Emerson restrictions lift as cases increase in state


Photo by Hongyu Liu

A sign showing modified bathroom capacity.

By Charlie McKenna

Coronavirus cases are once again on the rise in Massachusetts—topping 2,000 reported in a single day four times in the last week after not clearing that marker since mid-February, a rise that comes amid a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions on Emerson’s campus.

Despite the increase, positive COVID-19 tests at Emerson have remained low after accelerating past the fall semester’s total of 60 in just four-and-a-half weeks at the beginning of the semester. The spring semester has racked up 109 positives, though positive tests have yet to top double digits in a week since the week of February 21—when cases in the state were at their nadir. Now, increased transmission in the state could once again result in an increase of positive tests on Emerson’s campus.

Even with cases on the rise in Massachusetts and a cumulative positivity rate at Emerson higher than any mark reached during the fall semester, administrators have slowly begun the process of loosening restrictions on campus—primarily by increasing room capacities.

Occupancy limits in several buildings on campus—including 172 Tremont, some studio spaces in the Student Performance Center, and the Walker Building, have been increased to allow more students to gather in indoor spaces. Capacity in the Dining Center has also increased to accommodate more indoor dining for students, with four students now allowed per table.

Assistant Vice President for Campus Life and “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp said the decision to raise capacity was a result of Emerson following guidance from the city and state.

“We wanted to be able to open up some more spaces, just for students in these next few weeks,” he said. “It was our first step to sort of get gradually back to ‘normal.’”

In the fall, Emerson managed to keep positive tests on campus low until they rose by 16 in one week in November— which represented half of the total accumulated to that point in the semester—coinciding with an increase statewide and in the city of Boston.

This spring, while cases gradually declined from their surges following the winter holidays, Emerson experienced new highs in positivity, leading administrators to acknowledge evidence of “community spread” on campus. 

With cases on the rise again in the state, Emerson could once again see its numbers slowly rise as well. This week, the college has already reported four positive tests from two days of testing after finding just three the week prior.

Other indicators of the virus’s prominence in the state, like the positivity rate and hospitalizations, have also begun to tick back up. Hospitalizations rose above 600 for the first time since March 9 on March 30, while the positivity rate has risen above four percent after sitting at or just above three percent for most of the month of March.

Muurisepp said he was not worried about the loosened restrictions leading to a rise in positives at Emerson, even as metrics in the state continue to rise.

“I’m not overly worried because I trust our community would be able to still follow the guidelines … it’s a very small incremental change so I don’t think it would impact our numbers,” he said.  “It is concerning as we see numbers increasing the city and state … so we’re trying it, hopefully, it’ll remain and stay, [so] we can keep those in place. And who knows, we might be able to do more, but I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, either.”

It remains to be seen what positive tests at Emerson would look like amid a full-blown surge in the state. When cases hit record highs in November and December, students had already packed their bags and headed home for winter break.