A sign at the entrance of campus tells University of Maine students and visitors to wear face coverings on campus. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Students attending Maine’s public universities who host large parties that exceed the state’s limits on gathering sizes could be punished by suspension or dismissal.

The University of Maine System issued that warning on Friday, just days before most students start arriving back on campuses for the start of the fall semester amid evidence elsewhere in the U.S. that college parties have led to COVID-19 outbreaks.

State coronavirus restrictions limit indoor gatherings to 50 people and outdoor events to 100 people. In either setting, the state requires that there be sufficient space for those in attendance to keep a 6 feet of distance between them.

Those rules are now part of the University of Maine System’s code of conduct and apply to on- and off-campus gatherings, including those held at private residences, fraternities and sororities.

Students who attend parties that violate the conduct code can also be punished. They could face community service, probation or suspension.

Student parties and large gatherings have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks all over the country, and UMaine students and Orono residents have recently expressed concern about the potential for the coronavirus to spread as students return to campus, and particularly if they host large parties. Colleges in other states have taken similar actions to the ones described in the university system’s conduct code, with students who hosted parties facing suspension.

In Maine, there is now early evidence of large gatherings causing outbreaks. A wedding reception in Millinocket held in early August that 65 guests attended has so far resulted in 32 people testing positive for the coronavirus.

“Off-campus parties jeopardize public health and our ability to educate students on our campuses,” University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. “The fate of the fall semester is in the hands of our students and many are stepping up to help lead our health and safety initiatives.”