August 26, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s Virus Restrictions Defy Reason

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Cornell students have sacrificed quite a bit over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. The class of 2024 has never had an in-person college experience; the class of 2023 has barely had it; and the class of 2022 has had close to half of its college experience marred by the pandemic. We’ve taken it largely in stride, understanding that in the grand scheme of things, we are lucky. COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions abroad.  It has left millions of others with long-term complications. At the same time, we understand that our college years are a special time we will never get back, and as soon as we can safely return to normal, we must do so.

Unfortunately, the Cornell administration sees it differently. Instead of recognizing that a population of almost entirely vaccinated 18-22 year-olds is capable of returning to normal life with a minimal level of risk, it has decided to double down on unnecessary public health measures that will do little to protect students and faculty but will do tremendous harm to students’ ability to enjoy this academic year.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced last Thursday that all students, regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks indoors and undergo regular surveillance testing. (Incredibly, he also announced that the tiny fraction of those still unvaccinated must continue to wear masks outdoors.) While it is perhaps understandable that the University would continue surveillance testing to understand the virus’s prevalence on campus, the indoor mask mandate is a burdensome restriction for which the costs heavily outweigh any benefits.

For those who are vaccinated — practically all students and faculty — COVID-19 no longer poses an acute health threat. Of the over 166 million Americans fully vaccinated, only 5,725 have been hospitalized because of a COVID-19 infection and only 1,246 have died from the virus. The vast majority of these serious cases have been among the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, groups for whom vaccination is generally less effective. Statistically speaking, a vaccinated person is about as likely to be struck by lightning as he is to die from COVID-19.

The administration’s decision making is premised on the idea that preventing cases is the paramount objective. Obviously, preventing cases is good, but in a fully vaccinated population, it no longer makes sense to try to prevent cases at the expense of normal life. For vaccinated Cornell students, COVID-19 is an endemic virus that is no more likely to kill them than influenza. SARS-CoV-2 will continue to evolve and eradicating it is currently an unrealistic goal.

While the Delta variant might be more transmissible, it doesn’t change the underlying reality of what we’re confronting — a disease that poses an acceptable level of risk to vaccinated people. Cornell students should continue to abide by public health measures outside of the Cornell campus, but it is misleading for the University to pretend that it is somehow acceptable to sit unmasked in a restaurant or bar but not to sit unmasked in class. 

An indoor mask mandate in particular makes little sense for several reasons. First, it ignores the fact that students are going to be engaged in close, maskless interaction in their private lives off campus. Second, the entire basis for asking vaccinated people to wear masks is to protect the unvaccinated, of which there are basically none on campus. Third, asking vaccinated people to wear masks undermines the entire purpose of mandating vaccination in the first place — to end these health measures.

Even last year when students were unvaccinated, they engaged in risky social conduct. Cornell had several virus outbreaks as a result of this type of behavior. This coming year, after a summer largely free of masks and restrictions, it is highly unlikely that students are going to be in any mood to restrict their activities. Students will socialize in large groups, in private and public places, without masks. That is simply the reality. As a result, it makes little sense to force students to sit masked in class all week, while they party maskless on the weekends. The mask mandate also does not apply while eating and drinking, so students who sat together masked in class can go get lunch together unmasked.

Nor can it be said that the mask mandate meaningfully protects professors. Practically all of them are vaccinated and those who are not and feel at risk should consider asking the University for special accomodations, such as additional leave. It is the University’s obligation to provide meaningful accommodations to faculty who are unable to get vaccinated. The same goes for students who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Mask mandate or not, they are still at risk, and instead of requiring masks, the University should be offering students who do not feel comfortable returning to campus a remote option.

While a mask mandate might further mitigate the risk, this is a recipe for permanent masking. For the vaccinated, COVID-19 has been transformed into an endemic disease that presents a level of risk we are accustomed to tolerating. The University has not set any limiting principle or condition at which we can return to normal, so under the current logic — that any potential benefit, no matter how small, justifies these measures —  the mask mandate will persist indefinitely. This phenomenon is what Washington University in St. Louis economist Ian Filmore has described as “the tyranny of tiny risks.” 

Furthermore, Cornell has cited the new Tompkins County Health Department’s advisory as the basis for its decision to require masks indoors. The TCHD’s advisory is based on the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in places with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. The CDC’s guidance has been controversial, but whatever its merits, the rationale behind it does not apply to the Cornell campus. The CDC was concerned about data showing relatively high viral loads in vaccinated people, meaning they could be a meaningful vector of transmission to unvaccinated people. The agency was not concerned that vaccinated people would give the virus to other vaccinated people, both because such transmission is more infrequent and outcomes of such cases are very rarely poor. 

While it may make sense for students to wear masks in public places, like grocery stores, when they are around possibly unvaccinated people, it makes significantly less sense to ask them to wear masks around each other.

Importantly, as a result of its vaccine mandate, Cornell is not struggling with vaccine hesitancy or uptake. Yet, it is choosing to behave as if we are still in 2020 and students, faculty and staff have no protection from the virus. Classes in fall won’t look all that different from those in the spring. The vaccine mandate is a justified and prudent health measure, but the University is now infringing upon students’ ability to make their own healthcare decisions without offering any of the benefits that infringement was supposed to afford.

Now, some might think that wearing a mask is no big deal — after all, it seems like it can only help. I certainly understand that wearing masks bothers some less than others. But the relative inconvenience of it is only one aspect of the issue. We should not tolerate “pandemic theater,” even if the costs seem relatively minor. Vaccinated students should not sit masked all day simply so the University can “look” like it’s taking things seriously. Students should also not underestimate the extent to which “temporary” measures can become the permanent norm, especially when no specific criteria have been set for ending them. 

Our time in Ithaca is a short one. Juniors and seniors have already lost three of their eight semesters to this pandemic. Instead of blindly following public health guidelines not intended for a completely vaccinated population, the University should craft measures that recognize the miniscule risk the virus poses to vaccinated students. The clock is ticking on our time in Ithaca — it’d be nice if President Pollack and Provost Kotlikoff recognized that.

Matthew Samilow is a junior in the college of Industrial and Labor Relations. Samilow is also an Opinion Columnist at The Cornell Daily Sun.  Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Rooms run periodically throughout the semester.