Many high schools and colleges across America canceled in-person graduations during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, but Hillsdale College decided to host an in-person ceremony a few months late. The college approached state and local authorities, worked with the local health department and four epidemiologists, and hosted a crowd of roughly 2,000 people on July 18. More than two weeks later, no new coronavirus cases have been traced to the ceremony.
“Lo and behold, the Black Plague of death didn’t descend on Hillsdale,” Bob Norton, Hillsdale’s general counsel and a former attorney for Chrylser, told PJ Media.
Hillsdale reached out to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) and Attorney General Dana Nessel (D-Mich.), asking about the prospective graduation. “They didn’t want to tell us no,” Norton recalled. Instead, they encouraged Hillsdale to speak with local officials.
In mid-June, the college spoke with a local prosecutor. “We basically gave him a legal briefing on First Amendment grounds, defending the commencement as expressive First Amendment activity,” which Whitmer’s executive orders allowed for. “He said, ‘What you’re doing is fine,'” Norton recalled.
The college also notified the local health department of its plans on June 22, asking for advice and concerns. “They didn’t have any constructive input,” the lawyer said. Later on, as the ceremony approached, the health director sent an internal letter to her team, saying she was “very disappointed.”
“We’d already told everybody attending [that] the vulnerable shouldn’t attend,” Norton explained. “We told everybody to follow the governor’s edicts on face masks and hand sanitizing. We’re going to do this in a respectful way, with an abundance of caution.”
The college used six-foot spacing, required face masks, and provided hand sanitizer. They moved the graduation ceremony’s location to the football field. “We consulted four different epidemiologists,” the lawyer told PJ Media.
The ceremony included just over 2,000 people, smaller than a usual commencement but still fairly sizable for an event during the coronavirus pandemic. The college — which has hosted many notable speakers for commencement including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Vice President Mike Pence — did not have a “big name” speaker but tapped one of the professors to give the commencement address.
After the graduation ceremony, the local prosecutor spoke with Hillsdale. “He congratulated us and said we were a class act,” Norton recalled. “He said, ‘You should feel proud of what you did.'”
The local hospital told PJ Media that there have been 41 new coronavirus cases in Hillsdale since July 18, but that there is “still no tie to graduation at the college at this time.” Only four people have been hospitalized in the past two weeks and there have been no new deaths. (Twenty-five residents of Hillsdale, Mich., have died from COVID-19.)
Norton insisted that Hillsdale’s graduation ceremony should pave the way for more “nuance” when it comes to living with the coronavirus pandemic. He suggested that other events, such as baseball games, should allow for live audiences while requiring social distancing. He also offered to share Hillsdale’s guidelines for the graduation ceremony with other schools.
“We will share the protocol we followed with any school or high school,” he said. “We think it’s an overabundance of caution,” but it seems to work.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.