With classes in-person and assignments ramping up, the hustle and bustle of campus life feels like it’s in full force. The Tully is packed, and so are schedules. Weekends are often spent shoulder-to-shoulder at townhouse parties. Things are busy, people are social, and life is good.
Should you ask an upperclassman how this compares to any “normal year”, things feel very similar, with one exception: the mask.
Loved and hated, depending on the person, the face masks we’ve all grown accustomed to have been used in various capacities this fall. Some students wear their masks over their mouth and nose, per university guidelines. Some go for the infamous “chin diaper” look, while other brave individuals go without one.
Regardless, the notion that most people are following mask protocol appropriately should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s just not true.
Residential Assistant Pedro Garcia ‘24 points this out, saying “it’s become really apparent that students and even faculty are completely burnt out on mask wearing. Whether it be walking out of the building on their way to class, or studying in lounges, students sometimes don’t even bother to have a mask on them, never mind wear one.”
The question remains: at this point in time, can we blame them? From the standpoint of comfort, it’s obvious that mask-wearing is not preferred. But from a moralist perspective, what matters is how our choices affect public health. As the upstanding, service-oriented and Jesuit-educated students that we are, we need to honestly ask ourselves how our mask-habits affect other people.
Thus we need to examine the age-old question in context with the current state of the pandemic, with respect to our university, our area, and our vaccination status. Out of concern for those around us: do we need to wear masks?
Analysis into the data surrounding the areas prompted above give us a clear yet frowned upon answer: no. Before we provoke outrage, consider the following.
Per the most recent data provided by the university, Fairfield has zero active positive cases of COVID-19, of 708 people tested through the week ending on October 29. That boils down to a 0 percent positivity rate. May I also suggest that Fairfield University has a 93.5 percent vaccination rate, hugely diminishing both the likelihood and severity of contracting COVID-19.
Further, Fairfield County has 6.5 positive cases daily per every 100,000 people, according to data from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, which is a marginal risk that the county has reacted to by removing the mask mandate indoors.
Should we consider guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: our majority vaccinated population ought to “wear a mask indoors in public if [we] are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” Consulting the facts above, the level of transmission on our campus and in our surrounding area is close to none, and thus our vaccinated population (assuming one is not particularly at risk for other reasons) should not need to wear a mask indoors.
We must consider the argument that the reason for such low transmission is the fact that we are still wearing masks; thus, removing the Fairfield University’s indoor mask mandate would be regressive, leading to high transmission. This, again, is not true. Aside from the already mentioned fact that students and faculty are not fully following and enforcing this mask mandate for it to be as effective as its being portrayed, it has been shown repeatedly through campus-held “outdoor” events that cases have not spiked when students have come into close contact during large gatherings; in other words, chaos has yet to break out.
The CDC says that wearing a mask outdoors is less necessary than indoors, assuming the outdoor location has “greater ventilation and air exchange, where you can keep at least six feet apart from others during the activity.” It is not the commonly accepted notion encouraged by those who believe in the high effectiveness of the indoor mask mandate that any outdoor event or gathering is safe without a mask.
This is interesting then, because in this case we’ve all seen the lack of necessity for wearing a mask indoors. One large “outdoor” event that comes to mind is the Presidential Ball, which encompassed over one thousand Fairfield students for each time slot, outside in a large tent, pressed up against each other over the course of four hours, sweating, dancing and breathing on others. Nobody was six feet apart, and there was no need for them to be. Is this not why a majority of us got the vaccine to begin with?
According to the CDC, “the greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people who are much more likely to get infected, and therefore transmit the virus;” this is referring to not just COVID-19, but the new Delta variant as well. The CDC also shares that COVID-19 vaccines in the United States are “highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, including against the Delta variant.” Masks are mentioned as “layered prevention strategies to reduce the transmission of this variant.”
Do we still need this “layered prevention strategy” with a 93.5 percent vaccination rate on campus?
Numbers aside, however, we must face the catalyst of our ever-present mask controversy: people would rather be safe than sorry.
But we can’t ignore the other obvious truth that masks, besides no longer necessary, are another marker of social isolation. They keep us from expressing ourselves fully, literally covering our faces. Masks make us feel like we are to be feared and avoided. We don’t want to feel that way. And considering the very safe circumstances we are so fortunate to enjoy right now, we shouldn’t have to.
When will precautionary measures end? COVID-19 is not going away, variants are not going to stop mutating from the disease; that’s how the science works. Vaccines have been available for long enough now that anyone who wants the vaccine and is a part of our campus community could have gotten fully vaccinated, unless of course the individual has underlying health issues preventing it, a religious conflict, or some other personal reason for their choice.
Are we going to be wearing masks forever just to “play it safe?” It seems scarier that we are still normalizing mask-wearing, something that when no longer necessary, should not be normalized or encouraged for the reasons mentioned above, even amidst a time where vaccination statuses are high.
Concerningly, of several students prompted for quotes, none felt comfortable voicing their opinions. That in it of itself makes it clear that the culture surrounding this issue is moving away from logic and toward mere compliance.
Security is valued; this is true. But we must weigh the consequences of the restrictions we impose. Once again, masks are isolating; they make us feel disconnected. And among an age group that is adversely affected by poor mental health, we need to consider the larger implications of a never-ending culture of fear and isolation. What is the bigger risk here?
A study from the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry notes that “social isolation and loneliness [related to Covid-19] increased the risk of depression, and possibly anxiety [among children and adolescents]”, and the “duration of loneliness was […] strongly correlated with mental health symptoms.”
We can continue to hold off and wait to lift our mask mandate until some point in time when it is suddenly deemed okay to do so, but the facts suggest that the longer this Covid cottling goes on, the more our age group’s mental health will be damaged.
Perhaps you disagree. Other opinions are welcome. But let us pose one final question: if we can’t loosen restrictions now, when risk is virtually zero, will we ever?