By Donald Gilpin, Town Topics


More than 100 demonstrators — community members and University students — gathered on the walkways stretching from FitzRandolph Gate on Nassau Street to Nassau Hall on Saturday afternoon, February 13, to demand that Princeton University share its contact tracing and COVID testing resources with surrounding communities.

In an event sponsored by Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA), Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC), Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), Divest Princeton, and Princeton University Policy Student Government (PUPSG) and lasting more than an hour in the sleet and freezing rain, the speakers also called on the University to democratize all major University decision-making, to include members of the larger community, especially on issues related to the COVID pandemic and other health and safety matters.

“I call upon my fellow students to stand in solidarity with our neighbors from Princeton and the surrounding municipalities, and demand that our University extend its free testing, free tracing, and eventual free vaccination services to this local region that is deeply impacted by whatever plan this University adopts,” PAAC member Peter Scharer, a Princeton undergraduate, told the crowd.

He went on to emphasize the importance of including local residents, especially those residents who are uninsured, underinsured or undocumented, in the decision-making process. “We must demand that residents, workers, and students alike have a democratic say in the University’s COVID plans, so as to avoid further harm caused by the inevitable austere measures of an unaccountable administration,” he said.

The bilingual event, with speeches in Spanish and English, included speakers from the sponsoring organizations with a mix of community members, University graduate students, and undergraduates. Many related stories of hardship and suffering along with their pleas for resources and help from the University in battling the pandemic. University junior and PAAC organizer Marc Schorin noted, “We don’t want your charity. We want your solidarity. It’s not about feeling bad or pity. These people are fighting for their rights, the things that they need.”

Demonstrators, several with signs or banners with such messages as “Democratize all COVID-related Decisions!” “COVID Support for All,” and “None of us are safe until all of us are safe,” all wore masks and maintained social distance along the pathways in front of Nassau Hall.

Princeton Mayor Mark Freda, in a February 16 email, noted that there had been substantive cooperation between the University and the town of Princeton over the past year, with town and University officials meeting weekly to discuss issues arising from the pandemic. He did suggest that in the area of COVID testing there was room for improvement and expansion in working with the University. Mercer County provides free testing to its residents, but that testing is not always readily available or convenient to access.

Freda pointed out that the University handles contact tracing for their staff and all their students on campus, and that “this effort is done in communication and cooperation with our Health Officer.” He continued, “The University shoulders the heavy load on this, and we are in the loop to help protect the town. For COVID-positive University students who live off campus, the town and University collaborate on quarantine and isolation protocols.”

On the issue of vaccine rollout, Freda explained that the state of New Jersey controls who gets the vaccine and the priority now is to get more vaccines from the state. He described town-gown cooperation early on in the vaccine rollout.

“The University has purchased freezers capable of storing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” he said, “and that storage capability has been extended to the town for our use. The town was able to receive the vaccine earlier from the state due to the freezer/refrigerator capabilities provided by the University. So that is a big plus. We just need to get a larger supply of vaccine coming into Mercer County so we can try to get approval to use this tool.”

Freda added that the University has offered to provide Jadwin Gym as a mass vaccine site for both the town and the University if “we can get enough vaccine in the near future to make this possible.”

Princeton University Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss concurred with Freda’s observations on cooperation between the town and the University, but stated that the University is an educational institution, “not a hospital, a health care provider, or a commercial clinical lab.” He noted that Princeton does not have a medical school or school of public health, but focuses on teaching and research, “and is making a difference during this pandemic through its research and teaching, not by becoming a health care provider.”

Hotchkiss went on to point out contributions the University is making to the larger community in collaboration with area health officials; through its support for the local community; through its own efforts to limit the spread of COVID among its students, employees and others; and through the work of its researchers.

In regard to vaccine distribution, Hotchkiss stated that the University has not received any vaccines and does not know when or how many vaccines the state might provide. State officials asked the University to be prepared to serve as a fixed facility or closed point of distribution (POD) to vaccinate University students, faculty, and staff and their households.

“The University is collaborating with the local officials with regard to vaccines, storing doses in our specialized cold storage facilities, hosting community clinics on campus, and assisting with the staffing of these clinics,” Hotchkiss wrote.

As far as the University’s COVID testing policies are concerned, Hotchkiss suggested that with limited medical infrastructure and the “tremendous strain on the dedicated staff of University Health Services and staff across the University who are assisting with the program,” the University would be unlikely to extend testing beyond the immediate Princeton University community. He also noted that in receiving necessary government approvals for testing, the University agreed to test only its own students, faculty, staff, and limited others who work or live on campus.

In concluding his three-page statement in response to the demands voiced by the anti-austerity demonstrators, Hotchkiss emphasized the widespread involvement in Princeton University’s decision-making, with ongoing conversations that “include key interlocutors, including the elected members of local government — the mayor and town Council — and officials from the state of New Jersey, including the Department of Health and the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.”

The PAAC seems determined to continue to press its demands. “We’re trying to force their hand by protesting,” said Schorin. “We understand realistically that this is just the beginning of a longer struggle.”

Felice Physioc, a graduate student in the Princeton University Department of History, a member of PAAC, and one of the organizers of the demonstration, described feelings of exasperation and outrage reflected in the speeches, particularly among members of the immigrant community. She mentioned the University’s rich endowment and resources, more of which could serve the community.

“We want more members of the town to have a say in the decisions that impact the town and are being made by very few people at the University,” she said. “The University has so much money, and who has a say in what they do with it?”

Physioc suggested that the PAAC was already making plans for further action. “We ended the protest by saying this is just the beginning,” she said. “We’re in this for the long haul. We love a good demonstration, and we’re not into petitions. The best way to get your voice heard is to physically show up.”