yale is also undertaking its own contact-tracing program to relieve stress on the city’s contact-tracing workforce, Genecin told the News.
Oldfield likened the plan to a luxury car — since Yale is focusing so many resources on regular testing and contact tracing, the program is more likely to prevent an outbreak than something less robust, just like a more expensive car is likely to perform better than a cheaper one.
“The Yale testing strategy is a bit of a Cadillac strategy that will be very effective. I wish we had systems like that for other folks,” Oldfield said. “I would love to see Yale take a more of a leadership role in really expanding testing into vulnerable communities.”
There remains an obvious disparity between the availability of testing for Yale community members and New Haveners unaffiliated with the University. At Fair Haven Community Health, patients can get a test within one to two days and receive a result between 48 and 72 hours after that for free, Oldfield said. He added that earlier in the summer, when states in the South and West were experiencing spikes in cases, it took labs longer to turn around results for his patients. Throughout the country, limited lab capacity remains an issue for processing tests.
“I definitely think the conversations were framed around how we can get students back safely and minimize the risk to New Haven, not necessarily maximizing the safety of New Haveners and questioning if it would benefit the city for students to come back at all.”
—Kahlil Greene '21, Yale College Council President
Each Greater New Haven college has a slightly different plan due to differences in the number of students that live on campus and the availability of teaching materials to students at home. For example, art and culinary classes are being held in person at Gateway because many students do not have access to the equipment they need to learn. All five colleges with residential options have some students returning to campus, and all five will move to entirely online classes after Thanksgiving break.
Yale is doing the most testing of any college in the area, however. Students at Albertus and Southern were tested upon arrival, and a random sample of 5 to 10 percent of their student bodies will be tested weekly throughout the semester.
Still, each college’s overall goals are the same, and the city is working with each school to make sure its plan works for its particular culture and demographics, according to Jennifer Vazquez, director of public health nursing for the New Haven Health Department. Yale has the greatest percentage of enrolled students from outside of Connecticut of the six Greater New Haven colleges. During normal times, Yale also hosts the highest percentage of undergraduates in on-campus housing.
“We do believe there are good plans in place. We continue to do education and track data very closely,” Vazquez said. “We want to provide support where we can, so we are very optimistic we will be able to continue to work well together.”
As of Monday night, Albertus, Gateway and Quinnipiac had not reported new coronavirus cases since classes began. As of Aug. 30, the University of New Haven had two cases among commuter students and, as of Sept. 5, Southern had reported two cases among on-campus students and staff and four self-reported cases among commuter students. As of last Wednesday, Yale has reported 11 cases since the start of August among students and staff.
Elsewhere in the state, UConn’s Storrs campus has seen 100 positive cases among residential students since testing started on campus on Aug. 14, according to data updated on Monday.
Despite rises in cases on college campuses across Connecticut, state Rep. Pat Dillon SPH ’98 — whose district includes the New Haven neighborhoods of Dwight, West River, Edgewood and Westville — said that colleges should not blame students when things go wrong and make sure that students have the tools they need to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I don’t think it’s a threat to the city at all that people are coming back, and I don’t think it’s a threat to the students,” Dillon said in an interview with the News. “It just takes a lot of thinking.”
Dillon is also the deputy majority leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives, and her husband, John Hughes, is the assistant director of the Yale School of Medicine’s biomedical ethics program.
Dillon also said she was proud of how much progress the city and the state had made on containing the coronavirus since the worst days of April, but added that the progress “does not mean much” to her because cases could rise again if “we do not build safeguards.”
Still, Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison wants students to feel welcome in New Haven provided they follow the rules.
“As long as [the students] are safe, they quarantine as expected and they do all of the testing that Yale has put in place. This is their home, too,” Morrison said. “I don’t ever want students to feel like they’re just visitors. They’re here longer than they are wherever they live, so I welcome them home.”
(Courtesy of Yale News)