At UMass Amherst, students exposed to COVID-19 face stark quarantine options
Some sent to campus hotel, others to an aging apartment building
After she was exposed to COVID-19, UMass Amherst student Steph Miley thought she was going to spend her entire quarantine — nearly two weeks — in the hotel on campus. Like other quarantining students, she was supposed to have the comfort of two large beds, a television mounted to the wall, a pristine personal bathroom, and fresh bedding and towels.
But university officials told Miley, a music major, she couldn’t play her saxophone in the hotel — where there are paying customers trying to sleep — so they sent her to the decidedly more spartan back-up: an empty apartment complex that was slated for demolition last year. The uniform brick buildings, more than 60 years old, were not able to be renovated due to “their age and condition,” university officials said.
“My new favorite jokes to make are about how umass put me into a roach infested abandoned apartment,” Miley tweeted during her stay at Lincoln Apartments in November.
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.
For about 250 UMass students so far, exposure to COVID-19 has not been strictly a health matter. There’s also the question of where they’ll live during quarantine. Many go to the Campus Center Hotel, while others, including Miley, as well as everyone who tests positive for the virus, are sent to Lincoln. And, while university officials are relieved that the vacant apartments are available as a quarantine crash pad, some students who’ve stayed in them are considerably less grateful.
“It was the worst experience of my life,” Miley said in a phone interview following her stay in the apartment.
Now, as several thousand students return to campus and the surrounding area at the beginning of February for the first time, many more COVID-19-exposed students may soon find themselves alone in the Lincoln Apartments.
With a dingy appearance, invasive insects, and loud banging caused by old pipes in the walls, rooms at Lincoln Apartments aren’t far from the average college dorm room. They include a kitchenette with appliances — that often don’t work, according to several students interviewed — a personal bathroom, and some space to spread out.
But quarantine isn’t like dorm life. There’s no roommate by your side to plan your day with and no friends down the hall to bother when you’re bored. Aside from taking the trash out once in a while, students in Lincoln Apartments are stuck there until they get a call to leave.
With the apartment complex sitting empty on the outskirts of campus, university officials saw a perfect opportunity for students to isolate from the community. The buildings were normally reserved for graduate student housing and include just over 100 units.
“The ideal location [for isolation] is somewhere with a bedroom and a bathroom — just think of it as a hotel room,” said Jeff Hescock, executive director of emergency management, in a phone interview Monday morning. “We were able to delay the demolition of Lincoln Apartments to support this public health crisis.”
Many students choose to go home for their quarantine, but those who stay at UMass enjoy some perks regardless of which building they’re in. The entire stay — no matter the length — is free of cost to students, including four hot meals delivered to their doors every day. Students choose their food through an app set up by the university, fully equipped to meet any dietary restrictions. School employees call regularly to check in on students, and those who aren’t satisfied with their housing situation are offered to switch rooms.
Yet even with the service provided by the school, students struggled to find comfort in Lincoln Apartments – and wished they were sent to the hotel instead.
The hotel “is just is nicer all around,” said Grace Lucey, a junior at UMass. “Lincoln was supposed to be demolished because it was, like, condemned.”
Lucey tested negative twice for COVID-19 before being sent to the apartments. Her stay lasted a harrowing 18 days due to confusion surrounding her test results that kept her in quarantine for an extra week.
Lucey said that the refrigerator wasn’t working, so she kept her food cold by leaving it outside her door. Loud noises caused by pipes could be heard every few minutes, and she found nine cockroaches over the period of her stay. Lucey said she voiced these concerns to the UMass workers who called daily to check in, but the issues were never fixed.
A maintenance worker whom Lucey spoke with outside the building told her “they weren’t going to fix anything because the buildings would be demolished,” she said.
Students who stay in Lincoln Apartments also have to bring their own bedding and towels, as well as cookware if they want to use the kitchenette. Those in the hotel don’t have a place to cook.
But not all students had completely negative experiences in the outdated apartments. Lydia Carroll, who tested positive in December, said she was glad to have a place where she could recover safely without exposing her family.
“Like, it is a concrete block and you have to bring everything there yourself,” said Carroll. “But I could imagine a worse place to be in quarantine.”
And Carroll loved the food. As Hescock said, “it’s not just throwing together a bologna and cheese sandwich and saying ‘that’s it.’ ”
But Miley, a vegan, said she was sometimes given food containing meat, including what she thought to be vegan chicken parmesan — the bag was labeled vegan, as well as the ingredients list. She learned the chicken was real meat after she ate the meal.
“I threw up and felt so sick,” she said.
Meanwhile, the hotel lived up to its luxurious expectations.
“I’m just happy to be in the hotel, it’s really nice,” said Camrie Baams, a student who stayed in the hotel for two weeks following an exposure, in a phone interview in November.
With over 5,000 additional students coming to campus in the spring semester, the number of on-campus quarantine and isolation rooms — which include dorms in select residence halls — will increase to accommodate about 600 students at one time, Hescock said. Between 7,000 and 8,000 students are estimated to be living off campus in the spring.
“If they could put more kids in the freaking hotel, that would be great,” Carroll said, laughing. “Overall, I was just happy to have a space where I knew everyone was safe from me, and they didn’t make me pay.”
For the most part, students and parents have been grateful for their time in Lincoln Apartments, university officials said.
“You’re going to get four free meals a day [and] you’re not paying to go to a hotel,” Hescock said. “We’ve received lots of nice thank you notes from parents who didn’t want [their children] to go home or be with roommates.”
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com