Fraternities, sororities navigate pandemic life

By Ryan Faircloth, Star Tribune

From left, Jacques Frank-Loron, Ethan Dorn, Joel Nielsen and Will Toth gathered in the great room at the U’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. By Shari L. Gross

Determined not to be sources of campus outbreaks, the organizations go mostly virtual

In a normal year, Jacques Frank-Loron and his fellow Beta Theta Pi fraternity members would tailgate before Gophers football games, pair with sororities for date parties and bond during weekly brotherhood events.

This fall, there will be no parties or social events. Half as many Beta Theta Pi members are living in the University of Minnesota fraternity house and most visitors are prohibited. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended Greek life traditions at the U and colleges across the country, forcing fraternities and sororities to socialize from afar and recruit new members virtually.

“Fraternities are not … the same experience at all this year,” said Frank-Loron, Beta Theta Pi’s president. “We’re still trying to figure out bonding in the pandemic environment.”

While fraternities and sororities have been blamed for campus outbreaks and disciplined for COVID-19-related violations elsewhere, chapters at the U have largely avoided such outcomes by limiting social gatherings and the number of members who live in their houses. One recent afternoon, just a few Beta Theta Pi members lounged in their fraternity’s great room — a common area typically flush with students — scrolling screens on their phones and chatting from behind their masks as they passed time between classes.

At the start of the semester, U President Joan Gabel and Board of Regents Chairman Ken Powell sent a letter to Greek leaders asking them to protect their members and fellow students by operating in accordance with public health guidelines.

“You and your members can set a powerful example and reinforce your leadership by ensuring compliance with these requirements,” the letter said.

The university’s Interfraternity Council, which governs 28 fraternities, has barred chapters from holding registered social events at their houses. Fraternities can host philanthropy, alumni and parent events that do not exceed 10 people indoors or outdoors. Social events such as date parties, formals and brotherhood gatherings may be hosted off site at venues such as bars or lodges.

The U’s Panhellenic Council, which represents 14 sororities, is “highly recommending” that chapters hold only virtual events this fall, council President Erin Falline said. So far, she said, she has heard of few in-person sorority events.

Falline, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, said her sorority has followed suit. Members have met virtually and organized educational events such as LinkedIn workshops. On Saturday, they held a philanthropy 5K run in which members ran by themselves or with those in their household.

“We’ve been taking it super seriously,” Falline said of her sorority’s COVID-19 precautions.

Most chapters governed by the Multicultural Greek Council and the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which represents historically Black fraternities and sororities, are operating virtually this fall, according to the U’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.

Many chapters have reduced house capacity and set aside rooms for quarantine in case members contract COVID-19, Greek leaders say. About 19 members of Beta Theta Pi are living in the house this fall, down from about 33 in a normal year, Frank-Loron said. At the lower capacity, each member has their own room and can quarantine in place if necessary.

The precautions were tested over the summer, when two members of Beta Theta Pi came down with mild cases of COVID-19. They quarantined in place and had their own designated bathroom, Frank-Loron said. Fraternity brothers living in the house delivered meals to their doors each day.

“Greek life has been a major source of outbreaks at other universities, and we’re all working really hard to not have that happen here,” Frank-Loron said. He added that chapter leadership has had “corrective conversations” with members who gathered at bars off campus.

Amid all the restrictions, fraternities and sororities pushed forward with fall rush — a recruitment ritual typically full of pomp and circumstance where chapters hold social events such as house tours and meet-and-greets. This year’s tours, new member interviews and other recruitment events were held virtually.

More than 500 women signed up to rush sororities, and 350 were given bids to join a house, according to the Panhellenic Council. Around 280 men registered for rush, but only about 50 showed up for the virtual events, Interfraternity Council President Andrew LaFortune said.

“It was definitely not what we had hoped for, but also not super surprising. Zoom fatigue has been talked about a lot,” said LaFortune, a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. However, he noted more than 230 students have joined a fraternity since the summer, indicating many bypassed the formal rush process and communicated with chapters directly.

With social offerings limited, Greek leaders said chapters pitched prospective members on the opportunity to immediately join a tight-knit community. Freshmen, many of whom are taking online classes and have been living in dormitories under restrictions resembling a stay-at-home order, were eager to do so.