Sorority farm party canceled after community complains of COVID-19 threat

Jason Morton
The Tuscaloosa News
Community outcry over a farm party becoming a potential "super spreader" event for COVID-19 let Kappa Delta to cancel its planned Kappa Delta Farm Party hours before it began on Tuesday. [Staff file photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

After a week of outcry and complaints over a a University of Alabama sorority's outdoor farm party, the event was canceled before it could begin.

A University of Alabama spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday night that the Kappa Delta Farm Party, set to take place that night, had been canceled by the sorority.

Lizzie Bonhaus, the president of University of Alabama’s Kappa Delta sorority, said the 11th hour decision was made out of concerns over "the health and safety of our campus community, guests and our members.”

"While we followed all local guidelines and protocols in getting the event approved by the University of Alabama Office of Student Involvement and the City Council," Bonhaus said, "we made the decision to cancel it to protect the health and safety of our campus community, guests and our members."

But residents both in and outside of Tuscaloosa questioned the decision-making that went into sanctioning the event, particularly that of the City Council that gave a final blessing for the party during its Nov. 10 meeting.

With a 4-2 vote, the council approved a special events retail license that would have allowed for alcohol to be served at the party.

The Nov. 10 vote came after more than an hour of discussion and questioning of Brandon Hanks of Downtown Entertainment LLC, the company that was seeking the alcohol license, and Casey Johnson of Special Events Management, the local company behind the planning of the event.

Johnson said during the council meeting that the party was to be limited to 600 people bused to and from the venue – a 180-acre farm, of which about 13 acres is used for events –  in three separate, 200-person shifts.

“This is not a group of 600, 800, 1,000 people at an event at the same time. This will be done in shifts,” Johnson said. “We will be having essentially a six-hour party.”

In addition to limiting the shifts to about 90 minutes each, the organizers were planning other precautions, as well, including temperature checks, mask requirements and social distancing to minimize the threat of COVID-19 infections.

“We’re doing everything that we can to break up those events while sanitizing and keeping things on the buses clean so that when they’re transported back and forth, they’re not put into contact with something that we can’t take care of with a quick sanitation process,” Johnson said.

Johnson explained that organizers as well as the sorority itself would be following guidelines and requirements set forth by UA.

Deidre Stalnaker, director of communications for the Department of Communications, said these requirements included:

• A 30-minute pause between 200-person each group’s arrival and departure is required for the cleaning and sanitizing of tables, chairs and overall venue.

• Attendees will arrive and depart via specially chartered buses filled to 50% rider capacity. Johnson noted that a total of seven buses would’ve been used.

•  No personal vehicles, ride sharing or other other transportation methods allowed.

• Adherence with all state, local, university and national sorority policies, including social distancing and masks.

“This group has followed every single guideline that has been placed in front of them,” Johnson said. “And they have rolled with the punches, so to speak, of things that have been put in front of them to be able to do.”

Hanks, who also owns The Booth bar a few blocks away from City Hall in downtown Tuscaloosa, said the outdoor venue was ideal to ensure such events comply with local, state and federal regulations that are meant to slow the coronavirus spread.

And he urged the City Council to consider the message that sanctioning such an event would send to students planning to return to the Capstone next semester.

“I think you can’t find a better facility, if we do break it up, as far as being COVID-friendly. It is outside and that’s what you hear continuously – they want outside events – and everything I’m doing right now with my business is outside and I’m still running into problems,” Hanks said. “I hope that you guys give a little bit of thought to this coming spring because these kids are going to be coming back, and I don’t know how long we can continue to keep them coming back if they don’t have a college experience to come back to.”

Council President Cynthia Almond said she understood those points.

However, she also was concerned about the potential COVID-19 spread that such an event could cause.

“I know a lot of hard work and preparation, apparently, has gone into this,” Almond said, “and I know kids want to have a good time and I want to support that.

“But, we have recently shut down businesses to not allow this kind of activity … and I have a real concern about the ability that these young adults, whether they’ll social distance properly. I don’t think they will.”

Almond was joined by Councilman Lee Busby in voting against the alcohol license, but four other council members overruled them.

With Councilwoman Raevan Howard absent, Councilwoman Sonya McKinstry said she decided to vote in favor of the license despite her reservations.

“Kids are going to be kids,” McKinstry said. “I’m going to vote yes for it, I don’t feel happy about it. I wish we could just totally stop it completely, but I think there’s a lot of people that could help us in this situation and the university is one of them.

“I think they shouldn’t co-sign thinks like this and make us be the bad parent.”

Councilman Eddie Pugh, who voted in favor of the license as well, agreed with McKinstry.

He highlighted the City Council’s willingness to go along with a University of Alabama request earlier this year to shutter bars and restaurants in order to keep UA from having to close down.

The council did that, crippling downtown business owners and leading to taxpayer-funded assistance to help these businesses remain afloat.

“We worked with them and I, personally, don’t feel like we’ve been getting enough input from UA to say: ‘This is OK,’ ” Pugh said. “It’s almost like they’re putting the load on us to be the bad guys.”

But allowing these events also allows people to remain employed, a point that Johnson made in explaining the lead-up to the council’s vote.

“The driving force is for these venues to be back in business, for these musicians to be able to have Christmas gifts for their kids – all of these things are going be put in jeopardy if events such as this (are banned),” Johnson said. “Health and safety is at the forefront of our minds, and that is why we are following all of the steps and the restrictions that we’ve been given and are doing every single thing that they are asking us to do.

“It’s a train in motion ..., and it’s hard to push a button and tell people they’re no longer going to get any income.”

Photo intern Hannah Saad contributed to this report.

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