Cal covid-19 cases since April, showing a large surge in January and February
Cal COVID-19 cases since April 2020, when the first case was recorded at the campus. Photo: UC Berkeley COVID-19 dashboard Credit: UC Berkeley

Update, 2/18: The lockdown at Cal dorms was lifted on Tuesday morning due to declining cases. Students who are under quarantine or isolation at the Foothill dorm due to COVID-19 exposure will have to complete their quarantine period and receive additional guidance from university health services.

Original story: About 2,000 Cal students living in campus housing will remain under a self-sequester period as the city and Cal try to “flatten the curve” following a large surge of COVID-19 cases among undergraduates, but they are allowed to exercise outside again as of Friday.

There have been 936 cases at the campus since February 2020, when its first case was recorded, and over half of total cases at the campus happened in the last month. The last week alone has seen an increase of about 200 cases, with the majority being among undergraduate students both on and off campus.

The original self-sequester period began on Feb. 1 and was supposed to last for one week, but campus administrators extended it to Feb. 16 as cases continued to rise. They added additional restrictions in consultation with Berkeley Public Health this week, including a ban on outdoor exercise. The ban was lifted Friday and Cal told students they can go outside between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. to exercise as long as they keep masks on and are not currently in isolation due to COVID-19 exposure.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said Berkeley Public Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez is on the same page as Cal and has been in frequent communication with administrators, but the university made its own determinations for the most recent restrictions. Outdoor exercise is currently allowed in Berkeley as a whole, and hasn’t been banned during the pandemic.

Students in Cal dorms self-sequestered when they moved in but this is the broadest lockdown since students moved back on campus in August 2020. They need to remain in their dorm rooms as much as possible and cannot socialize indoors outside of their student groupings of 12 people or fewer. Food is being delivered to the dorms and students can leave their rooms to pick it up. Students have had to get tested twice a week as well.

These same rules don’t apply to students who have chosen to live off-campus, and initial surges last year were linked to parties at fraternity houses. Berkeleyside readers who live near “fraternity row” (the circle at Channing Avenue and Piedmont Way) have reported additional parties and gatherings this year as the city emerges from its own regional shelter in place order due to surging cases and deaths.

How is the self-sequester at Cal being enforced?

University Health Services, Tang Center. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

Contrary to reports in online blogs and right-wing magazines like “Reason,” police are not being allowed inside dorms to patrol. There is only one uniformed UC police officer outside the Foothill quarantine dorm, according to Cal spokesperson Adam Ratliff.

The officer is stationed outside the dorm as a “presence” because there were reports students were leaving the building. The officer won’t be checking identification or enforcing the self-sequester rules, Ratliff added. The officer will walk around the fence at the quarantine dorm, food distribution and check-in areas but will not enter residence buildings unless there is an emergency. They will also make sure gates are closed and not propped open.

There are additional hall monitors at the other dorms aside from police. Student campus security officers (CSOs) and about 11 event management staff will be patrolling outside and can report rule-breaking to campus staff, Ratliff said.

Ben Trefry, an avid runner and 18-year-old freshman at Cal, moved into the David Blackwell dorm in August from the eastern Sierra Nevada. He said before the exercise ban was lifted Friday that it wasn’t being enforced — and he’s grateful for it. He continued to go on runs during the self-sequester period (he’s not in the quarantine dorm for students with exposure to COVID-19) and said at most, he encountered one CSO who checked his student pass to make sure he’d been recently tested.

“I don’t feel like joining some self care Zoom meeting, or really any Zoom meeting, can do as much for my mental health as going on a run,” Trefry said, referring to existing mental health resources offered by Cal. He said he hasn’t been seeing friends and remains in his room for the majority of the day, but running was the one thing he does for himself that he couldn’t sacrifice.

He acknowledged that Cal’s restriction on outdoor exercise was probably intended to curb outdoor gatherings overall — not just exercise — but said it’s an unreasonable policy to enforce while students are completely isolated from their peers.

Trefry and Dominic de Bettencourt, another Cal freshman from Portland, Oregon, both said the vast majority of Cal students are following health guidelines during the pandemic, doing their best to keep small gatherings outdoors and not attending indoor parties. But de Bettencourt said policies like an outdoor exercise ban aren’t based in science and could undermine the credibility of Cal’s overall public health approach.

“[Cal] should try and crack down on large super-spreader events, as opposed to trying to crack down on individual outdoor exercise — which isn’t spreading the virus at all,” de Bettencourt said Friday before the ban was lifted. Berkeley residents have been pressuring Cal to crack down on large parties but the university has largely prioritized an education-first model, as has the city. Individual students who violate campus health orders could be investigated by the Center for Student Conduct and sororities and fraternities risk sanctions and losing campus affiliations. 

“Our sincere hope is that our educational campaigns to the campus community will help limit large gatherings, but we all need to work together to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Ratliff said.

A similar situation is playing out across the country at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where over 430 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the last week. Students are confined to their dorms and outdoor exercise is banned, but UMass is covering lost wages from on-campus jobs.

Cal students are also being told not to work off-campus during the self-sequestration period, and instead to request administrative or COVID-19 leave from work-study positions in addition to working remotely. There don’t appear to be accommodations for students who are losing wages from off-campus jobs at this time.

The self-sequester period may end on Feb. 16 if cases continue to drop, according to Cal. After moving into the dorms in January de Bettencourt has only experienced one week without self-sequester orders on campus, but he said that time was a positive experience that allowed him to make a few friends and safely enjoy life in the city.

“I don’t exactly regret my decision, because I expect that soon enough the self-sequester will be removed,” he said. “With all the progress we’re making on vaccines, I think the rest of the semester will be better.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...