The college town of Pullman, Washington, is in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis. It has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the country; the National Guard was called in to help with testing; and Washington State University asked students to stay on campus last weekend to avoid spreading the virus.
And yet, last Friday, more than two dozen people gathered in the driveway of WSU Head Women’s Basketball Coach Kamie Ethridge’s house for what she later described to police as a “mini block party.”
An incident report from the evening in question, read to The Daily Beast by Pullman Police Department Operations Commander Jake Opgenorth, said officers witnessed 25 people gathered in Ethridge’s front yard, without masks or social distancing. The police activity log from that night states the department received reports of a gathering of “approx 20-30 people at this location and not practicing social distancing.”
The responding officer issued Ethridge a citation and a fine of $150, which she has paid, according to court records. (Court records say the citation was issued for failure to disperse, but Opgenorth said it should have been issued under the city’s “nuisance party” ordinance.)
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Ethridge denied hosting the event.
“I would like to apologize for the violation of our local social distancing guidelines,” she said. “There was a gathering held on my driveway, of which I did not host. But as the guidelines state, the owner of the property is responsible for maintaining proper social distancing and mask wearing for all that are in attendance. As this did occur on my property, I take full responsibility.”
“I appreciate the hard work being done by our Whitman County Health officials to keep our community as safe as possible during this pandemic,” she added. “As a role model in our community, I will work to set a better example.”
The university’s website says its Center for Community Standards will address “egregious, reckless, and/or repeated violations of health and safety expectations,” which could include not wearing a mask, not practicing physical distancing, and hosting events with more people than regulations allow. (Gov. Jay Inslee’s current executive order caps gatherings at 10 people.) Possible sanctions include a written warning, disciplinary probation, and online training courses.
WSU did not respond to a request for comment on whether Ethridge would face any punishment.
Etheridge is far from the only Pullman resident breaking the rules. The police activity log shows officers responded to at least five other reports of public safety violations on the same day, including a gathering of 15-20 people not wearing masks or distancing.
Opgenorth said the police department started by simply educating and warning people about local public health ordinances, but began issuing citations under the nuisance party ordinance Aug. 27.
“Eventually we were just seeing our COVID cases rise and we made the decision that we’ve educated and warned enough,” he said. “Everyone knows what the rules are.”
The city ordinance prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people and mandates social distancing and face masks. Police Chief Brian Jenkins said at an Aug. 19 press conference that the department started issuing citations after seeing an uptick in social gatherings.
“Right now, our focus really is on the party issue,” he said. “That’s where we believe there’s going to be the greatest amount of potential exposure and impact.”
The department has issued 12 such citations, all but two of which occurred in the neighborhood next to campus. Opgenorth estimated 90 percent of the citations were issued to students.
The Whitman County director of public health has previously said that more than 90 percent of people testing positive for the virus were between the ages of 18 and 25, and that the “vast majority” were associated with the university.
Pullman, which is located in the southeast of the state near the Idaho border, is the largest city in Whitman County, which reported 123 new coronavirus cases over the weekend and six more on Monday. That pushed the total to 835 cases for just over 50,000 people.
Last week, the National Guard opened a testing site in an area of Pullman where many students live off-campus in an effort to find asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.
Since last month, college campuses across the country have seen cases skyrocket—with some schools shutting down and moving to remote learning and others punishing students caught breaking social-distancing rules. The majority of WSU classes are currently being taught online.