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WSU students find clever ways to pay party fines issued by Pullman police

Fans cheer for their team prior to the game between New Mexico State and the Washington State Cougars at Martin Stadium on August 31, 2019 in Pullman, Washington. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)

Students are returning to Washington State University and they want to party, but they’re spreading COVID-19. Now, the police chief of Pullman, Gary Jenkins, is tasked with trying to control the spread.

His department has been tracking down parties and issuing tickets. So far, police have issued 10 infractions to hosts of parties.

Pullman police start issuing tickets for parties as COVID outbreak escalates

“We’re actually using a local ordinance, which is called a nuisance party ordinance, and it’s a civil infraction,” Jenkins explained on Seattle’s Morning News. “And initially the ordinance was created to address such things as allowing minors with alcohol and that type of activity at a private party, and so a host could be held civilly responsible for allowing those types of violations to occur.”

“There’s other language in that local ordinance that also addresses activity that’s detrimental to the public health,” he continued. “And so we are using the theory that not wearing a mask, not social distancing and having gatherings of more than 10 — all of these are in violation of the governor’s proclamation and the state Department of Health orders — that these are all detrimental to public health.”

The 10 infractions were issued within the last week. Prior to that, the police department was taking a warning and education approach.

“As we were having students return back to Pullman for the academic year, we started to see the rise in parties, which correlated with the rise in positive cases,” Jenkins said. “So we changed our approach last week to begin issuing infractions for this nuisance party ordinance.”

The university and the police department are working together to make sure students know the rules and are being safe. The student union, fraternities, sororities, and police have all been pushing information out through social media and other media outlets.

“Of course, I think everyone’s getting bombarded with what the proclamation requirements are,” Jenkins said. “We’re pretty confident that everybody knows what the rules are at this point, so we don’t have any hesitation to take enforcement action now.”

When an officer shows up to a party, Jenkins says students or guests will often flee and run in different directions so as to avoid contact with law enforcement. For now, the ordinance only punishes the hosts.

“What we’re seeing happen now is hosts are collecting a cover charge to pay for the fines, which are not that exorbitant. It’s $250 for a first offense, and $350 for a second offence,” Jenkins said. “[Our] city attorneys are working on amending our ordinance that will allow us to also issue an infraction to the party goers that are engaged in the activity that causes the violation.”

In other cases, Jenkins says, when the officer is issuing the infraction, the guests will jump on their phone and send money to the host through Venmo.

Jenkins says since the enforcement has only been in place for one week, it’s hard to say if it’s actually changing behaviors.

“I would say, though, we’re definitely having less parties than normal, and part of that is just because of the situation we have,” he said. “We don’t have all of the students back in Pullman that are normally here because their classes are online. But we do have about 70% of them in town.”

Mom of WSU student who caught COVID-19 at party says everyone has ‘to play our role’

Jenkins thinks there is a lot of compliance, but through contact tracing, the county knows most of the positive cases have been traced back to gatherings or parties.

“Our plan all along had been just to educate and warn, and during the summer that was working fine. But then when we got hit with the explosion of cases that we’ve seen, we knew we had to take a different approach,” Jenkins said.

There’s also been community support in limiting the big parties.

“We are getting a lot of support from our community,” he said. “Our community is scared to go out in the community because they hear what’s happening, and they feel that they’re vulnerable. And actually, the student groups have asked for our help as well because their groups are not necessarily listening to them. And they have asked for our help in getting the word out and trying to reduce this issue as well.”

In Whitman County, Jenkins said residents are allowed to host gatherings of 10 or fewer that either practice social distancing or where all guests are wearing masks.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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