Virtual rush, no parties: U fraternities and sororities navigate pandemic life

In a normal year, Jacques Frank-Loron and his fellow Beta Theta Pi fraternity members would tailgate before Gophers football games, pair with sororities for date parties and bond during weekly brotherhood events.

This fall, there will be no parties or social events. Half as many Beta Theta Pi members are living in the University of Minnesota fraternity house and most visitors are prohibited. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended Greek life traditions at the U and colleges across the country, forcing fraternities and sororities to socialize from afar and recruit new members virtually.

“Fraternities are not … the same experience at all this year,” said Frank-Loron, Beta Theta Pi’s president. “We’re still trying to figure out bonding in the pandemic environment.”

While fraternities and sororities have been blamed for campus outbreaks and disciplined for COVID-19-related violations elsewhere, chapters at the U have largely avoided such outcomes by limiting social gatherings and the number of members who live in their houses. One recent afternoon, just a few Beta Theta Pi members lounged in their fraternity’s great room — a common area typically flush with students — scrolling screens on their phones and chatting from behind their masks as they passed time between classes.

At the start of the semester, U President Joan Gabel and Board of Regents Chairman Ken Powell sent a letter to Greek leaders asking them to protect their members and fellow students by operating in accordance with public health guidelines.

“You and your members can set a powerful example and reinforce your leadership by ensuring compliance with these requirements,” the letter said.

The university’s Interfraternity Council, which governs 28 fraternities, has barred chapters from holding registered social events at their houses. Fraternities can host philanthropy, alumni and parent events that do not exceed 10 people indoors or outdoors. Social events such as date parties, formals and brotherhood gatherings may be hosted off site at venues such as bars or lodges.

The U’s Panhellenic Council, which represents 14 sororities, is “highly recommending” that chapters hold only virtual events this fall, council President Erin Falline said. So far, she said, she has heard of few in-person sorority events.

Falline, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, said her sorority has followed suit. Members have met virtually and organized educational events such as LinkedIn workshops. On Saturday, they held a philanthropy 5K run in which members ran by themselves or with those in their household.

“We’ve been taking it super seriously,” Falline said of her sorority’s COVID-19 precautions.

Most chapters governed by the Multicultural Greek Council and the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which represents historically Black fraternities and sororities, are operating virtually this fall, according to the U’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.

Members of Alpha Phi Gamma, an Asian-interest sorority, have bonded over weekly Zoom calls, watching movies and shows such as “The Bachelorette” and playing online games like Codenames and Among Us, President Sylvia Wu said.

“It’s definitely really strange,” Wu said. “Given that we have a couple of new members