As COVID-19 spiked in St. Louis, WU donors met in person for an event the University advertised as virtual
Washington University administrators approved and hosted an in-person event with catered alcohol and at least a dozen people inside Brauer Hall Wednesday afternoon, just days after the University increased its alert level to orange and as strict guidelines for other events remain in place.
The event, a ceremony for the installation of a professor, came as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the St. Louis area reached a second peak. A University representative at the ceremony described the event as “mission-critical,” but the University did not provide an explanation of why it was deemed necessary to hold the event in person.
In an email to Student Life on Friday afternoon, Interim Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Julie Flory described the ceremony as “a small, approved event,” writing that “while there are currently restrictions in place regarding on-campus gatherings, there are a limited number of small events that may be approved.”
According to the University’s Danforth Campus events and meetings protocol website, “Indoor events/meetings will be limited to a capacity of 10 or less, and require approval.” There is no mention of indoor events with more than 10 people or of an approval process for events of that size. “Indoor events/meetings are generally discouraged,” the rules continue.
Although University policy is that “Food and beverage are not permitted under any circumstance, catered or individual,” there were large bottles of alcohol present at Wednesday’s event. Flory did not respond specifically to inquiries about the presence of the alcohol.
The event was a ceremony for the installation of Philip V. Bayly as the Lee Hunter Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Material Sciences. On the University’s Happenings website, it was listed as a virtual event, with instructions for guests to register by Oct. 20 and a note that they would receive a link to a YouTube event after registering. The event registration page was on the University Advancement website, which is typically used for alumni and donor relations.
Stephen and Camila Brauer, the namesakes of Brauer Hall, were also the donors responsible for Bayly’s endowed professorship. Senior Director of Special Events Gina Tramelli said that Brauer family members were in attendance Wednesday, including multiple children.
Flory wrote that the event only included “a limited number of guests,” but did not provide a specific number, since it was a private event. Tramelli confirmed there were more than a dozen people in attendance.
Tramelli said Wednesday that the event was initially planned to be outdoors, but that it was moved inside because of bad weather. Wednesday’s weather was in the 40s, with rain in the morning that tapered off by afternoon.
In a second email Friday, Flory did not respond to a question regarding the mission-critical nature of the event and the rationale for it to be held in person.
“We’re hoping to be able to revise our guidelines—including the number of guests and catering—to allow more small events as we head into the spring semester,” she wrote. Flory also noted that some guests were from the same family or household, allowing them to stand close together indoors.
A Washington University Police Department officer outside the event space said that the University had reserved the space outside Brauer and that the Student Life reporter present had to leave because he was standing on private property.
Some students expressed concern upon hearing of the event. “[I am] a little ticked off, just because they’ve been so strict with our rules and guidelines on the South 40,” freshman Ankit Chhajed said Friday. “I feel that if [the University] is allowed to do that for certain exceptions, then we should be allowed an exception.”
Flory drew an analogy between Wednesday’s event and some smaller, in-person events that the University is planning for students over Thanksgiving break.
It is unclear whether the University has held other similar events on campus since the start of the pandemic. According to yesterday’s update of the University’s Danforth Campus COVID-19 dashboard, there were 20 active coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 120 cases since Aug. 1.
Additional reporting by Em McPhie