For the most part, the University of Texas students in my neighborhood in Austin seem to be avoiding COVID-19 even more diligently than the rest of us. They wear masks at the store. They limit the size of their gatherings. Backpacks bouncing and face shields bobbing, they politely move to the other side of the street when you cross paths with them on their way to campus.
But some of the students have validated the fears that festered among residents in late summer, when their return to campus was imminent. One development in particular has become the locus of the neighborhood’s pandemic anxiety. The developers call it a “boutique apartment project,” but neighbors call it a “stealth dorm”—a complex wherein groups of students cram into apartments in college-housing-like arrangements. The students living there are party-prone, and one afternoon in August they emerged from the building, Solo cups in hand, and unfolded a table for beer pong on the sidewalk.
Across the street, neighbor Terry McGinty snapped. McGinty and her husband had heard car doors slamming all afternoon as the gathering grew. They saw students wandering in and out of the building, maskless and within droplet range. McGinty went outside and began taking photos.
When girls in the group noticed they were being photographed, they all scattered—except for one, who was facing the other way. Finally the girl, confused, turned around and saw McGinty standing across the street. “I think they’re hiding,” McGinty called out to her. The boys in the group stood by, uselessly, as McGinty explained that there are COVID-19 restrictions in place; the girl stammered out her apologies.
McGinty, concerned for the students’ safety and panicked for the neighborhood—“we’re all going to the same grocery store”—then reported the students using the Austin 311 app. In the early days of the pandemic, someone had reported a party at another house near McGinty’s, and two officers from Austin Code showed up at McGinty’s house by mistake the next day. But after her 311 report, she didn’t receive a callback from any city service as she expected. The students did take their gatherings indoors but, McGinty added, “I’m not sure that’s better.”
Weeks later, a neighbor of another suspected “stealth dorm,” Andrew Malof, heard a party next door. He was used to overlooking the noise, as he sometimes plays music loudly himself. “If it wasn’t for the current situation I would have just gone inside and ignored it, which is what I’ve done historically,” he said. But Malof estimated there were at least 25 people at the house. After he confronted the students and received “the one-fingered salute,” he called the police. The students told the officers who responded that the gathering comprised just the residents of the house and their significant others; the officers reminded them of noise ordinances and left.
When McGinty and Malof later shared their frustrations on Nextdoor, the responses were mixed. Some neighbors thanked them for reporting the incidents. Others lamented that UT had allowed students back at all. Still others encouraged empathy for students deprived of the college experience. “I fear the current informant culture is only causing rebellion and not compliance,” one woman wrote in response to Malof’s complaint.
In theory, nobody likes a tattletale. In practice, we rat each other out a lot: in scathing Yelp reviews, in indignant tweets, in complaints filed to the Better Business Bureau. That Americans can hold both a taboo against tattling and a mad lust for petty vengeance in our hearts is one of our most charming contradictions. And never has this contradiction been more salient than during the pandemic. Even as heightened mistrust of law enforcement has fanned anti-snitch sentiments—flyers around Austin read, “Instead of calling racist pigs into your neighborhood, get to know your neighbors!”—a public health crisis has made us extra-alert to our neighbors’ behavior. This week, calls to Airbnb’s complaint hotline about parties led to the removal of eighty Texas listings. And across the state, nonemergency lines have been overwhelmed by citizens reporting businesses and individuals for pandemic faux pas.
From May to early September, Austin 311 received 5,222 reports of individuals and businesses shirking face covering and social distancing rules. The bulk of the requests related to “face covering non-compliance” by businesses. (At least one of those requests came from my neighbor, who called 311 when the front desk staff in her dentist’s office were not wearing their masks properly—“at a place where they f*** around in your mouth!”) From mid-March to late August, Houston 311 received 11,876 reports of COVID-19 violations, and as of Wednesday, Dallas 311 had received 9,530 reports from citizens.
