August 29, 2021

SAMILOW | Masks Outdoors, Really?

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Last week, I wrote that the Cornell administration seemed determined to “double down on unnecessary public health measures.” Barely a day later, Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced that in response to “a significant increase in positive COVID-19 cases,” students would now be required to wear masks indoors and outdoors while on campus, regardless of vaccination status or physical distancing. Suffice it to say that this is probably the most irrational thing the administration could have done given the circumstances. 

In my column, I explained that cases are probably not the metric the University should be primarily focused on at this stage of the pandemic. Given the decision to fully pack classrooms and forgo a behavioral compact, it was inevitable, especially with the Delta variant, that students would begin testing positive. One would only have to walk through Collegetown during O-Week and see the packed crowds at poorly ventilated fraternity annexes to know that cases would rise. The University should have expected this and been prepared to accept a scenario in which some students come down with mild cases of the virus –– it is the inevitable result of reopening. 

Indeed, many public health experts agree that this virus will be with us for a long time and we have to figure out a way to shift from absolutist prevention measures to those focused on preventing poor outcomes. Earlier this month, in The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang, a health and science writer, explained that the “coronavirus is not something we can avoid forever; we have to prepare for the possibility that we will all get exposed one way or another.” Accepting a handful of mild cases in an almost entirely vaccinated student population is precisely what we will need to do to ever move on from the pandemic. 

But, even if you don’t agree with me on that or the merits of the indoor mask mandate (and I know many of you don’t), the University’s actions are still difficult to justify. The move to yellow alert comes with one significant policy change: an outdoor mask mandate. It is simply astonishing that at this stage in the pandemic, given what we know about the mechanics and likelihood of outdoor transmission, that the administration would claim that this is something that can meaningfully mitigate transmission. The vast majority of public health authorities have acknowledged that the virus is highly unlikely to spread from fleeting, outdoor contact. A study from Ireland in April found that of the 232,164 cases recorded over the course of the pandemic, only 232 –– one in every thousand –– could be traced to outdoor contact. 

Surely, the administration knows that the virus is spreading because students are congregating indoors, largely off-campus. So the question really worth asking is: how exactly is the Cornell administration arriving at these decisions? The sheer absurdity of requiring masks outdoors while still packing classrooms and dining halls should leave students questioning the wisdom of the University’s entire coronavirus strategy. Either the administration is foolish enough to believe that outdoor masking is worthwhile or it is implementing measures it knows will have no effect. Neither possibility reflects well on the University. 

But that’s not the only inconsistency from Friday’s email. The administration has continually stated that Cornell “did not have any in-classroom transmission of the virus last academic year” and that its modeling “confirms that the likelihood of in-classroom transmission, if vaccination, surveillance testing and indoor masking rules are followed, is extremely unlikely.” Despite this, the administration threatened to move instruction online if cases do not subside. If the administration doesn’t believe that classroom transmission is responsible for the rise in cases, why would going remote be the solution? With remote instruction students would have even more time to engage in risky social interaction off-campus.

The reality is that the student body has largely (but certainly not entirely) made the decision that it is done allowing this virus to cancel social life. Whether that is the right decision really doesn’t matter from the University’s perspective as there is practically nothing it can do to stop students from socializing off-campus. (Given the absence of a behavioral compact or any rules regarding off-campus behavior, it seems the administration is, at least implicitly, conceding this point.) That leaves us with two options: accepting that in the new normal some students will test positive, but that the vaccine should almost always ensure their cases are mild, or carrying on with useless pandemic theater like outdoor mask mandates. 

Finally, I also want to address some of the arguments readers made in response to my last column online. Some asked about the unvaccinated children of professors and staff. I understand this concern, but it must be said that children, even if unvaccinated, are at an extremely low risk from Covid-19. Children are more likely to die from drowning, car accidents, or even pneumonia than they are from coronavirus. Despite our anxieties we must keep our risk assessments grounded in reality. Others expressed concern about the small number of people unable to take the vaccine. This a very real issue, but this group is unfortunately at risk no matter what we do and if preventing them from getting the virus is paramount, the answer is likely a remote option.

Above all, the most important thing is that we think critically about the measures the University imposes on us and demand that they be supported by the relevant data. The outdoor mask mandate does not meet that bar and the administration owes us an explanation.

Matthew Samilow ’22 is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. On Mallot’s Front Steps runs every other Monday this semester.