The FitRec is a place of lost illusions. Whether it’s the 20-minute trek to West, ever-increasing homework loads or the general dislike toward physical activity that college seems to create, generations of college students have left their dreams of regularly going to the FitRec in the dust. But if one of your many excuses for ending up at the dining hall rather than a treadmill is having to workout with a mask, a trip to the FitRec may be in your horoscope.
On Tuesday, students, faculty and staff received an email from Boston University Healthway stating a significant change in the University’s mask policy. Common areas such as dining halls, libraries, and, of course, FitRec will no longer require masks starting March 7. Classes, the BU Shuttle and healthcare facilities still mandate mask-wearing, but the vast majority of common areas will leave the choice up to individuals.
The new policy comes alongside a citywide announcement, also on Tuesday, that Boston would lift its indoor mask mandate. Settings such as gyms, bars and restaurants are no longer subject to the rule, although public schools and other federally-mandated areas require masks.
Cities across the nation have taken similar measures, encouraged by the new measure for determining COVID-19 rates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the measure’s recent metrics, “nearly 70% of the United States population resides in areas where masks are no longer required.”
The recent frostbite-inducing weather may have made us a little more friendly towards the warmth masks provide, but after two years of only seeing peoples eyes, the prospect of a maskless, post-pandemic college experience feels exciting.
Seven-day test positivity rates at BU are under 1%. 98.8% of BU students are fully vaccinated. Even the expected Omicron surge after winter break didn’t materialize, with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates occurring during the break when most students had left campus.
There’s a limit to how long we can swab our noses every week and worry about mask-fishing while still trying to have a normal college experience. If all the signs — on community, federal and international levels — are pointing to a transition back to shaking hands without a frantic dose of hand sanitizer to follow, why shouldn’t we lean into that?
The unbridled optimism is easier for some groups to embrace than others, however. For the dwindling population of students who’ve managed not to get COVID-19 from their party-hopping roommate, continuing testing but suspending masks could be problematic because they do not have immunity.
Recorded lectures are still up to the professor’s discretion, meaning they can easily opt out of providing materials to remote students. If these students get COVID-19, something which may become more likely as people forgo the mask but continue to test regularly, they will face an uphill battle trying to catch up on lectures and assignments. Even isolation housing’s promise of five days of silence to catch up on work isn’t a guarantee now that BU has introduced roommates for students quarantining.
Immunocompromised individuals have even greater concerns regarding COVID-19 transmission. Just because the CDC has allowed gym bros to go completely maskless instead of pretending to wear it by letting it hang under their noses, doesn’t mean people’s chronic illnesses have disappeared. For them, increased transmission from a lack of masks continues to be potentially life-threatening.
With the mask mandate changes starting March 7, this means that the majority of students’ first time on a largely mask-optional campus will be straight after spring break. The series of superspreader vacations this week usually entails could mean that students will not only be returning with tan lines, but with COVID-19 — something the lack of masks could help spread around the University.
The University’s new mask policy sparks excitement for a more normal college experience, but also apprehension about ongoing public health concerns. On campus, it is important we don’t let these dual reactions and the varied health status of students divide us. What may seem like an unwelcome cause of “maskne” for someone who has already gotten COVID-19 may be a necessary health measure for a student with immunocompromised family members.
Studying in the library without a mask shouldn’t be met with judgemental stares. University policy and city policies allow it. At the same time, COVID-19-related concerns haven’t disappeared either, and the University would do well to address them. Mandating masks in spaces students are required to be in, such as classes, is a good step, but making academic materials more accessible to students in isolation is also necessary.
This new era of a pandemic-tainted college experience feels hopeful, but also uncertain. Above all, it is important to meet the diverse reactions the BU community will have with empathy. So the next time you get up to pick up your Panda Express order from the GSU, whether you decide to put your mask on or not, remember a university-wide policy doesn’t translate to a community-wide attitude to the pandemic.