This week, Observant asked 22 random UM students – at a sidewalk café, in the park, the University Library, on the pedestrian bridge in Randwijck and by telephone and e-mail – whether they stick to the rules or not. Anonymously, in exchange for honest answers. At a sidewalk café near the Student Service Centre, three fraternity members are sitting at the same small table. The 1.5-metre distance is not being reached by a long shot. “If they had larger tables here, we would be able to keep our distance. Also, this is apparently allowed, because just now a van drove by with officers, and it didn’t stop.”
Don’t think that the guys are not taking any notice of the COVID-19 regulations. They have parents who are over sixty and are scared witless that they would infect them. “After the Inkom, I didn’t return home for two weeks.” That introduction was, as far as their fraternity was concerned, COVID-19-proof: “We are with twenty people and we did the intro with four houses, each one with a limited number of people.”
The 1.5-metre is often difficult in their student houses, they say. Agreements were made at the end of March, when it became clear that the virus was really serious, that anyone with symptoms – head cold, coughing – would stay in his room and have himself tested as quickly as possible. The rest keeps their distance. Then again, “you still use the same shower”. So far, it has worked, the number of infections is zero.
Elsewhere in the city, strict rules have been made regarding runny noses, coughing and other COVID-19 symptoms, a student tells us by telephone. “Then you don’t attend fraternity meetings. Almost all of us work in the Maastricht catering business and you don’t want to, unwittingly, bring COVID-19 to work. Then six pubs might have to close.”
And what about the 1.5-metre distance in his student house? “Not doable.” And outside? Things soon go awry when you are with friends. Student rooms, as well as most of the communal spaces, are small. “I could pretend that everyone is adhering to the rules, even behind doors, but that is just not the case.” His fraternity does not organise house parties. “You wouldn’t want to be known as the fraternity that became a COVID-19 hotspot in Maastricht.” These are few and far between anyway. “During the lockdown, there were quite a few more. I do think that if the catering businesses have to close earlier, you will see more of them.”
And no, others who were asked do not hold clandestine COVID-19 parties, but they know that these exist. “How often do you hear party sounds coming from an attic window when you walk through the city in the evening. There is a fairly small group that pays no heed to the regulations, but they do have a great impact.” Anyone browsing Instagram for a moment will indeed discover very recent photos of partying Maastricht students, often posted by disputes who have apparently forgotten that their photos are also visible to others. But they won’t report anyone, the three sidewalk cafe visitors emphasise, “we are not going to act like policemen”.
In the city park, a second-year Biomedical Sciences student is sitting on a blanket with two female friends. No 1.5-metre distance here either. “You don’t have to with family and friends, it only applies to strangers and people at Albert Heijn. Besides, they are staying with me,” pointing to the two students from Germany. “My room is between 22 and 25 square metres; 1.5 metre distance is therefore not an option.” But these three, according to what they say themselves, do abide by the rules: washing hands (one of them removes a bottle of disinfectant hand gel from her bag), 1.5 metre distance while queuing for the supermarket, and staying home in the case of any sign of symptoms.
A student from Finland has no trouble at all with the rules. “I am working on my thesis, spend a lot of time on my chair, and meet few people. When I see friends, it’s in the park or outside a bar. A third-year student of European Studies, who is just leaving the University Library in Randwijck (“I live nearby”), tells a similar story. Too busy studying to meet anybody. Although online education would not be his preference. “It may be more efficient, but I miss the contact, it is much more fun on campus.”
A third-year student of Econometrics acknowledges the latter: “If COVID-19 doesn’t make you sick, loneliness will.” In answer to the question what measures we have to abide by in the Netherlands at the moment, he jokingly answers: “Not to have fun.”
The two third-year students sitting on a bench in front of the entrance to the School of Business and Economics having a discussion, at a suitable distance, laptop in hand, are careful. They avoid parties, but do meet up in the park or on the Pietersberg. “Not always at one-and-a-half metres distance. In the open air one metre is okay too.”
So far so good
Near the gate of the University Library in the city centre, where three second-year students of International Business are standing chatting, we hear the other side for the first time during our rounds. The three “certainly do not” adhere to the rules. They don’t hug or shake hands anymore, but “we meet almost every evening, the same group of twelve friends, to eat or have a beer.” Unwise, they know, but they have no contact with elderly people in Maastricht and peer pressure is high. They don’t want to miss anything. In addition, they have their doubts about how contagious the virus actually is. “A while back, we had a party on Monday evening and on Thursday, we heard the news that one of us tested positive. Everyone had themselves tested – in Germany, because in the Netherlands that wasn’t allowed if you didn’t have any symptoms – and nobody was infected, while we spent the whole time in the same room.”
Disregarding the rules or not, doubts about the contagiousness or not; in the week before they visit their parents, they put a stop to seeing friends, just to be sure. And: in the supermarket they wear face masks. “Very strange that it is not compulsory in the Netherlands, like in Germany. Those face masks have a psychological effect. They make you more aware of the virus. It feels like it is much less strict here.”
Cleo Freriks, Riki Janssen, Yuri Meesen, Lieve Smeets