Dropping GW’s mask mandate is ill-advised

After nearly a full academic year of wearing masks, getting tested for COVID-19 every other week and mandating vaccines for GW community members, officials announced this weekend that the University’s mask mandate will lift on Monday.

While GW has so far largely succeeded in keeping its students, staff and faculty safe, this sudden about-face is ill-advised. Students and professors are dying to see each other’s faces, and rightfully so, but the cost of this reprieve outweighs its benefits. As tiresome as a strict regimen of vaccinations, frequent testing and mask wearing is, rushing to return to “normal” at the University and national level would be a mistake.

This change to a mask-optional policy is well-deserved and well-intended: GW continued its mask mandate even as American and Georgetown universities and the country as a whole pivoted away from masks. Students and staff who happily complied with the University’s mandate now deserve a reward for their perseverance. The simple truth is that masks are uncomfortable, and our collective willingness to embrace them has waned.

But a mask-optional policy removes a powerful tool from GW’s public health arsenal. Perhaps masks are no longer necessary in a community where 98 percent of its members are vaccinated and regularly tested, yet the University still “strongly encourages” their use as the “most effective way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” If that’s the case, then why make them optional? This seems more like a self-sabotaging concession to understandably restless students and staff than a carefully considered policy.

Though not yet dominant in the District, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the more transmissible yet not necessarily more lethal BA.2 subvariant now accounts for more than half of cases nationwide. As both the University and Americans seek a return to normalcy and stringent public health measures lose support, our individual and collective responses to BA.2 will determine whether we get back to “normal” at all.

BA.2 is a subvariant of Omicron, which caused a spike in cases earlier this year. It has reached the United States after driving infections in Europe, Africa and Asia, but its potential impact remains unclear. PBS reported late last month that the variant’s higher transmissibility could couple with relaxed pandemic restrictions and people’s waning immunity from earlier booster shots and prior infections. This perfect storm makes BA.2’s rise all the more likely, though it may not amount to a devastating surge.

While the University’s response hasn’t been perfect, GW has generally kept its students, staff and faculty healthy throughout the pandemic through its multi-pronged approach. Of the more than 450,000 COVID-19 tests administered at GW since March 2020, only about 1 percent tested positive for the virus. GW’s sliding scale of operating procedures has allowed it to adjust to changing conditions, like reinstating virtual learning for the first week of spring classes because of the Omicron variant’s rise.

Mask-wearing is fundamentally about collective action – it requires students, staff and faculty to put their community’s health above their own comfort. Embracing a patchwork of individual choices and strong but unenforceable recommendations does exactly the opposite.

At the University level and across the nation, declaring a return to normalcy has often meant making an ongoing public health emergency a matter of individual responsibility. Dispensing with the mask mandate now puts students and professors, particularly those who are immunocompromised, in the position of hoping their dozens of peers or hundreds of students willingly “mask up” for their own safety. These personal pleas for public safety lack institutional weight, leaving each of us to navigate the pandemic on our own.

I understand the desire to declare victory over this virus, tear off your mask and return to some semblance of normalcy. But let us not forget the cost of this pandemic. Last October’s “In America: Remember” art installation on the National Mall, which saw support from GW student volunteers and associate professor Sarah Wagner, commemorated more than 695,000 Americans who died of COVID-19. The New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker reports that the total death toll from COVID-19 in the United States sits at nearly one million as of April 2. The Washington Post’s COVID-19 tracker estimates that since February 2020, 35,000 of those deaths occurred in the DMV.

It’s impossible to move on from something that’s still happening. The pandemic may be out of sight and out of mind for some, but it hasn’t simply ended – at least not yet. Any talk of “living with the virus” has to contend with one simple fact: some people won’t survive an endemic form of COVID-19.

As well-meaning and understandable as this talk of returning to “normal” is, there’s a certain callousness to it. It implies, knowingly or not, that we can trade other peoples’ lives – particularly those who are older, poorer, sicker and so on – for our own comfort. This is a particularly grim prospect and one that I don’t accept.

These “unprecedented times” now have precedents of their own: missed opportunities, poor decision making and blatant disregard for the health and wellbeing of others. Treat the rise of the BA.2 variant as a test: what have we learned? Will we protect the most vulnerable in our society? Will we put people before profits? For our sake – all of us – I hope we pass with flying colors.

Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.

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