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COVID-19: London officials hopeful but prepared as Homecoming approaches

Mayor Ed Holder says the city is mainly focusing its monitoring efforts on Broughdale Avenue, a neighbourhood near Western University that often saw heavy partying around this time of year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Andrew Graham / Global News

Officials in London, Ont., are bracing for the worst, but hoping for the best as Western University‘s Homecoming weekend gets underway.

While the weekend, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, itself is filled with virtual celebrations and tame in-person events, concerns from local officials are rising amid the potential for massive unsanctioned street parties on Saturday.

The unsanctioned parties, which largely involve students and are organized outside of Western’s purview, were a common occurrence around this weekend prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While an estimated 25,000 people had attended similar celebrations in 2019, last year saw students skip out on the parties after local officials issued warnings tied to coronavirus concerns.

Read more: COVID-19: MLHU issue new orders ahead of potential HoCo, FoCo weekend celebrations

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During a briefing hosted by the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) on Thursday, Mayor Ed Holder urged students to once again skip out on the celebrations.

“I am absolutely and terribly concerned that another student is going to get hurt or worse, and I think Western, in just a few short weeks, has been through enough already,” Holder said.

Much of the attention is being placed on Broughdale Avenue, an neighbourhood in London’s Old North neighbourhood that sits just south of Western University.

Broughdale, which is largely comprised of student housing, would often see thousands gather on its roadway during pre-pandemic Homecoming weekend or Fake Homecoming (FoCo) weekend, an informal bash that was organized in protest of Western pushing back its Homecoming date in an effort to reduce unsanctioned parties.

This year marks the first time since 2015 that Homecoming Saturday will fall on its original late September date.

“During the time when the threat of a fourth wave of COVID-19 is not only revealed, but present, and when we have seen escalating incidents of violence, I would say that out of concern for everyone’s safety and well-being … avoid Broughdale,” Holder added.

Read more: Union calls for province to institute distancing, capacity limits at Ontario universities

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A number of steps have already been taken to prepare for potential partying on Saturday.

As of Thursday at noon, new orders issued by the MLHU are in effect which essentially double the fines for violating Ontario’s social gathering guidelines.

The province currently caps gatherings at 25 people indoors and 100 outdoors, and exceeding those numbers can now result in a $750 fine for individuals and a $1,000 fine for businesses or organizations under the new local orders.

Medical officer of health for the MLHU Dr. Chris Mackie says while he can’t predict what will happen on Saturday, there’s been a lack of party planning on social media compared to years past.

“I guess that’s encouraging, but it’s also quite possible that that planning is in a place that’s not as easily visible,” Mackie said.

“I’m seeing a rain prediction of 80 per cent on Saturday. That may be something that contributes in a positive way, we’ll see.”

London Mayor Ed Holder. Matthew Trevithick / Global News

Holder says the city has detailed plans in place for Saturday, but adds that they are “operational issues that I am not going to make public.”

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A number of agencies are partnering on a proactive effort to curb unsanctioned street parties, including city officials, Western and its campus police service, the Western University Students’ Council, local police, local paramedics and the MLHU.

“What you’ll see is significant law enforcement present in the Broughdale area, you’ll see our paramedics’ services teams there that’ll be on hand to support as needed, and I’d like to add the police won’t hesitate to administer fines as they did earlier this week,” Holder said.

“Last weekend was relatively quiet and so I’m hopeful, maybe in politics you have to be a little bit like that, but I’m hopeful this weekend will reflect that.”

Read more: Patrons of London, Ont. bar advised to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms due to exposure risk

On Thursday, Global News spoke to Western students who live on or near Broughdale Avenue to hear their expectations for this weekend.

Jackson Lees, who is in his first year at Western, says he’s heard of a hesitancy to party from his peers, but wouldn’t be surprised to see some gatherings.

“I think a lot of people are kind of over COVID, so I don’t think they’re really paying as much attention to the risks,” Lees said.

“You have to be vaccinated to attend class, so I think it’s a lot safer than it was last year.”

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A first-year student at Western University, Jackson Lees says he’s heard of a hesitancy to party from his peers.

Olivia Grosso is in her third year at Western. While she’s not expecting massive street parties, Grosso also made note of vaccines, with the school requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for anyone who plans to be on campus this year.

“I feel like people don’t really understand how safe we are. We always are washing our hands, getting vaccinated, doing everything they want,” Grosso said.

The student added that there’s also COVID-19 risks present in classrooms at Western, a concern that was raised by the union representing support staff at the university in a news conference on Thursday.

“Obviously it’s for our education, but at the same time, COVID is COVID. I’m sitting beside random people in lecture halls that are not socially distanced,” Grosso said.

Read more: COVID-19: Western University update shows 98% of students, 97% of faculty are vaccinated

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Fellow third-year student Desa Vorkapich says police have been visiting her and her neighbours this week to warn them of the potential consequences of massive gatherings.

“I get that, because I feel like since Broughdale hasn’t had a (Homecoming), they’re just trying to make sure that kids aren’t jumping off roofs,” Vorkapich said.

“As long as people are smart and not out here doing crazy stuff, it’s fine then, people just need to use their heads.”

Liam Murphy, a second-year student who lives on Broughdale, says his house has already had two visits from police regarding this weekend, which has him concerned about the potential for fines or charges.

“I’m sure a lot of people will show up, I think it’s up to how the cops play a part in it and if they’re shutting things down right away or if they’re letting things continue,” Murphy said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Read more: COVID-19: London businesses, customers adapt to Ontario’s vaccine certificate system

In a statement shared on Thursday, Western said “about 100 additional security guards have been assigned across campus” heading into the weekend. This comes on top of plans to hire “up to 100 new safety ambassadors” in student residences and “increasing special constables who are patrolling campus by 33 per cent.”

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The school added that “mandatory, in-person training on consent, personal safety and sexual violence awareness and prevention” began this week.

“Unsanctioned parties are inherently unsafe spaces, where real harm happens,” said Western president Alan Shepard.

“This weekend, we’re asking students to keep their circles small, stick with friends they trust and show respect and care for each other, and for the community.”

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