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With fully in-person classes in the fall, Cornell will implement a new COVID-19 alert level system.

August 16, 2021

Cornell’s Changing COVID Policies: Decoding the Alert Levels

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The Cornell administration is working to bring campus life as close to its pre-pandemic state as possible — classrooms will pack students at full capacity, and visitors are returning to campus. But these realities could shift if risk levels increase.

“We must all be aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has not ended, and the emergence of variants and other evolving conditions may warrant changes in Cornell’s guidelines about specific restrictions,” the University wrote on the COVID-19 tracking website

In fall 2020, Cornell announced four COVID-19 alert levels, and three color flashes remain this year — but with different meanings. Here’s what the new alert levels mean for the fall, including different guidelines for vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. 

What do green, yellow and red alert levels mean?

Green is defined as the “new normal.” Yellow designates moderate risk and red indicates high levels of risk. Cornell is currently at the green alert level.

Alert levels are determined by a variety of factors, including local hospital, quarantine and isolation capacities, the number of Cornell cases, Ithaca area COVID-19 spread and the availability of resources like personal protective equipment. Cornell is monitoring these indicators with the Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Health System.


Even when risk levels are at green, everyone must wear masks indoors, regardless of their  vaccination status. At all levels of risk, unvaccinated people must wear masks outside when they cannot physically distance.

Surveillance testing 

At the green alert, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students, faculty and staff must participate in surveillance testing — vaccinated faculty and staff do not. Select groups of vaccinated students need to be tested at the beginning of the semester. If risk levels rise to yellow or red, Cornell will continue or increase surveillance testing for vaccinated people.

Classrooms and labs

At the green risk alert, classrooms and labs will be set up at full capacity. At yellow and red levels, Cornell may reduce classroom capacity — and some classes may move online.

Campus facilities

When risk levels are at green, dining halls, libraries, gyms and other facilities will open at full capacity. If risk levels rise to yellow, capacity for some or all facilities could decrease to accommodate physical distancing. At red levels of risk, some facilities like gyms may temporarily close.

Campus events

At the green alert level, Cornell-sponsored gatherings, student activities and events can happen both indoors and outdoors. Rooms can be filled to capacity, although masking will still be required indoors. If risk levels rise to yellow, events may be limited or canceled, which could escalate further at the red alert level.


While international travel remains discouraged for unvaccinated people, travel for Cornell-related research or business is allowed under green and yellow risk levels. Unvaccinated people are encouraged to get tested after traveling under the green alert and are required to do so when risk levels rise to yellow. Cornell must give prior authorization for international travel at all risk levels.

Vaccinated people are only required to get supplemental testing at a red risk level, although it is available to them even under lower-risk circumstances. At a red alert, travel for Cornell-related business or research will only be allowed on a case-by-case basis with approval from a dean or vice president, and supplemental testing will be required upon returning to Ithaca.


At no risk level are visitors completely banned from Cornell’s campus, although prior authorization is required to have guests on campus at the red risk level. Visitors must follow public health guidelines, including indoor masking, at all risk levels. Access to campus facilities and services may be limited at both red and yellow levels.