On Feb. 15, Wheaton students gathered in Saga and Lower Beamer for “Mask-querade,” a night of fine dining, socially-distanced dancing, a photo booth and games like “Pin the Mask.”
Since the event’s inception in 2012, Wheaton’s College Union (CU) has hosted the President’s Ball — commonly called Prez Ball — all over Chicago, from Navy Pier in 2013 and Union Station in 2015, to last year’s event at the Field Museum. Due to group limits of 50, venue closures and other distancing policies put into place by the Covid Response Team, Prez Ball joined a long list of cancelled events this year. But rather than cutting it from the calendar entirely, CU decided to find an alternative way to host a fancy party within COVID constraints.
“We wanted to give the seniors something to send them off and also introduce the freshman to a little bit of what Prez Ball is like,” said CU president and junior economics major Matt Meloch. “We wanted to give people the space to have fun and dress up.”
In a typical year, Wheaton students get President’s Day off, and most spend the time getting ready for a ball in downtown Chicago. Even though classes were still in session this year, CU still wanted to commemorate the day. Prez Ball planning usually takes place months before President’s Day, with plenty of time to reserve a venue and arrange other details. This time around, the team had three weeks to create and host a brand new event.
“[Mask-querade] was put together right when we knew we’d be back on campus [for spring semester], because we were waiting to see if we’d come back in time for President’s Day,” said Meloch.
Not only was CU working with limited time, they were also working under the constraints of “COVID-Safe, Thunder-Strong” regulations.
“Event programming is fun, but could be a little challenging in general when you are trying to care and be mindful of people from so many walks of life,” said Intercultural Arts Associate and CU’s advisor Stevener Gaskin, “but with COVID it’s times a thousand.”
College Union built Mask-querade around the restructured dining situation in Anderson Commons, which features to-go meals and socially-distanced dining tables.
“The idea for the event came from Saga’s flow,” Meloch said. “They’ve figured out how to filter 1,100 people in and out every breakfast, lunch and dinner. If they can do it, CU could be able to do the same thing.”
CU created a “moving event,” beginning with a steak dinner in Saga before heading to Lower Beamer for music, photos and socializing. Students were asked to sign up on Eventbrite for a one-hour spot from 5-9 p.m. to respect capacity limits.
Despite attempted safety measures, some students reported that attendees did not abide by the COVID-safe rules. Junior psychology major Viv Ling arrived at 7:30 p.m. but left after 15 minutes when he saw students crowding together.
“I saw lots of people wearing their masks incorrectly, and large crowds made it hard to move around,” Ling said. “Security tried to enforce the rules, but there were too many people and enforcement wasn’t strict enough.”
Gaskin anticipated this possibility while planning for the event. “I’m always on edge about following these protocols, because whenever you get a large amount of people in a space you’ve got to manage the crowd, and that can be difficult,” he said.
In the designated dancing space outside of Stupe, Residence Life staff, Gaskin and five CU cabinet members monitored groups of students and separated them if they gathered too close. Partygoers spread throughout Lower Beamer, though, and Ling noticed that not every area was supervised.
“I get that people really wanted a Prez Ball this year; I did, too,” Ling said. “But I think this event was doomed from the start. When you add the factors of a pandemic with college students who long for a return to normalcy and how difficult it is to enforce rules in large crowds, this event seems like a bad investment.”
In an email to the Record, Gaskin stated that pre-registration was intended to stagger crowds and help with any necessary contact tracing. He also said that CU members and staff were vigilant during the event.
“Throughout the night I found myself as well as others enforcing our rules of social distancing, and breaking up crowds,” Gaskin said.
According to Mask-querade attendees, wristbands were necessary to get into the dining hall, but there was no process to enforce the one-hour time limit once they went downstairs to Lower Beamer.
Other students reported that they thought the event went smoothly. Freshman Jacob Kraker went with his roommates and had a socially-distanced dance-off at the taped squares in front of the DJ booth.
“It’s all you can ask for in a pandemic,” Kraker said in-between dances. “It’s special to get dressed up and have a good time, especially these days.”
For seniors Rachael Minnich, Janaya Feiner and Kari Orth the night was bittersweet; much like their last year at Wheaton so far.
“[Mask-querade] pales in comparison to last year’s Prez Ball, but it sure is nice to get out of sweatpants,” Feiner said.
Minnich added, “It’s our one chance of the year to dress up. I know it’s not the Field Museum, but it’s better than nothing.”
For these seniors the night set a precedent for the potential return to typical college events. “The fact that there was some sort of in-person Prez Ball gives me hope that there will be some sort of in-person graduation,” Orth said.
Wheaton College, IL