No mask mandate: madness or normality?

By Hannah Lee

   For the first time since the spring of 2020, the University of Puget Sound is having a mask-optional semester. According to the CDC, 616,172,308 doses of vaccines have been administered, and the number of cases is down from 1,272,899 new cases per day at its peak this January to now 12,852 new cases per day as of Sept. 26. Many people believe that we can finally put the past behind us, and finally get on with our lives, while others still live in fear.

  But how do students feel about the first mask-optional semester we’ve had in a while? To answer this question, the Trail spoke with students Georgia Karwhite and Kylie Smyth. 

  Karwhite, who is immunocompromised, can be seen walking around campus with a double mask even today. “It’s definitely stressful trying to exist,” Karwhite said. “On the one hand, I get that the pandemic is over for a lot of people… that they’re done wanting to deal with it… But we’re still losing people…and somehow we’ve just deemed this as acceptable and anyone in a high-risk group [gets] to accept the risk.” Karwhite said she felt that she and others who are immunocompromised are being left behind, and specifically mentioned that many older staff members on campus are immunocompromised. “It feels like it’s just not the smartest move, in general, to put your faculty that you’re relying on at risk. But I don’t make the decisions and I’ve kind of had to make peace with that,” Karwhite said. 

  Smyth shared similar sentiments about how the mask mandate being dropped lulled people into a false sense of security. “To be honest, it feels a bit more normal to me,” she said. “But it puts us in a kind of a false sense of ‘this is over’ when it’s really not over. It kind of makes us think that we can’t let our guard down and I think it is premature,” Smyth said.

  Smyth mentioned that since the mask mandate was dropped, her anxiety levels have gone down. She explained COVID-19 “was definitely isolating,” elaborating that her “state of fear was not that I would get sick, it was that I would spread it to people like my mom and my dad. My mom also has asthma and is immunocompromised and my brother is immunocompromised and they all live with me so…I can’t get sick.”

  Karwhite said that her vigilance has continued, and even increased now that the mask mandate has dropped. “Even with masks, my seating is always [near] an open door, air filter, or window,” she said. “It’s a weird position to be in, to… know how sick you can get, and looking around and realizing no one else takes it this seriously.” She also spoke about how she had to miss out on certain events because they were indoors and she did not feel safe enough to participate. “I would love to hang out with everyone, would love to make friends in my major. I’m not going because… it’s not worth that risk.”

  Both interviewees mentioned that it was interesting to see who continued to wear a mask after the mandate dropped last semester. Smyth stated that it was interesting seeing how who wears a mask changes between classes. Karwhite said that “when we went … mask optional for two weeks … last semester, it was a fun little social experiment to look around and go, ‘oh, who’s wearing a mask?’ And it still is now.” She mentioned studying with professors who are immunocompromised and seeing who in her classes remembered and wore masks. 

  Smyth also spoke about the University’s decision to stop enforcing weekly COVID-19 testing after the first week. She mentioned that she tests frequently because she spends time with her grand father, and that “there’s always been bins and bins of tests, and nobody tests.”

As students returned to school, some felt that it was good to get back to “normal” while others worried about their health or that of their loved ones, resulting in an ongoing split in masking practices across the student body. While emails from the University still encourage people to mask indoors, this practice is no longer the norm