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The Carletonian

Drinking Where the People Are: How COVID-19 Changed Drinking Culture at Carleton College

The pandemic has affected many areas of public life, as remote work, masks and social distancing have all entered the common vocabulary. Less apparent are the changes occurring within people’s homes. According to a USA Today study, drinking rates in the U.S. have risen sharply since 2020, with a reported 1 in 5 people consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol. 

While more drinking is happening nationwide, changes may be different for college students.  Party and drinking culture is a large part of some students’ college experience, but the pandemic has narrowed opportunities for large, alcohol-centric events. 

Over the past few years, Carleton has reported a decline in the number of students that said alcohol was central to social life on campus, from 80 % in 2018, 65% in 2019, and 60% in 2020. The Office of Health Promotion (OHP) reports that less than a quarter of students noted binge drinking in a two-week period, whereas, in 2018, this made up 31% of students. (Binge drinking corresponds to 5 or more drinks (male) or 4 or more drinks (female) for a two-hour period.) 

Not many current students know what social life on campus was like before March 2020. Michael Schultz ’22, a history major, remembers how Freshman year “it was customary to go out with friends multiple times a week (…) There were massive parties with tons of alcohol.” 

For the cross country and track teams, “parties were in huge groups and were a pretty big part of [the] team weekend culture,” with alcohol playing a predominant role. Student A ’23, a student on the women’s team, recalled that she “would definitely be inclined to drink a lot.” 

For Benjamin Takahashi-Willmore ’22 on the men’s swim team, drinking also played a big role during his Freshman and Sophomore years. After spending a year in Argentina, where he would drink moderately on weekends, he noticed a big difference in Carleton’s drinking culture: “I felt like at Carleton there was a lot more binge drinking or drinking to get drunk.” 

On the whole, pre-pandemic times saw an active weekend party culture, coupled with large quantities of alcohol. When March 2020 rolled around and roughly 2,000 students were sent home indefinitely, many students found themselves far removed from large gatherings and drinking environments. 

Several students reported an immediate drop in alcohol consumption with the campus departure due to COVID-19. Back in their parents’ residence, once-heavy-drinkers found themselves outside their normal drinking settings. A student who wished to remain anonymous, a political science major, claims that she didn’t drink at all in the spring of 2020 because she was with family.

Completing school remotely from his grandparents’ home, Takahashi-Willmore found himself occasionally having a glass of wine at dinner, but this was a far cry from the binge-drinking environment he’d witnessed in previous terms.

Although the pandemic was nowhere close to over, campus reopened for fall term — language like “pods” and “social distancing” in common usage. In general, students were worried about contracting COVID-19 and their party behavior reflected that. “Nothing really happened,” said Student B ’22, a SOAN major and student-athlete. “There were a lot of smaller settings after COVID-19 started; in my own room or house instead of in some random person’s room at a party.”

A passerby could occasionally see blinking lights or hear booming music coming from a dorm room, but for the most part, students kept to their pods and left the big drinking events for a different time.

When spring term came around, everything changed. With students in Minnesota allowed to get vaccinated, Carls took to driving hours to get their shots.  By May, many students were fully vaccinated, and back to partying. 

“Things kind of went crazy,” the anonymous student recalls. “We were so tired of just not doing anything, when we could go party, it was very liberating.”

Campus was still not normal, though. Besides the online classes and mask mandate, many traditional spring events were canceled. Schultz thinks back to his freshman year. “People went pretty crazy spring term with Rottblatt and Sproncert. Those events had a lot of alcohol.” Rottblatt, the famed softball game and day of free beer, was shut down preemptively in 2021, and other traditions such as Sponcert (Spring Concert) and “the wedding” failed to happen, as well. Though parties were once again put on students’ radars, the scale of these events was still unmatched to those of former times. 

While on the one hand, Carleton students have reported a decline in alcohol consumption, in part due to the lack of large social gatherings, some students are still reliant on alcohol. Student C said her friends have been much more depressed since the pandemic and have fallen more heavily on drinking and smoking.

The consumption of alcohol in smaller settings or even while alone may point to more serious consequences. It may take years to know the full impact COVID-19 has had on drinking culture, for those affected during college, and for the wider U.S. population. 

What we know is that the college reported lower rates of drinking for 2020 compared to previous years. However, the surge in alcohol consumption for the general U.S. population points to wider realities and ways of coping with stress. As Student C suggests, many Carleton students are turning to alcohol and other substances to deal with the struggles the pandemic has brought. Drinking may be down at Carleton for the most part, but setting and availability may have more to do with this than choice.

As there are more studies regarding alcohol consumption, specifically of college-aged students, it will be interesting to see how drinking culture has changed or has not changed, at a larger scale. The group of Carleton students interviewed suggests something about certain demographics within Carleton, but there are many views that were unable to be reached. 

It is clear that the pandemic has made a big impact on Carleton’s party culture but Student B believes “it can quickly go back to what it used to be.” Whether that’s true or not, we shall see. 

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