Just over a year ago, on July 15, 2020, University President Mark Schlissel announced a campus-wide facial covering requirement for the U-M community as a key component of the University’s “public health-informed” Fall 2020 hybrid semester. Now, after a messy fall term plagued with COVID-19-related shutdowns and a mostly virtual winter, U-M administration is beginning the impending “transition to normal” Fall 2021 semester just as they did last summer: with a mask mandate.
As of Wednesday, the University again requires members of the campus community to cover their mouths and noses with a facial covering. Unlike the first mask mandate, students, faculty, staff and visitors will not have to wear a mask outdoors under the new requirement — which has been the University’s policy since May — and vaccinated students can walk around their individual residence halls mask-free.
Engineering sophomore George Rabadi lived in Bursley Hall in the Fall 2020 term. Rabadi said making the residence halls one of the few exceptions to the new policy will help residents live more comfortably and will solve minor logistical inconveniences he experienced.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s much safer to wear (a mask) and, honestly, it was just a bit inconvenient wearing masks in the residence halls because you needed them even if you wanted to go to the restroom or go take a shower,” Rabadi said.
In an email to The Michigan Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen noted the Aug. 11 policy was instituted to protect the campus community against the spread of COVID-19 in the first few weeks of the fall semester, especially with growing concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant.
The highly transmissible Delta variant has become the most prominent strain of the COVID-19 virus nationwide, and positive cases are once again on the rise across Washtenaw County. The county recommended last week that all vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors, though the county does not plan to mandate facial coverings as the University has done.
Brockhuizen did not answer a question regarding what consequences students or faculty might face if they refuse to put on a mask indoors.
The campus community is currently divided about whether or not they support the new policy. When the University announced the mask mandate on their social media accounts Monday, users expressed a wide array of opinions in the comments. Several alleged current science does not support mask usage as an effective means of combating COVID-19 spread, while others thanked the University for committing to student safety as in-person classes recommence.
Among those who outwardly oppose the policy are the College Republicans at the University of Michigan, a political student group on campus. In an Aug. 9 press release, the College Republicans wrote the mandate was “baseless” and “unscientific” due to the proven efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. In the press release, the College Republicans wrote they believe the previously established campus-wide vaccine requirement — which they claim was already “unethically forced” upon students and faculty — should be enough to adequately protect the majority of the U-M community against rare breakthrough cases of the virus and its variants.
Mandating masks on top of that, the organization wrote, is irresponsible and backwards.
“This new face covering requirement is, at best, redundant and, at worst, actively fostering mistrust against medical professionals and University Administrators,” College Republicans wrote in the press release. “Rather than issue blind guidance, we call on the University to allow individuals to utilize their world-class education to make their own medical decisions, both through examining medical research and through consulting medical professionals.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidance on July 27 recommending that fully vaccinated individuals begin wearing masks again indoors in areas of substantial or high spread. The University’s new mandate is in accordance with this new recommendation.
The College Democrats at the University of Michigan shared a statement with The Daily in support of wearing masks indoors in accordance with current public health recommendations. However, they did not explicitly communicate their position on the University’s mandate.
“College Democrats at U-M are in support of following CDC guideances, including the new mask guidance for all people indoors regardless of vaccination status, amidst the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the surge of the Delta variant,” College Democrats wrote in the statement.
Prior to the vaccine mandate — announced July 30 — the University allowed students to go mask-free indoors if they self-reported vaccinations as a part of their vaccination incentivisation initiatives. Now that both vaccination and masking are required for everyone, some students who initially hoped getting vaccinated would make it possible for them to not wear a mask report feeling frustrated with the shifting policies.
LSA freshman Estee Moss told The Daily she would have gotten vaccinated regardless of the U-M mandate; however, she said she remains unsure if the masking policy in particular is necessary. Moss said she is happy she will be able to go mask-free in her residence hall, but she hopes masks do not interfere with socialization outside of her dorm in her first few weeks of college life.
“I’m vaccinated and so is everybody else, we’re all doing it for the collective good,” Moss said. “But I hope (masking) doesn’t impact the other aspects of what makes up a traditional college experience … I think that (mandating) both (vaccines and masks) is being extra, extra safe, but I don’t think both measures were maybe necessary.”
LSA sophomore Maddie Rattay agreed with Moss, affirming that she supports the vaccine requirement, but said a preemptive mask mandate is unnecessary and masks could have been used as a corrective measure if breakthrough infections became prevalent among fully inoculated individuals.
“If the time arises, and we start to see more of those risks of infections, then a mask mandate makes sense to me,” Rattay said.
Shailendra Kaushik, the father of an architecture and urban planning freshman, lives with his family in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) where he said strict mask mandates have been in effect since Jan. 2021 when the emirate opened its borders to international visitors. Less than a month after tourists flooded into Dubai, positive COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, and the CDC designated the U.A.E. as a “Level 4: Very High” risk destination, urging individuals to avoid traveling there.
Following the surge in cases, Kaushik said the U.A.E shut down bars and imposed other restrictions on permanent residents and tourists alike. The country also began requiring facial coverings, fining anyone who refused to cover their face with limited exceptions.
Though Dubai remains open for visitors and positive cases in the U.A.E. have dropped substantially since peaking on Feb. 3, Kaushik said he and his family are used to wearing their masks whenever they leave their home. Kaushik said both he and his daughter fully support the University’s mask mandate since they have witnessed the efficacy of similar restrictions in Dubai firsthand.
Anything that will make it more likely for international students to stay on campus and not have to try to secure a flight back home in the middle of the term is worthwhile, Kaushik said.
“A concern as an international parent is that last year we’ve seen when COVID-19 spread everyone was asked to vacate the residential halls,” Kaushik said. “If you’re living in the U.S., you can go to your (home), but flying back to your home country if you are not living in the U.S. was a bit of a nightmare because the planes were full, and then countries were also not allowing them in.”
Ali Barlow, the mother of an incoming LSA freshman, told The Daily she and her daughter also support the mask requirement and would like to see it expanded to include large outdoor gatherings before the academic year begins.
“We fully support mask wearing in all indoor spaces, like classrooms and other crowded locations, and think it should also be required at crowded outdoor venues as well: concerts, football games, etc,” Barlow said.
In her email to The Daily, Broekhuizen confirmed that under the Aug. 11 mask guidelines, those attending sporting events will only be required to wear facial coverings if the event is held at one of the University’s indoor sporting facilities such as the Crisler Center or Yost Ice Arena. Although the Big House is able to operate at full capacity under current state guidelines, because it is an outdoor stadium, the University would not mandate mask usage at football games unless the current mask policy is changed.
“Regarding the Big House, that is an outdoor facility so indoor masking requirements wouldn’t apply,” Broekhuizen said.
Michigan Athletics announced Tuesday they will also be assessing how the mask policy may impact home sporting events, promising to communicate more information to the campus community as it becomes available.
As the University continues to prepare campus for the start of the new academic year, U-M community members are encouraged to visit the Campus Blueprint website for the most up to date information on U-M COVID-19 news and policies.
Summer News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.