There’s a popular misconception that 311 is an elite squad of problem solvers dispatched in the night to assuage citizens’ grievances; it’s actually a switchboard to city services. When Austin 311 receives a COVID-19 service request, for instance, the request is passed on to either the Austin Code Department or the Austin Police Department (the Austin Fire Department handles “bar in operation” violations).
What happens after a violation is reported depends on the jurisdiction, but most cities in Texas have taken a lax, education-based approach to enforcement throughout the pandemic: Dallas has issued 6,164 notices of violation, but has issued only 37 citations, which carry penalties. Even when salon owner Shelley Luther reopened her business before shutdown orders lifted and was temporarily held in contempt of court and jailed, pressure from Texas Republicans pushed Governor Greg Abbott to allow salons to reopen after all. Since then, the state has largely relied on a voluntary compliance, “it’s your responsibility” plan. The question of how best to act during a pandemic has hot-potatoed down from the state to the city to the employer and then to the individual—the anxious neighbor who, overwhelmed, calls 311.
There is a stigma attached to “snitching,” even in the context of a public health crisis. In early April, the City of Frisco rolled out an addition to the city’s myFRISCO app, a 311-like tool for connecting with city services. Texans were in the confused juncture between the “maybe the virus will just skip us” optimism of March and the blithe fatalism of the summer. It was, Mayor Jeff Cheney said, “the height of community anxiety.” Cheney, the fire chief, and others on the city’s emergency management team were being swamped by requests and concerns from Friscoans, so on April 9, the city announced on social media that an update to the app would make it easier for staff to keep track of and respond to “concerns about lack of social distancing or non-essential business.”
The internet came for Cheney immediately and mercilessly. He is an unusually accessible mayor, and the email and cellphone number he makes available to the public were bombarded with complaints. Some lambasted him for creating a “snitching app,” a few even using language that verged on hate speech. Cheney believes that at first, the bulk of the complaints were from people outside of Frisco who were unaware that the myFRISCO app had been used without incident for many kinds of service requests since 2017.
Within days, Cheney had removed the new feature and issued a statement on Facebook. “I personally apologize for any misunderstanding of the intent and take blame as I felt it was a good idea at the time to reduce some of the volume of emails our Emergency Operations team was receiving,” Cheney wrote. “However, I understand the criticism, which I find to be fair, and it has always been my goal for people to be in this together and not against one another.”
I asked Cheney why he thought the new feature had excited such strong anti-snitch sentiments. He does not defend the feature, but he does believe that several misunderstandings contributed to the backlash. “There was a perception that the city was actually asking residents to ‘snitch’ on one another, essentially, to use your word, which was never the intent or the case at all. In fact, in Frisco we’ve been very diligent about being open that we were not following up.” When a resident made a report, Cheney said, staffers generally responded to the citizen making the complaint by explaining why Frisco had chosen a voluntary compliance model, and why they “weren’t going to send police officers out to a park if they saw children playing on a playground.”
Of course, citizens reporting one another’s behavior preceded Cheney’s app and this pandemic: any time a crisis requires citizens to adjust their own behavior for the good of all—whether to stop watering their lawns in a drought or to start wearing a mask in a pandemic—a shaming culture arises. Sociologists say public shaming doesn’t do much to correct behavior on a grand scale; tattling probably doesn’t either. But privately shaming people for violations “works” insofar as it helps ease the frustration of people who are following the rules when others are not.
McGinty told me that when she reported the students across the street from her, she didn’t really have any expectations of consequences—“I don’t really know what consequences would make them follow procedures,” she said. She hoped that Austin Code would pay the students a visit and put the fear of COVID in them, or that UT might give them a warning. But mostly she was frustrated.
The Nextdoor philosopher responding to Malof referred to our “current informant culture,” but perhaps ours is more of a venting culture. When public health has become the responsibility of the individual, we can’t do much else but follow the rules ourselves—and complain when others don’t.