This weekend in London, Ont., marks what would usually be Fake Homecoming (FOCO), an annual unsanctioned celebration that often sees thousands descend onto Broughdale Avenue.
The first FOCO came in 2016 in response to Western University administration pushing back official Homecoming celebrations to late-October. The revised Homecoming date is a time when students often deal with exams and the move aimed to curb unsanctioned street parties.
Past FOCO celebrations have seen dozens of hospitalizations, packed streets and policing costs totalling upwards of $300,000.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, local authorities are hoping this year’s FOCO, which would typically fall on Saturday, won’t happen at all.
Last week saw three outbreaks of coronavirus declared in London and since then, Mayor Ed Holder says little activity has been observed in student neighbourhoods.
“Aside from the type of good behaviour we’ve seen over this last week, you’ll also remember in the very early days of the pandemic, specifically during St. Patrick’s Day, we asked young people not to crowd the bars and not to party in student neighbourhoods,” said Holder.
“You know what? Students listened. It was one of the quietest St. Patrick’s Days on record in London.”
Western’s associate vice-president of student experience Jennifer Massey has similar expectations for Saturday.
“We can see from the number of students coming forward to get tested, from the decline in the activity downtown and in our local houses that students really are taking their responsibility to care for themselves, to care for each other and to care for our community seriously,” said Massey.
“I am cautiously optimistic that that will continue throughout the rest of the semester.”
During a media briefing from the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) on Thursday, regional medical officer of health Dr. Chris Mackie made clear the consequences a typical FOCO would bring.
“If we see the sort of FOCO party that we have in the past, it will be an unmitigated public health disaster,” said Mackie.
“These are the sorts of gatherings where you have an enormous number people in very close proximity, moving around and potentially in contact with thousands of others. There’s literally nothing that could spread COVID virus more quickly than that.”
Mackie added that the MLHU has been closely monitoring what may happen this weekend, with students sending information about who’s planning parties and where those potential parties will take place.
Const. Sandasha Bough of London police told Global News that officers would be ready should the need arise.
“Public safety remains our number one priority,” said Bough.
“We are concerned with not only the individuals who may be in attendance, but others in the community as well, with respect to both the pandemic and, if there is an unsanctioned gathering… making sure that we keep those streets clear.”
Cierra McFarlane is a Western student who lives on Broughdale Avenue and says she too, is hoping for a tame FOCO this year.
“I haven’t necessarily heard about anything big happening, but I’m sure that there are going to be some small parties at people’s houses,” said McFarlane. “I don’t think there’s going to be the massive street party that usually happens.”
Similar to the observations noted by London’s mayor, McFarlane added that she’s noticed less activity than usual in her neighbourhood.
“Still, I’ve noticed that there were parties happening in people’s houses and stuff, which kind of sucks that some people aren’t taking it seriously, but there’s definitely less than before,” said McFarlane.
Ali Hill, another student who lives on Broughdale Avenue, says she and her housemates plan on staying indoors on Saturday.
“I can’t imagine the streets will be flooded… I think everybody’s pretty scared,” said Hill.
Hill added that her neighbours have similar plans for a low-key FOCO.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to, if anything they’re just hanging out with the house(mates) themselves and they’re going to drink together or just do nothing,” said Hill.
Yoah Sui is a recent grad who lives near Broughdale Avenue.
While he’s seen house parties start to dwindle down in recent days, he still expects to see partying on Saturday.
“I don’t think it’ll be as big as it normally is, but certainly there will still be activity,” said Sui.
“On our street, there’s a good mix of people who actually live here with families and students who are obviously here for going to school, so (I’m) concerned not just for the students who are obviously going to be exposed to each other, but for the families as well.”
On top of watchful eyes from London police, bylaw enforcement and public health inspectors, potential partiers will also have to contend with new fines implemented by the provincial government for those exceeding current gathering limits.
Introduced last week, the adjusted restrictions have capped private gatherings to 10 people inside (down from 50) and 25 outside (down from 100).
Organizers of gatherings that exceed provincial limits could face a minimum fine of $10,000 and participants in those gatherings could each be fined $750.
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