The UMass mask mandate should have been lifted differently

Have we learned nothing from the pandemic?

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Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Lily Fitzgerald, Collegian Columnist

On March 8, students all around campus were shocked to receive an email from the campus public health directors detailing that the mask mandate would be lifted the following day at 7 a.m. The announcement was met with celebration by those that were rather tired of putting up a mask to go to class, or disappointment by those with health issues –– terrified of their increased chances of infection when face masks disappeared off people’s faces. But no matter the person’s strong feelings, there seemed to be a lingering sense of confusion and uncertainty.

People needed a plan.

It felt like there wasn’t a plan when that email was sent out, and I feel there was not enough forewarning or consideration put into the lifting of the mask mandate. The roll out could have been smoother and more attentive of the people affected by it. An abrupt and total change to the mask policy was not the correct move.

The hesitancy can be explained by the announcement’s suddenness, as the University of Massachusetts gave students under 24 hours to prepare to seeing their peers without masks or decide if they were going to join their mask-less peers. Professors didn’t have enough time to plan if they wanted to continue business as usual, require masks in class or even go remote. The short amount of time did not give people enough time to process their feelings about being around people without masks because it has become such an emotional and politically charged accessory. It kept us safe for two years during a pandemic, so it will be difficult for a person to believe we are suddenly safe without them. Rash decisions cause a new pandemic of mask anxiety to sweep the campus, infecting those that could have been protected if they had some foresight.

Another action that would have quelled mask anxiety is a smoother rollout of the deregulation, more specifically for the campus to unmask in stages. Before that email, the campus was suggesting double masks and KN-95s in all public indoor spaces. To go from a stiff and rigid policy to no policy at all might be a little too fast for some to handle. Maybe lifting double masking and KN-95s or lifting masks in dorm buildings so contact is limited to people you live with already. It would have been an easier transition for some while offering the freedom many students wanted. If you go into cold water slowly instead of diving in, you’re less likely to go into shock.

Even more startling though was the timing of the mandate: in-between the party filled weekend of Blarney, where mask less people packed into townhouse squares and fraternity houses, and the spring break where students traveling were more at risk for contracting the virus. I don’t know when there would be a good time, but I think any of us could recognize two super spreader events emerging into one.

Some may argue though, that this is something that all of campus wanted. The student union vote did include a ballot question asking whether students would want the mask mandate lifted – a vote that resulted in 71.6 percent ticking off yes. The ballot question was an influence for the administration lifting the mandate, but students aren’t the only people on campus.

The voices unrepresented by the vote were professors and staff, the ones that teach our classes, clean our dorms and buildings, and serve us food. The administration did not turn to them for a vote about masks no longer being required, leaving them voiceless in a decision that affects them and their families. We are not the only ones affected by our choices on campus, as the people that make our university run smoothly are affected every time we choose to put a mask on or not.

The email and decision came just before the two-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic and makes me believe that we somehow learned nothing in those two years. A lot of us never learned to keep our masks above our nose or that gators and bandanas aren’t as protective against COVID-19. I don’t think we learned that patience is key when it comes to dealing with COVID-19 – that we must make sacrifices and put on a mask to keep ourselves and the people around us safe.

Lily Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected].