One year ago, students were packing themselves into bars, fraternities and house parties. They’d meet new people, travel and drink freely in confined spaces — COVID-19 was only an overlooked whisper. Now, in February 2021, the college drinking scene undoubtedly looks very different than it did last year.
Across campus, students and staff evaluate how their drinking habits and culture have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Are students drinking less or more?
There’s a lot of speculation about whether students are drinking more or less than they did last year. Some think they drink more than last year, just less frequently. Others see the opposite: more frequent drinking but less volume.
“I drink more often [now], but not to the same extent … I have more casual drinks during the week,” said Maggie, a sophomore. However, Sally, a senior, has observed different habits: “The people that I know, they’ll go out less, but when they do go out, they'll drink more.”
On the other hand, some students think that online courses have contributed to more drinking amongst students.
“I think people are drinking more now just because they have less commitments to class so they’ll drink on days where normally, if you have class the next day, some people would avoid it. But now it's all online,” said Brian, a sophomore.
Jenny Damask, a University Health Services substance abuse prevention specialist, reports that students have been drinking less every year at UW-Madison, according to AlcoholEDU. This year is no exception.
Every year, UHS adds up the percentage of students who classify as abstainers — people who haven’t drank in the last year — non-drinkers, people who haven’t drank in the last two weeks but have in the last year, and moderate drinkers — when they do drink, they have four or fewer drinks.
“So when you add those three categories together that number jumps to just over 77% [this year] — we've never been that high at UW-Madison, and that could have something to do with the pandemic,” said Damask.
AlcoholEDU tests incoming freshmen every year during the summer, then again six weeks into the school year. Damask notes the longer students are here, the more they tend to drink. However, the percentage of abstainers, non-drinkers and moderate drinkers remains remarkably high.
Despite this trend, the connection between social belonging and drinking amongst students is no secret at UW-Madison.
“In our research, when we looked at scales for connection and belonging, students who drink had a higher level connection and belonging than students who did not drink,” said Damask.
Maintaining a feeling of connection and belonging has been more difficult for students during the pandemic, and many students aren’t willing to give up the social drinking scene just yet.
Let’s hit the bars
Despite a trend towards less drinking this year, some students still go to bars.
Maggie says she goes to bars twice a weekend on average. “It’s definitely a social thing for me. There’s definitely a risk of getting COVID when you go out, but I still wanna have the social experience that college is and it's fun.”
On the other hand, some students choose not to go to bars because of the chance of contracting COVID. Brian decided not to go to bars this year for fear of contracting the illness: “I think going to bars makes COVID worse, because I’ve had friends who got it from going to bars.”
Bars have long been seen as a source of the COVID-19 spread. Last year, photos of students outside downtown bars spread over social media. A video of masked and maskless students lined up outside of the Double U was shared on Twitter at the beginning of this spring semester — the second time the establishment has been the center of criticism since summer.
A study by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jeffry Harris determined that trips to the bars played a critical role in the COVID-19 outbreak among UW-Madison students last semester. While the results of the research were controversial, as smartphone tracking data was used to monitor student behavior, Harris did find a strong correlation between bar visits and new infections among students.
According to Damask, COVID often spreads on campus as a result of student drinking scenes. “We saw, with the spread of COVID, especially in the beginning of the school year, a lot of it was related to students and their alcohol use,” she said.
Some students, by contrast, choose not to go to bars because it “isn’t the same.”
“The bar scene is different because you're sitting at a table with five of your friends. You can't have more than six people so you can't really meet anyone,” said Maggie.
The COVID restrictions in bars, while necessary, have caused frustration amongst students who desire a “going out” experience similar to that of last year. This is especially true for seniors experiencing their last semesters on campus.
“It’s not really worth it … It's hard to completely blame the bars because they're doing the best they can, but [the COVID restrictions] just take a lot of the fun out of it,” said Sally.
We’re gonna have a house party
Apartment and house parties have risen to take the place of once-packed bars.
In September, more than half of Greek houses near campus were placed in quarantine following an outbreak. Rumors of parties among the fraternities and sororities spread as chapters denied hosting events. Still, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway pointed to social gatherings as being a direct cause of an increase in positive cases as the semester began.
“Let’s be frank — it’s parties,” she said. “It’s people getting together to socialize and not taking the necessary precautions.”
While most bars require guests to stay where they were seated, less than strict enforcement of mask mandates and social distancing at some establishments has led many students to believe that hosting at home may be a safer solution.
“We do want to be somewhat careful, but bars aren't really careful,” said Sally. “I also don't want to be with people I don't really know, and so many people that I know and regularly hang out with have already had Covid, so I feel more comfortable in those settings.”
Sally did state that she’d rather attend a small party as opposed to bigger apartment parties that can become a “free for all.”
Over the last Halloween weekend, at least 13 residences near UW-Madison’s campus violated public health orders, including one such party in which 91 people gathered in an apartment.
Options on campus
UHS recommendations for drinking during the pandemic remain consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines — masks, social distancing, etc. According to CDC guidelines, gathering virtually or drinking at home with your “bubble” are preferable to attending a party or sitting at a bar. Additionally, Public Health Madison & Dane County advises against drinking games and gatherings of people who do not live together.
UHS’s main concern regarding the aftermath of the pandemic has less to do with drinking; rather, what the stress and lack of social interaction will do to our mental health, Damask notes.
“I think my biggest concern is mental health and well-being. Making sure that if an individual is having a really hard time, they're not using alcohol to cope with the fact that they may not be connecting with people that they normally would,” said Damask.
For students struggling with alcohol use during the pandemic, there are options here on campus. Badger Recovery is a program with bi-weekly zoom meetings, aimed at helping students struggling with alcohol abuse and to create a fun social setting without alcohol reliance.
“We want people to feel like they can connect and belong at UW without having to drink, but we also recognize the drinking culture at UW and in the state of Wisconsin,” said Damask.
Undeniably, drinking is and has been a rather large part of the college experience here in Madison, the fourth drunkest city in the U.S. The change in UW-Madison’s drinking scene can feel like the missing piece in our now altered college experience — especially for those in their last semester here.
For students wanting the entire college experience, this year’s altered drinking culture can feel defeating, despite being for the greater good.
“I hear my parents, my sisters, who went to Madison, reference their senior year as the year where everything kind of came together as a college experience,” said Sally. “It’s been a fine senior year, but it is definitely hard.”