In any other time, a lighthearted photo of teens pretending to lick one another’s faces would not warrant national headlines.
But the Nov. 7 Facebook post—in which three glittering teenage girls wear crowns, smiles, and red roses between pubescent boys blowing them kisses—is emblematic of a catastrophic divide between Americans in the middle of a pandemic.
On the same day 1,007 Americans died from the highly contagious virus ravaging the nation, parents sent their children in sashes and sequins to a massive, indoor event.
And while parents who planned massive homecoming dances in Rolla, Missouri and McDonough, Georgia were getting panned on social media and by national news sites after their events were reported on by The Daily Beast, those parties were hardly outliers.
In reality, parents all over the country were doing the very same thing.
The photo of the teens pretending to lick one another in a sunlit white gazebo was taken in Barnesville, Ohio. Wendy Corbin Stephen, 55, told The Daily Beast via Facebook messages that her grandson went to the indoor dance for Barnesville High School students with about 100 other teens—and that she was “glad he was able to attend.” The dance was themed “Footloose,” and social media posts from a Twitter account seemingly created for the event show that tickets were $10 and that event planners required parents to sign a waiver.
The evening of the dance, teens posed in crowns and homecoming court sashes. Dozens of classmates held bouquets and wore corsages, with their faces framed by ringlets, according to Instagram photos captioned “senior hoco.” Then they partied indoors, sweating and singing along to music and crowding together with confetti on the floor. None of the moms who shared Facebook photos of their kids and themselves posing at the Barnesville dance responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast—via text, Twitter DM, Facebook messenger, or otherwise—seeking their perspective or motivations.
“Everybody cut Footloose,” one apparent mother tweeted, along with a photo of teens dancing under twinkle lights on Nov. 7. In the background, a large sign reads “Footloose.” Neither administrators at the school district nor the school principal responded to multiple requests for comments this week, but the school went to remote learning after the event. The Belmont County Health Department also did not respond to multiple inquiries.
As of Friday, there were 1,987 cumulative confirmed cases in Belmont County, which has a population of about 68,472, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The Ohio Department of Health reported 10,114 new cases on Friday alone, the fourth-highest number of daily infections since the pandemic began.
On Nov. 7, private indoor gatherings were limited to 10 or fewer people, according to an agent at the state’s COVID-19 hotline. The Footloose event’s apparent Twitter account indicated it took place at a student’s home, but The Daily Beast was not able to independently confirm that on Friday.
These parties are now a feature, not a bug, of life in mid-pandemic America.
Take, for example, an event in Spokane, Washington, in which about 50 teenagers attended a private homecoming dance inside a church on Nov. 21. Or one a week earlier, in Plum, Pennsylvania, after which at least 150 students were asked to stay home from school because students had tested positive for COVID-19. The cases were linked to a dance hosted by parents on Nov. 14, where masks were not required and social distancing was not maintained, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“This level of disregard of [the] public health of our community frankly makes me quite angry and is disheartening and truly disappointing,” the region’s health department director, Dr. Debra Bogen, told the local CBS affiliate. “The spread of the virus is the result of willful disregard for the state public health measures.”
In Bridgeport, West Virginia—where indoor gatherings are limited to 25 people under an executive order by the governor—public health authorities and a local superintendent told WVNews.com on Tuesday that at least one positive case of the virus was linked this week to a homecoming dance for “between 100 and 200” students, thrown by a parent who reportedly booked the venue for a “vow renewal.”
The state’s capacity limits don’t apply to weddings, and public health authorities said they expect more cases to follow, in a county that is already seeing what they called “unbelievable community spread,” according to the news site.
In Slidell, Louisiana, a mother named Reagan Abney told The Daily Beast that she planned a private, outdoor homecoming dinner—complete with COVID-19 safety precautions—for about 20 teens at her home, so they could dress up and take pictures without the transmission danger of an actual dance—like the one their classmates were attending.
“The school would not allow any dance of sorts,” said Abney. “There were other parents in Slidell that held an event, but I would not let my children participate due to the crowd size. From pictures it looked like over 100 were there.”
“We were trying to give them some memories but this was not an event,” she added. “It was a private small gathering at my house.” The Daily Beast was not able to independently confirm that another dance occurred in Slidell, and Abney did not respond to follow-up questions from The Daily Beast.
The dance in Rolla, Missouri, held at a steakhouse on Nov. 7, was also parent-organized. It involved 200 students and led to a flurry of COVID-19 cases, which the local health department struggled to contact-trace because the parents who threw the dance did not keep a list of students who attended.
