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Duke’s Sturgis graduation do-over

guest column

People around the country, and indeed the world, have shaken their heads at the sheer irresponsibility of the Sturgis motorcycle festival in South Dakota. Last year, despite the pandemic, organizers of the festival went ahead with the event, bringing in people from around the country to a gathering that was a superspreader of COVID. They did the same this year, apparently not learning their lesson. The organizers point out that the event is outside — because motorcycles. Some venues even encourage masks, though there is no vaccine mandate. But we aren’t fooled by those weak excuses. Events like this lead people to socialize, indoors, to share food and drink, to hug and dance and to spread not only good fellowship but the virus. So far, this year, cases are up 352% following the festival, though we will never know all the cases that multiply as the attendees spread back out around the country. Thank goodness we here at Duke would never do something so incredibly irresponsible! Or would we?

On September 25, Duke plans to hold a campus wide graduation “do over” for the class of 2020 (who are not subject to this year’s vaccine mandate) and their families (likewise). Initially, the event was going to be indoors!  Common sense eventually prevailed just enough to move the main events outdoors. Just like Sturgis. Of course, we are still encouraging the families who attend to travel here from around the country, and then to celebrate the graduation those students were so unfairly denied. Those celebrations, those hugs, those shared meals — and we know they are going to happen, indeed we want them to happen — they are on us. Let me be clear, I understand the urge. The 2020 graduating class were handed a final year no one wanted.  They showed incredible resilience and courage to finish strong and graduate into what was then a very uncertain economy. I’d love to be able to give them and their families, old and young, a triumphant do-over. What I would not love to give them, or their unvaccinated kids or their at risk-elders, or all the people they will then encounter as they fan out back through the country, is a very scary disease.  

My question is simple. How is Duke’s action more responsible, as a public health matter, than the Sturgis motorcycle festival? You could answer that it is a personal choice for the attendees. We do not find that argument convincing with the motorcycle festival because the fact of the congregation of so many people, from around the country will inevitably cause virus spread both during travel to and from and in the celebrations around the main event. The people it will affect are definitely not volunteers. Is Duke’s graduation re-enactment any different? One of the key things that outrages us about Sturgis is that it was unnecessary. This is not a matter of a class that must be taught or work that must go on. Is Duke’s feel good-do over any different? Duke will undoubtedly do a better job imposing safety requirements at the actual events than did the Sturgis festival, but everyone understands that the danger isn’t just from the main events. Riding a bike on the open road is probably safer than an outdoor graduation. Let’s leave aside the general wisdom of outdoor events in North Carolina during hurricane season. Think of all of those people flying in from Florida and Louisiana and Texas and all the other states where cases have sky-rocketed. Or those from Boston, whose numbers are rising, but better, coming to North Carolina, where the numbers are grim — and then returning home.  What could possibly go wrong?

Today in Durham, which has a vaccination rate much better than the rest of NC, cases rose 20% from the day before. Three major hospitals in the region just held a collective press conference to announce a crisis in the availability of emergency room beds. And in the middle of all of this, Duke wants to throw a party?  How are we better than the organizers of Sturgis? Simple answer. We are not.  In fact, arguably — given the scientific expertise available to this great university — we are more irresponsible. Yet we still have enough time to do the right thing. Think of all the innocent people — people who have nothing to do with the class of 2020 — we would be putting at risk by going forward with our plans. I would respectfully ask President Price and the Deans of the schools that have been planning this event to cancel it immediately. Let’s spread joy and learning rather than infection and fear. Let’s be better than Sturgis.  

James Boyle is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School.

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