With a tap on the shoulder from a bouncer, the college student was busted.
Not for producing a fake ID or getting into a drunken fight, though. In this the year of the coronavirus, his infraction was spotting a friend at another table and wandering over without a thought or, more importantly, a mask.
Bouncers as babysitters, bars with assigned seats and crowds well below what the fire marshal used to allow — this isn’t your father’s college weekend experience.
“We’re almost like nannies chasing people down,” said Matt Hammer, a third-year Towson University student and bouncer at C&R Pub and other bars near campus.
On Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson, the Route 1 strip in College Park and other stretches where college students flock on weekends, the coronavirus pandemic hovers like a chaperone, watchful if not omnipotent.
As Baltimore Sun Media reporters found dropping by a few college hangouts last weekend, bars, restaurants and their patrons are abiding by mask and social distancing policies, but it’s impossible to police everyone at every moment — particularly when students have been cooped up much of the week taking classes remotely rather than in person.
“I’m very reckless,” said Chelsea Oliver, a Towson grad student. “My routine didn’t change, just less happy hours.”
The occupational therapy student and three friends celebrated a birthday at one of the outdoor picnic tables at Nacho Mama’s on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Earlier in the year, Oliver said, a relative with underlying conditions died from the coronavirus. And two weeks ago, after coming in contact with someone who was positive for the virus, Oliver was tested and came up negative.
But these days, she said she’s more concerned about the emotional toll the virus is taking, particularly on students.
“The lack of socialization," Oliver said, "is going to have a heavy impact on people.”
Music still blares from the bars along Route 1 and students still line up to get into them. But while Terps of previous years would descend on the strip to raucously celebrate sports victories or just the end of another week’s classes, students this year say current restrictions make for a less than full college experience.
“I know how things are like when it is not like this," said Ashley Benson, a sophomore, as she and friends, masked up like everyone else in line, waited Friday night to get into Terrapin’s Turf.
“Even just going out with my friends to dinner is different," she said. "I think just the whole thing is frustrating.”
Her friend Karis Miller agreed, even though she understands why restrictions — from mask wearing to banning visitors to dorms — were put into place.
“We are trying our best to keep our masks on," Miller said, “and not touch anyone else.”
Across the street, another student, Reed Jones, said he had hoped the on- and off-campus social spots would be “completely open” by the time he arrived for his freshman year at College Park. Instead, he and his friends find just leaving their dorm rooms to watch the NBA playoffs somewhere involves keeping in mind policies that limit tables to no more than six customers.
By next year, Jones hopes such restrictions will have been lifted.
“I hope by second semester, this is all cleared up and we can go out freely," he said. "But we are making the best out of it. Trying to, at least.”
If any college students are used to strict rules, it’s those at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where depending on rank and responsibilities, midshipmen face varying rules about when they can leave campus and when they must return.
With the pandemic this year, they were kept on the Yard until last weekend, when they were allowed to venture out.
Instantly recognizable in their required summer whites, they strolled City Dock or ate at sidewalk tables on Main Street. Liberty only went so far, though — they only were allowed to venture within a 20-mile radius of campus, and couldn’t buy or drink alcohol or eat indoors.
That made Starbucks a popular destination, judging from the number of mids clutching the familiar white-and-green cups as they walked around downtown.
“Honestly, we’re just thankful to be out,” said Ashlynn George, a plebe. “Restrictions or not, we’re just happy to be out.”
Academy officials said they monitored public health metrics and decided it was safe enough to offer limited liberty. Students have cited the lack of liberty as contributing to low morale and mental health concerns this year.
Some were allowed off campus Thursday and Friday as test cases, followed by one regiment getting to leave Saturday and another Sunday. The academy will monitor how liberty goes, possibly easing restrictions on drinking and attire for future weekends.
After a Starbucks run, George said she would check out the rest of the town’s offerings.
“Ice cream, food and dogs,” she said. “That’s the plan.”
Another plebe, James Margeson, said he and a group of midshipmen planned to hang out with friends.
“Socially distanced, of course,” he said.
Others took the opportunity to head to Target for supplies, or visit with family.
Josh Kaplowitz, a 2nd class midshipman, found a quiet place near the State House to sit and talk to his mother. Also among his plans was lunch from Lemongrass, one of his favorite spots.
“It’s kind of weird because I haven’t had liberty since July,” he said.
“The best part about liberty is that it gives me hope,” Kaplowitz said. “It seriously gives me hope that things are getting back to normal.”
In Towson, the sun had just set and a fall breeze was starting to pick up as Ashlynn Carmen and two friends waited to be seated at The Backyard Uptown. A Towson University freshman studying speech pathology, Carmen said she’s been sticking to small groups of people, avoiding frat houses and sitting outside whenever she can.
Now the group just wanted an escape from their apartments and online classes.
“There’s not much to do,” she said. “It’s hard to make friends.”
And indeed, this has been a lonely time for many college students in Maryland and elsewhere, with dormitories more lightly populated, dining halls offering takeout rather than eat-in meals and many sports, clubs and other activities canceled. Schools have set aside dorms to isolate those who test positive, and temporarily suspended some students who have violated COVID-prevention rules.
Between restrictions on the number of patrons, and the fact that some students stayed in their hometowns since they were taking classes online anyway, college bars aren’t as crowded as in the past. Still, what tables and space at the bar are available tend to fill up.
A C&R Pub, staff members keep count to make sure no more than 95 people are allowed in, and no more than six per table.
“Technically the goal is to get as close to maximum capacity as possible,” said Hammer, one of the bouncers. “That’s the goal to get as many people as we can safely.”
On this night, a couple arrived to find two seats available at the bar, but at opposite ends, so they leave. Clumps of other students wait outside for tables to come available, unmasked and arms draped around one another as they chat and share TikToks on their phones. They pull their masks up when summoned inside.
Hammer and Travis Strawser, a first-year business student at Towson and another bouncer, also keep on the lookout for inspectors who show up unannounced.
“If we have one person not following the rules," Hammer said, “they’ll yell at us.”
As if on cue, three men in matching tucked-in polo shirts and badges around their necks approach the pub, sending Strawser running inside to alert other employees.
The men pull on masks and enter.
“We’re from the Baltimore County COVID task force,” one said. "We’re just making sure they’re following the rules, wearing masks and such.”