Organizers intentionally hid the number and identity of those in attendance to avoid contact tracing, according to Ashley Wann, health director of the Phelps-Maries County Health Department.
One week later, in McDonough, Georgia, parents threw a dance for 250 Ola High School students. Hayla Folden, spokesperson for Georgia’s District 4 Public Health, which covers Henry County, told The Daily Beast that her team had yet to link any cases to the event, but her department has had a very difficult time getting COVID-positive residents to answer the phone, respond to questions, or otherwise participate in contact tracing over the last few months. That meant she could not conclude that the dance did not result in any cases, she told The Daily Beast.
“I sometimes wonder if the kids care as much as the parents do about having these dances, or if it's more of a photo opportunity and a chance for the parents to live vicariously through their kids,” said an employee at one of the schools listed above, who asked to remain anonymous over fear that she would be fired for talking to the press about COVID-19.
“Schools work so hard to ensure they’re taking every measure they can to prevent virus transmission at school, and then the parents take it upon themselves to hold these superspreader events and undo all of that good work,” she continued. “It wasn’t an innocent oversight; it was a blatant choice to ignore public health advice.”
“I'm disgusted and convinced it contributed to what's going on in our community,” added the employee, noting that cases have been “skyrocketing.”
The one glimmer of hope? The end of homecoming season had the potential to bring an end to these glittering celebrations, and their viral transmission. Unfortunately, things don’t look promising.
According to two Ola High School students interviewed by The Daily Beast last week, students at neighboring schools in Henry County reached out to see how they can throw parties in the coming weeks, which the students called “winter balls.”
Then, this week, a senior student at Ola High School—who asked to remain anonymous over fear of bullying and retaliation from her peers—provided a screenshot to The Daily Beast of a Snapchat invitation for a winter formal for students at Locust Grove High School—also in Folden’s jurisdiction. Tickets for the Jan. 23 event range from $25 to $35 and could be sent to a Venmo account called @WINTERFORMAL2021. When The Daily Beast checked that account on Friday, several transactions were already recorded under labels like “Locust grove dance,” and “tickets.”
JD Hardin, executive director of communications at Henry County School District, confirmed last week that the district was aware of the Ola High School dance but did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week about the winter formal apparently being planned for Locust Grove High School students, even though the school is in the same district.
“The majority of my school does not believe COVID is a real thing. It’s better just to not even, like, speak,” said the Ola senior student. “I was confused—why are we having to vote for homecoming king and queen, considering exactly what’s going on.”
The senior, a student of color in a largely white school, said she often feels isolated for caring about how her actions affect her family and community, disadvantaged that she is still learning from home while other kids throw parties and attend face-to-face school, and bullied when she speaks up about COVID-19 safety.
The students who went to the dance, she said, “were like ‘Why do you care about what we’re doing?’” but then went back to school after attending a massive indoor event that violated public health guidelines, potentially spreading the virus to others.
“I wear my mask every time I walk out, go to Walmart,” she said. “Everybody is just maskless and they look at you like you’re crazy. Especially after homecoming, I felt like it was worse. They sent out another email saying another student on campus got COVID.”
Folden said her team will “be up in arms and scrambling today to try to prevent” the formal from going forward with the few tools they have, but that they are limited in the kind of enforcement her department can do.
“We’re right back where we were,” she sighed after The Daily Beast sent her the invitation to the winter formal. “It feels like we’re spitting into the wind when we see things like this.”
In response to questions from The Daily Beast about whether anyone in the county would try to stop the event, Anthony Ford, chair of the Henry County Board of Health said, “We will always encourage the citizens to be safe and mindful of others when in the public domain.” He said he wasn’t aware of the winter formal until The Daily Beast presented the invitation and Venmo transfers.
Folden, on the other hand, said it was “mind-boggling to think that people want to gather, especially in large groups like that, even as we’re seeing small groups are causing coronavirus to spread rapidly right now.” She added: “It’s very frustrating.”
“Public health and healthcare workers in general are working so hard right now to slow the spread of coronavirus and to prepare for vaccinations in the coming weeks, and we are so tired just from how long we’ve been doing it and how hard we’re working,” said Folden, noting that her own daughter is in high school and frustrated by everything she’s missing.
“But we have taken the time to explain that when kids go to parties and then they go and do other things, one person can potentially infect hundreds.”