Students, emergency crews brace for weekend of parties near Western University

With the delta variant rampant in the community, emergency crews are bracing for a wild weekend of partying near Western University as homecoming weekend approaches, and public health officials have beefed up fines to try to stop large gatherings.

Homecoming is this weekend and students say they plan to party hard at some off-campus bashes

Second-year Western University students Eric Rubenzahl, 18, Emile Zitney, 18, Cam Smith, 20, and Sydney Schuch, 19, assume that a large party will happen on Broughdale Avenue this weekend. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

With the delta variant rampant in the community, public health officials have beefed up fines to try to stop large gatherings as emergency crews — and students — brace for a wild weekend of partying near Western University. 

Homecoming is scheduled for Sept. 23-26, and many students are prepping parties as part of so-called fake homecoming celebrations, often marked by massive bashes in areas close to campus, such as Broughdale Avenue. 

"I think many people are excited to come visit the street, and there is theft and property damage, so you have to worry about that aside from COVID and the actual partying," said Jeremy Ippolito, a second-year student who lives on Broughdale. 

"We're having conversations about preparing, how to keep our house protected, making sure people aren't going in and out, maybe boarding the windows, locking the doors," he said. "I'm sure we'll have some responsible fun and see some friends outside, and try to stay safe." 

Public health officials are urging students to keep gatherings small and outdoors. On Tuesday, the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) announced that those caught violating private party gathering limits — they're now at 25 people inside and 100 people outside — could face double the fines, being charged under the public health orders and the Reopening Ontario Act. Fines start at $750 per person. 

A sea of purple engulfs Broughdale Avenue, a street full of mostly student rental homes near the eastern gates of the Western University, during Fake Homecoming 2019. (Ross Howey/Twitter)

"We are definitely concerned about the level of close contact. We've seen a number of parties already and with things happening this weekend, we could see more of that," said Dr. Chris Mackie, the region's medical officer of health. 

"We're paying close attention and we hope that people will make good decisions. We're not against partying, we're not against drinking, we're not against dancing. This is really about doing those things as safely as possible. We really encourage people to party small and to avoid large gatherings of any kind." 

Parties planned, police brace themselves

That will be hard for students living on Broughdale, who could have a giant party on their front lawns this weekend. In the past, tens of thousands of students have gathered on the street. 

"We sort of just have to come outside our front door and it's right in front of us," said Eric Rubenzahl, another second-year student on the street. "The cops have been around a lot, so people are just scared to party now." 

Jeremy Ippolito, a second-year Western University student, says his housemates are thinking of boarding up their windows as homecoming approaches. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Rubenzahl and his roommates plan to keep things small this weekend. "We're just going to stay on our own front lawn because we don't want to engage too much," he said. "We don't want to get involved." 

The call for calm also comes less than a week since thousands of students called for more safety on campus and an end to sexual violence. That came after a weekend of heavy drinking and allegations of reports of sexual assault. It's something students are thinking about said second-year student Emile Zitney, 18. 

"It's a good idea to look out for your friends," Zitney said. "I know for the majority of our social circles, people uphold the same values that we do, and our primary concern is making sure our friends are safe."

Police released this aerial footage of crowds crammed onto Broughdale Avenue during a massive student street in 2019. Police say the size of the crowd, estimated at 20,000 people, has turned the party into a threat to public safety. (London Police Service)

Western University is upping security on campus this year and adding physical and mental health supports for those who need it, said an official, adding that the university is working with the city of London, police, the fire department, and other emergency officials to discourage unsanctioned mass gatherings. 

"The continued threat of COVID-19, violence and personal safety are reasons we are asking our students to choose to avoid unsanctioned mass gatherings. We ask that they keep their circles small, be with friends they trust and show respect and care for each other, and for the London community," said Chris Alleyne, a university vice-president. 

London police will be "highly visible" this weekend, said Chief Steve Williams. 

"As in previous years, we are concerned that some of the behaviour associated with large unsanctioned gatherings will jeopardize public safety as well as the safety of first responders. This is particularly so in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic," he said in a statement. 

"The London Police Service will be fair but firm in our enforcement efforts as we work with our community partners to keep all citizens safe. The best way to stay safe is to avoid gatherings which exceed public health limits. We strongly urge those who are considering attending a large gathering to find an alternate activity."