The relationship between Towson University and its surrounding residential neighborhoods has been uneasy over the years, if not downright hostile at times, and the coronavirus is adding further strain.
Longtime residents like Paul Hartman fear students living and moving off-campus will spread COVID-19 to older, more vulnerable residents.
“Students like to socialize, and that’s totally natural,” said Hartman, vice president of the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, a neighborhood near Towson University. “But we’re worried that they’re gonna spend a ton of time in large groups, either at private homes or outdoors where they’re close together, or in the bars in Towson.
“That’s always been a problem, [students] coming through the neighborhood after the bars close,” he said. “but now we’ve got the added problem of spreading a virus.”
While Baltimore County’s positivity rate for coronavirus has remained below the World Health Organization-recommended 5% since July 7, and is currently 4.4%, Towson University’s positivity rate over a recent 12-day period was 11%. According to its coronavirus testing data dashboard, 203 students and 18 faculty and staff members tested positive for the virus between Aug. 22 and Sept. 2.
Concerns over disease spread from college students is “absolutely legitimate,” said Brendan Felch, a Towson senior studying graphic design. “You’re sticking a bunch of college students together who haven’t seen each other in six months, and you’re expecting them to be responsible?”
And County Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area, said his office already is receiving more complaints about students, including noise and parking issues, than this time last year.
But Towson University officials said during a recent University Relations Committee meeting that they have not received any student misconduct reports off-campus, save for an Aug. 29 fraternity party in the nearby Lake Walker neighborhood attended by more than 50 people.
When Hartman moved into his Cape Cod brick home on Cedar Lane in 1988, there were about 15,000 students enrolled in Towson University, according to the University of Maryland System.
Now it’s closer to 23,000 students, and Hartman suspects their influx into his neighborhood has driven out some homeowners. Over the decades, without on-campus housing to accommodate them all, students have trickled into rental properties during the school year. Permanent residents say those students often take up street parking, and some of them disturb neighbors with loud noise, a problem that led to the adoption of a 2016 county ordinance which fines Towson students who violate it.
For the fall semester, Towson officials initially had chosen to hold 85% of classes online. A spike in confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, just before classes began Aug. 24 led the university to hold classes virtually and close the campus to most classes and most on-campus housing.
Marks, a Republican, said the move will have “serious repercussions” in the surrounding community.
Towson already had reduced its residential occupancy by 50%, and school officials say those who moved off campus this semester are freshmen who likely returned to their family homes.
Freshmen and sophomores have priority when it comes to on-campus housing arrangements. Juniors and seniors must enter a raffle for a chance to do so.
Felch, who lived on campus until the university announced the closure, moved back in with his parents in Odenton.
“It’s an extremely mixed bag here at the university,” he said about students’ compliance with public health recommendations.
Some people were responsible, he said, but others looked like they were going to bars on Thursday nights and were unmasked on campus or not social distancing.
Still, residents say the practice of landlords allowing more than the legal number of students to live in one residence will make nearby housing attractive to students.
Four or five students typically appear to live in a home in the Aigburth Manor community, Hartman said, and he suspects landlords turn a blind eye to the violation of county law, which prohibits more than two unrelated adults in one home.
“I think a lot of students will stay in the neighborhood since they’re paying for this house anyway, so on-campus students may move in with their friends; it’s easier to split the rent five ways instead of four,” Hartman said. “It’s very difficult to get code enforcement to prosecute and win these cases.”
Alison Peer, director of Student Conduct and Civility Education at the university, said a priority is addressing large gatherings such as the late-August fraternity party, but she added, “also some of the pieces that I’m sure neighbors are concerned about: not practicing social distancing, not mask wearing.”
The university, like county law enforcement, cannot force students to wear masks and keep the health experts-recommended 6-foot distance from each other.
But the college has said students are still subject to student conduct rules, even in a mostly virtual setting, and asks those who do have issues with unruly students to report their complaints to county police, under the social host ordinance.
According to the social host ordinance, proposed in 2016 by Marks as a way to address student behavior off-campus, gatherings of four or more people can be cited for behavior that disturbs the peace, with first-time offenders facing a $500 fine and 20 hours of community service, while the landlord of the residence in which the gathering took place can receive a written warning.
Repeat offenders face up to $1,000 in fines and 48 hours of community service, while their landlords eventually can face similar fines and the loss of their rental licenses.
Peer said the university had not received any social host complaints so far this semester. Complaints about student behavior went down drastically after the ordinance was adopted.
Complicating the town-and-gown relationship, students are typically a boon to Towson businesses, especially those downtown. Residents said there is a fine line between supporting small-business owners and keeping the community safe.
“What I’m hearing consistently is large groups of people walking to and from the bars, and the bars are very crowded,” particularly those with rooftop access like the former Greene Turtle, now called the Backyard Uptown, said Ed Kilcullen, a resident of Towson Manor Village, a community of 500 homes bordered by East Burke Avenue to the south, York Road to the west, Towsontown Boulevard to the north and Hillen Road to the east.
Towson Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Hafford said bar proprietors have acted responsibly in enforcing state and county restrictions that call for mask wearing at all times indoors except when eating and prohibit indoor gatherings of more than 50% capacity.
Hafford also said “No Loitering” signage has been placed around businesses uptown, giving police more leeway in controlling crowds.
Just one downtown Towson bar has been cited so far by code enforcement for violating the restrictions, according to a county spokesman.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. last week announced the county will follow Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to move into the third phase of the state’s recovery plan, meaning all retail establishments and religious facilities now may operate up to 75% capacity, an increase from 50%. Under the state order, indoor dining at food service establishments remains limited to 50% capacity.
The university has been working with the county to set up tents downtown to pass out masks, and is hashing out a rapid response process “if we do start to see overwhelming problems [downtown] in the evening,” said Katie Maloney, executive director of government and community relations at Towson University.
Hartman floated the notion of limiting the business hours of local bars, like governments of some other colleges towns have done, to keep students from congregating late into the night.
Marks, who plans to introduce legislation to address parking issues in neighborhoods, said he’d be open to that possibility, “but many of these restaurants are already struggling; it’s always a balancing act.”