FARGO — Grant Helmin’s house is the perfect place to throw a college party — a neatly trimmed backyard with a firepit and a massive garage that features a bar, speakers and tables for drinking games.
In September, Helmin, a junior studying civil engineering at North Dakota State University, and his three roommates held a party, inviting close friends. But friends invited other friends, and he and a roommate contracted COVID-19. Another roommate, Casey Stark, and a fourth roommate later tested negative, but they had similar symptoms: sore throat, body aches, fatigue and loss of taste.
All of them got sick, and they believe someone at the September party was carrying the virus that's killed more than 210,000 in the United States and over 300 in North Dakota.
“You just play the risk, if you go, you know you’re going to get it,” Helmin said, cracking open a Busch Light while relaxing by the firepit before his 21st birthday party began. The day started quietly with close friends, and the Bison football team stomping Central Arkansas.
“It’s kinda like, do you want to go through your college years and only remember sitting in your room at your desk studying?” Stark said.
“100% that,” Helmin said.
“Or do you also want to remember studying and then also having a great time with your friends, partying it out. It’s just a tough situation, you don’t want to remember doing homework for years. You want to remember having fun with your friends, and having great times and memories being made,” said Stark, a junior studying mechanical engineering at NDSU.
“It’s a feeling of being trapped that makes you want to go out,” Helmin said. “But COVID is limiting what we can do.”
Fargo Cass Public Health recommends that people wear masks and avoid large gatherings. On Monday, Oct. 5, a mask-wearing mandate proposal failed to pass the Fargo City Commission, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has stopped short of issuing such a mandate statewide.
Holly Scott, a spokeswoman for Fargo Cass Public Health, said there are no regulations against parties, noting that being outdoors lowers the risk of contracting COVID-19.
“The continued message from public health is to avoid large gatherings and gather only with members of your own family,” she said.
In Cass County, young people continue to make up a large share of COVID-19 cases. The 15-19 and 20-29 age brackets account for about 35% of the county's active positive cases, according to North Dakota Department of Health figures.
In the past two weeks, 46 NDSU students and five employees were reported to have COVID-19, as of Thursday. Of the students, 16 were in isolation in university housing, according to NDSU.
Laura Oster-Aaland, vice provost for student affairs and enrollment management at NDSU, said conduct violations from partying are down this year compared to last year. Parties are fewer and smaller, she said. So far, 28 students have been pulled into the dean’s office due to off-campus parties with alcohol-related violations. Last year during the same time period, 44 students were reported for conduct violations.
“And we’re following up with everything in the exact same way,” Oster-Aaland said. “No new rules, but certainly we are taking off-campus gatherings very seriously. I think the president has messaged that students are not to gather, and they are supposed to social distance, and he has really asked them to do that. And if they have been at gatherings, they’re asked to social distance and quarantine themselves.”
Violations such as underage drinking rarely lead to harsh school discipline like suspension, Oster-Aaland said.
"Certainly, with the added risks of the COVID situation, if students were being blatantly flagrant and putting others in danger that would be taken into consideration," she said.
'Drink the whole thing'
Before the sun set on Helmin’s birthday party, his friends played yard darts, or what they call darting, which is when someone takes a steel dart and throws it at a can of beer.
“If you hit the can, you have to drink down to it,” Helmin said. “If you hit the lip, you have to drink the whole thing. It’s just throwing the dart hoping you hit it.”
Suddenly, a female student shrieked, then laughed. She held up her leg for everyone to see. The steel dart used for darting protruded just below her knee.
“Pull it out, pull it out!” she yelled.
“Did it go in you?” another person asked.
“Wash it off, wash it off. COVID,” Helmin said.
“The dangers of partying,” Stark said.
College stress is real for Helmin and Stark. Helmin works a late-night shift at UPS to help pay for tuition. They both hunt ducks and geese when they have time, which is another welcome escape.
“We kind of make fun of business majors, as an engineering major we’re constantly testing, constantly studying, and it’s pretty rare to relax and have a party like we are,” Helmin said.
The coronavirus pandemic has complicated studying. Some students find it difficult to focus at home and online. Others are never sure what to expect and sometimes accidentally miss assignments posted to the NDSU Blackboard, a class guide for college students.
“I didn’t do too hot last semester because it was online. Others could be different, but I took it differently. I was at home, at the beginning of the year I had Bs and As, but it was rough by the end,” Helmin said.
'Vacation from COVID'
For sophomore Erin Thompson, who's studying nursing at NDSU, the pandemic and community restrictions have affected almost every aspect of college life.
“Last semester, we got kicked out of school early, and then these restrictions, it’s just not college life,” Thompson said. “With all these online classes, we’re not going to class, we’re not meeting people, we’re not going into the dining center and talking to people.”
Thompson said she contracted COVID-19 last summer, and her symptoms weren’t much worse than the common cold.
“And the media, they’re drilling into our heads that it is an issue, and for sure it is, but it’s not really one for us. I think all my friends have already had it. We’ve all been exposed to it. I had a sore throat and stuffy nose, and right toward the end of my quarantine I lost my sense of smell. That was about it,” Thompson said.
Parties are “a vacation from COVID,” she said. “We already have such a different setup than we did before. We don’t want COVID to take away partying, too.”
For some college students, parties are a way to be free, and in a small way, to rebel against the machine.
“Sometimes I think about, when we’re sitting around talking, that oh, you don’t realize the luxury it is not to have to wear a mask everywhere you go. And I’ve even seen people show up to parties with masks on, which is, I don’t know, it’s weird. When I’m at a party, it’s like a vacation from COVID. You get a break from all the rules and regulations for a second because you know the people at the parties are safe, because either they wouldn’t come if they weren’t, or we have good immune systems, we can handle it,” Thompson said.
As night fell, Helmin’s birthday party grew more lively. Music turned to heavier beats. Some students stood around the bonfire for warmth, talking about football and Bitcoin markets, crushing empty cans of Busch Light and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
Inside the garage, students gathered around the bar for “jungle juice,” which Helmin served. He stopped letting students serve themselves after the last party when he believes he contracted COVID-19.
Helmin and Stark aren’t sure if they can contract the illness again, but they know the risks, and creating college memories are more important.
“Overall, now that I’ve had it, I know the symptoms, and I’m putting myself back in that situation having another get-together,” Helmin said.
“I am way more sympathetic for the people I know that are older. If it affected those two (roommates) who are in very good health that much, what will it do to my parents who are in their 50s, and my grandparents who are much older?" Stark wondered. "It gave me a bigger knowledge that I need to be way more careful around there."