Harrisonburg City Council passed an emergency ordinance that deals specifically with social gatherings.

As JMU moves forward with reopening its campus and welcoming students for the fall semester, the administration continues to release new rules and regulations designed to keep the community safe. 

But while the university can mandate mask-wearing on campus, place restrictions on visitors in residence halls and set up partitions in dining halls, among other measures, it’s nearly powerless to directly police off-campus activities.

In JMU’s “Fall 2020 Return to Campus Plan,” in regard to off-campus gatherings, the document states, “We believe that these types of activities pose the greatest risk to our students’ health and well-being, and we need our students to make good decisions about hosting and attending events off-campus.”

However, Caitlyn Read, JMU spokesperson and director of communications, confirmed that off-campus locations are outside of the university’s jurisdiction to monitor and police, making it difficult for JMU to enforce social distancing regulations and other measures such as head-count limits at gatherings that occur off-campus, especially in private residences. The jurisdiction of JMU’s own police department (JMUPD) covers only “University owned, leased, rented, or controlled property and the streets and sidewalks adjacent there to,” according to the Department’s website, meaning that any policing of off-campus social gatherings would have to be performed by the Harrisonburg Police Department (HPD).

“The university has control over the spaces on campus,” Read said. “We can keep headcounts of how many folks are in a building, we can reduce seating capacity, we can install plexiglass and we can put floor markers … [but] off campus, the university does not have that level of control. We have very little control.”

But while the school’s judicial reach is limited, on Tuesday, the Harrisonburg City Council passed an emergency ordinance that went into effect at midnight Wednesday and deals specifically with social gatherings, Harrisonburg City Director of Communications Mike Parks said. 

The ordinance states that “all public and private in-person gatherings of more than 50 persons are prohibited,” with exceptions given to “expressive activity” on public property as permissible by law, religious gatherings, and wedding ceremonies and receptions. The ordinance also states that if the owner or tenant of the property where the gathering is happening fails to disperse it after an initial warning from HPD, they’ll face a fine and misdemeanor charge. 

But even with that regulation now in place, Parks said, the city is confident that students will willingly contribute to the community effort to keep the spread of coronavirus down.

“The city does get some questions of what’s going to happen when students come back — ‘Are we going to see a [COVID-19] spike, are students going to follow the rules?’” Parks said. “We know that students are going to follow the rules because they care about, you know, this community just like anyone else who’s lived here their whole life.”

Because the ordinance is a city measure, Parks said, any police responses would be handled by HPD, but Parks later confirmed that the City will provide information to JMU and other local universities if they “have reason to believe one of their students was involved in a gathering that violates the emergency violation,” allowing JMU a degree of indirect oversight on off-campus locations.

Additionally, because of the “Stop the Spread” agreement all students are required to sign, the school retains a level of its own direct judicial oversight on off-campus gatherings. Because the university has implemented a ban on social gatherings of over 10 people, Read said, if the university hears about a gathering of more than 10, the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practice (OSARP) can pursue judicial proceedings against students engaged in the gathering.

As Read said, “If the university is made aware that students are flagrantly violating this agreement, [it] could choose to pursue sanctions.”

However, because off-campus locations — including private residences — are outside of JMU’s jurisdiction to directly monitor and police, the school has made public its reliance on its students to keep an eye on and — if necessary — report their peers, which aligns with the university’s emphasis that students can report others’ failure to obey restrictions via the “Tips” feature in the LiveSafe app students are required to use daily this semester to complete health screenings.

On JMU’s “Stop the Spread” webpage, the “Student Affairs Fall 2020 COVID FAQ” section states:

“While personal accountability is heavily emphasized, we also expect that our students will hold each other accountable as well. When it comes to situations like this, it will be largely up to the students to keep the community safe. For those who choose to not take the proper precautions, we will be counting on students like yourself to report these individuals so that we can respond accordingly.”

The university’s desire for its students to “self-police” is a byproduct of the limited jurisdiction JMU can claim over off-campus spaces, Read said.

“Obviously, there are challenges in enforcing [COVID-19 regulations], specifically off campus,” Read said. “So, we really need students to not only self-police, but to apply productive peer pressure … recognizing that their decisions impact not just them, but the community at large.”

With the City’s emergency ordinance now in effect, it remains to be seen how much direct oversight the university will be able to claim over off-campus spaces. However, even with the partnership between HPD and JMU, the university has made it clear that the rules put in place for this semester rely on the students and their willingness — or lack thereof — to follow them.

“We really are expecting — we have to expect, and we fully expect — that [students] will adhere to things like wearing masks and physically distancing from others,” Read said. “You know, there is a level of personal responsibility here, and it is more important than ever that people hold themselves accountable, hold others accountable and just do the thing that’s most likely to protect everybody on campus and off.”

Contact Jake Conley at breezeinvestigations@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.