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Duke’s party culture is a paradox of empathy during the pandemic

“Ladies, pair up. Make sure both you and your partner get home safe,” a girl from my dorm announced, commanding the attention of the buzzing Randolph common room. “Ten women are leaving here tonight. I expect ten women to be back in their dorms by tomorrow morning.” 

Leading by example, she linked arms with her best friend and beckoned us to follow her out the door. I turned to the woman next to me and shared a nervous grin. She reciprocated before pulling me by the arm to embark on what I anticipated to be my most dangerous journey yet: a trek into Duke’s party culture.

Admittedly, my perception of the haze that was O-week may be a bit hyperbolic. However, I had never partied prior to entering college; the scenes at Shooters and Devine’s proved themselves to be both intimidating and enchanting. I was thrust into a sea of vibrancy and sweaty bodies night after night, forming memories that caused me to nod in agreement in the mornings when my FAC group would echo that their favorite thing about Duke was the “work hard, play hard culture.” The notion of “playing hard” every night is perplexing as an outsider: it’s an activity caught in a dissidence of employing and neglecting empathy.

Take my first night at Devine’s, for example. Standing under the blue awning, I overheard a man offer to pay a total stranger’s entry fee simply because that stranger had forgotten his wallet. The stranger was then met with congratulations because he revealed that he had just booked his dream internship. To the right of this, two girls were helping put band-aids on their friend’s blistered feet. As I continued through the night, I witnessed acts of kindness throughout the small establishment: drunken reassurances of “you look good” passed from girl to girl, upperclassmen checking up on underclassmen to ensure that they were safe and groups leaving early together to walk home a member too tired to continue their night. 

This amicable environment did not pass by Devine’s sister establishment. On the night of my pact with the nine other ladies in my dorm, I discovered just what it meant to take a trip to Shooters. Sure, it was dingy, crowded and rife with outdated music like the upperclassmen of my pre-orientation program had warned me. But it also contained an atmosphere filled with youthful excitement and acceptance. A group of senior girls celebrating one of their own’s 21st birthday let me dance with them when they saw me lost in the crowd. In the bathrooms, women exchanged numbers and compliments. On the dance floor, friends helped guide each other through the troves of people when they could have just as easily let one another get lost. By the end of the night, I had found another group of people (plus my partner) that I felt comfortable enough with to take me home. 

I’m not claiming that any of this is unique to Duke. I’m well-aware of this etiquette being transcribed in bars and clubs across the globe. However, these instances of empathy being foiled by instances of carelessness bring a distinctive element of confusion to Duke’s nightlife.

Amongst the jubilant, swaying crowds and the serenades of Britney Spears was a noticeable lack of masks or adherence to COVID-19 protocols. Neither Devine’s nor Shooters enforced Durham’s mask mandate for private and public businesses, and even if they did, much of those efforts would be negated by the pre-games and parties on and off campus that similarly neglect COVID-19 protocols. Densely-packed areas without face coverings are well-known by now to be breeding grounds for outbreaks and super-spreader events. The problem is that those who attend Devine’s or Shooters simply don’t care in the moment (or felt like me: everyone else isn’t wearing their mask, and I’m vaccinated, so it should be okay for me to take mine off too), more concerned with socializing and having a good time. 

This division of human interests—caring for the safety and well-being of those around you but drawing a line when it comes to COVID-19 transmissions—spelled trouble for the Duke student body. Following orientation week, Duke University saw 304 undergraduate students test positive for COVID-19 despite a 98 percent vaccination rate, proving that the excuse of “at least I’m vaccinated” is one that should be thrown away at best. This surge in cases was the highest number of total cases in one week since this pandemic started, prompting Duke to implement new restrictions on dining, outdoor events and more. 

The lack of empathy and concern for the pandemic whilst participating in the “play hard” culture ultimately impacted both the Duke and Durham community as a whole, with Shooters closing down its facilities temporarily and Duke students having to adapt to new restrictions. If that wasn’t enough, students in isolation were observed by staff inviting groups of people over, deliberately violating any form of quarantine policies Duke set out in favor of enjoying festivities with their friends. 

Taking a step back from it all, I find it hard to believe that these are the same people who encouraged others to come out of their shells on the dance floor, who checked in with absolute strangers just to make sure they were okay, who spent the time ensuring that every member of their group felt comfortable. Duke’s party culture contains heart at its core. Why should the line be drawn when it comes to COVID-19? Why can’t we continue to “play hard” and care hard for one another, just with safer and more manageable precautions? Partying may present an escape from the reality of our world and wearing a mask may hinder activities central to Duke’s nightlife, but we can’t begin to care for the safety and wellbeing of others around us without also caring for their health. 

So, in the same way you check in with your friends on the opposite side of Shooters, I beg Duke’s “play hard” community to check in with the COVID-19 guidelines the next time they decide to embark on what I previously called a “dangerous journey.” This time, I can lead by example.

Viktoria Wulff-Andersen is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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