Tension between mayor and students as young people blamed for rise in coronavirus cases in Groningen

Photograph: Kian Seara Rey

“Why are you still going to crowded places? Why are you not keeping distance?” wrote Groningen Mayor Koen Schuiling in an open letter to students on 21 September. Frustration at what many perceive to be young peoples’ disregard for coronavirus guidelines have recently come to a head as cases rise dramatically. But some students think it’s unfair that they’ve been receiving all the blame.

Large house parties have continued despite social distancing rules. Local authorities have vowed that the time for warnings is over and have threatened to fine party-goers as well as landlords.

Coronavirus cases have reached an all-time high in Groningen as hospitals report difficulties managing a surge in patients. This comes as outbreaks are increasing across the Netherlands and the Prime Minister on Monday announced stricter measures for restaurants and bars. The possibility of a new lockdown looms as a second wave spreads across much of Europe.

In a controversial opinion piece in the UKrant that was met with a sharp rebuke, Fay van Odijk made the moral case for why students in Groningen like her should feel free to party.

“The virus doesn’t pose a big risk to me and other students. Most students suffer only mild symptoms. After a day in bed, they usually feel fine,” wrote Van Odijk.

But scientists largely disagree. “Young people can also get really sick,” says Bert Niesters, a virologist at the UMCG. Scientists still don’t fully understand the lasting effects that some suffer after contracting the disease, what some are calling ‘long COVID’.

“There will be a lot of people with chronic conditions coming from their coronavirus infection. There can be fatigue, memory issues, kidney problems – a lot of things can happen. And that’s also happening to young people and healthy people,” Niesters warns.

Some student associations have seen spikes in infections among their members. A recent report confirmed 29 positive cases in the Navigators Student Association, a club with around 400 members.

Rixt Oving, a spokesperson from Navigators, declined an interview. She stated in an email that her association was “very busy with implementing the new rules concerning coronavirus.”

“If you want to prevent infections from happening, you should let student associations keep their pubs open because they are very well aware of the coronavirus rules,” says David Jan Meijer, leader of the Vrije Student Groningen student association. “Student pubs are way safer than regular pubs,” said Meijer.

But not everyone believes that student associations can be trusted to follow the rules.

There were recent reports of well-attended parties at the main club building of Vindicat, the oldest student association in the Netherlands, which has a reputation for controversy. They’ve recently had at least 15 confirmed cases among members.

A party on the terrace of the Vindicat student association building on 28 September, the same evening that the Prime Minister announced new national coronavirus regulations. Photograph: Sikkom.nl

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