By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – In 23 years with the Oneonta Police Department, Lt. Christopher J. Witzenburg
had never seen a Saturday night like Aug. 29.
“It’s never been this quiet,” he said. “It’s a real departure from last weekend, where we just had a ton of house parties. It’s like a switch flipped.”
With more than 200 students sickened with COVID-19 following “several large parties” last weekend, SUNY Oneonta issued threats of suspension and Mayor Gary Herzig had strong warnings to try and quell the outbreak.
The Red Jug, a popular pub with college students, was closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. There were no lines of waiting customers outside other bars on Main and Water streets.
According to Police Chief Doug Brenner, two tickets were issued for noise complaints on Friday evening Aug. 28. “They seemed surprised when we showed up,” he said.
“We show up, ask people politely to leave and then refer them to the college,” said Witzenburg. “We’re trying to do things differently, but still hold people accountable.”
Students ticketed are then referred to the college’s disciplinary system. So far five students have been placed on an interim suspension and three organizations have been suspended for the remainder of the academic year.
“The college has been taking swift action on suspending students who host these parties,” said Brenner. “I think by Saturday, the word had gotten around and tempered a lot of the student activity.”
On Saturday, the few students who were downtown, Witzenburg noted, were mostly masked.
“It’s a ghost town,” said Mayor Gary Herzig.
Herzig himself has been observing the streets since Weekend One, and found himself in a minor altercation when he came upon a group of young men, “acting rowdy.”
“They were not wearing masks,” said Herzig. “But they all split when they saw the cops pull up.”
City Hall’s “tip line” – established to report large gatherings and unmasked revelers – kept Witzenburg busy, following complaints of house parties throughout Center City.
There were less there than expected.
At one, five of the six people who were, as the call reported, throwing a “large party,” lived in the house. The sixth was a boyfriend of one of the residents.
At another, where loud music could be heard through the window, Witzenburg observed three people playing beer pong in the living room.
“Every single one of the calls was unfounded,” he said. “We showed up to one large party and it was four people.”
Students face suspension if they are found to be in violation of the school’s COVID code of conduct. Following Weekend One’s reports of partying, one sorority has been suspended and Greek Rush Week cancelled.
“Usually by now, we’ve got a predictable rhythm,” said Witzenburg. “You know which bars are going to be a problem, you know where the party houses are, you develop strategies to maintain some semblance of order. But this year, everything has stopped. There’s no way to reasonably predict where a party will pop up.”
He drove past a house with a “Happy Hour” sign lit up in the window. There were colored party lights on, but he couldn’t see anyone inside.
“I keep saying it,” he said. “But it really is surreal.”