Commentary: In Hanover, residents want a college town without the students

Valley News
Published: 8/7/2020 6:00:43 AM
Modified: 8/7/2020 6:00:33 AM

The hand-wringing in Hanover over the impending return of Dartmouth students to town is too much to bear.

“It seems like right now, there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety out in the community about students coming back,” Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin told Valley News staff writer Tim Camerato last week. “My email box is blowing up with emails and communications from folks saying, ‘Can’t we stop this?’ ”

The Hanover Select Board is feeding the frenzy. Fearing a potential coronavirus outbreak, the board is expected to vote later this month to limit only one renter per bedroom. Unless the town is planning a return to Puritan times, I’m not sure how unmarried couples can be stopped from cohabitating. Renters – even unwanted college students – have a right to live in town without local officials threatening to peep into their bedrooms.

That’s just one far-fetched idea. There’s also talk of allowing landlords to ban ping-pong tables to curb a certain drinking game popular with young adults.

Hanover is starting to feel like a sequel to Footloose. Have residents conveniently forgotten that they live in a college town? That means taking the bad with the good.

Here’s the bad: Young people could bring the coronavirus with them when they return to campus from other parts of the country and the world. Once here, there’s a strong possibility that not everyone will follow safe social-distancing practices as closely as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m not usually quick to come to Dartmouth’s defense. But the college has taken reasonable precautions to make sure that Hanover won’t turn into the next Miami Beach.

When classes resume next month, only about half of Dartmouth’s 4,400 undergraduates will return to Hanover. Students will be tested upon arrival and again a week later. They’ll be expected to quarantine for 14 days. No guests and visitors are permitted. Gathering in groups “of any size” is another no-no.

Students who test positive for COVID-19 will move into “isolation housing” and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services will follow up with “contact” investigations.

On Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s COVID-19 guru, said that he thinks if colleges “maintain the guidelines that are put together for people coming back, that they should be fine.”

Dartmouth has laid out those guidelines, and now they’ll have to follow through and send anyone home who doesn’t comply. Additionally, the college has wisely adopted a mask requirement for anyone who steps on campus.

On Monday, the Hanover Select Board approved a mask measure as well. It was a prudent move. (New Hampshire is the only New England state in which the governor hasn’t made mask-wearing a requirement when out in public.)

But Hanover, like some other jurisdictions, takes the mandate too far. It’s trying to turn the failure to wear a mask into a moneymaker. After giving a verbal warning for the first offense, the town plans to levy fines on repeat offenders that range from $100 to $500, depending how many times you get nabbed. “We need some teeth in the ordinance,” Griffin told the board.

Edicts aimed at controlling youthful behavior seldom seem to work. (The feds raised the drinking age from 18 to 21 nearly 40 years ago, and see how much of a deterrent that’s been on college campuses across the country.)

In Hanover, mask enforcement will be handled by the town’s three health officers, not police. During Monday’s Select Board meeting carried out via Zoom, Griffin said, “We don’t want to turn this into a tattletale police state, obviously.”

It’s too late for that. And not just in Hanover.

On Monday, I fielded a call from a Norwich resident who was borderline apoplectic that three medical school students had moved next door, and from her vantage point, they weren’t following Dartmouth’s quarantine guidelines. They had left to buy furniture.

The guidelines say students who have tested negative upon arrival can leave their quarantine to pick up “essential supplies.” Apparently, the med students’ Norwich neighbor expects them to sleep on the floor.

Before our conversation abruptly ended with her hanging up, I asked the caller what she wanted the college to do. “Read them the riot act,” she said.

Griffin already tried that. In a guest column for The Dartmouth, the college’s student newspaper, she wrote, “Local Hanover residents are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of students returning to campus from all over the world and this fear is reinforced by the current irresponsible behavior local residents are observing.” Griffin pointed out that students aren’t always social distancing and wearing masks when hanging out on riverfront beaches and docks.

Valid concerns. But I’m more worried about the college’s blue-collar workers who will be cleaning dorms and classrooms. Residents don’t seem to be fretting about the potential health risks facing the college’s bathroom scrubbers, the ones who must come into proximity with students whether they want to or not.

Maybe people need to be reminded that living in Hanover, or nearby, comes with a lot of perks – thanks largely to the Ivy League college with a $5 billion endowment that’s been in town for a couple of centuries.

Without Dartmouth, the public wouldn’t have the Hopkins Center, Hood Museum, indoor courts at the Boss Tennis Center or 18-hole golf course in the town’s back yard. (Whoops, strike the last one.)

Would there be a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center without a Dartmouth College and its Geisel School of Medicine around the corner?

I’ve often sensed that Hanover residents enjoy everything about being a college town, and they’d like it even better if students weren’t part of the deal.

Now more than ever.

(Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.)


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