March 2, 2022

SAMILOW | To No One’s Surprise, Cornell Drags Its Feet on Lifting Mask Mandate

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On Monday, in accordance with new Center for Disease Control guidance, the Tompkins County Health Department suspended its mask advisory, which had been in effect since July 30 of last year. This decision came on the heels of New York State ending its indoor mask mandate in mid February and its K-12 school mask mandate on March 2. This week, many of us have watched with great satisfaction as Congress and the White House dropped much of their prior COVID theater and staged a relatively normal State of the Union address. Under the new CDC guidance, the vast majority of Americans will finally get to choose whether to wear a mask. 

While some universities, such as our neighbor Ithaca College, have yielded to the new reality, Cornell continues to drag its feet on allowing its young, boosted student body to unmask. Throughout the country, life has largely returned to normal. Sports and entertainment venues are packed with maskless patrons, and practically every state has either ended or announced plans to end school and indoor mask mandates. The White House, Congress and many federal offices are in the process of ending mask mandates. Still, Cornell refuses to disclose its plans or the specific criteria on which it bases its current masking decisions.

In a statement to The Sun, Provost Michael Kotlikoff said, “As we have in the past, we will base our masking policy decisions on scientific criteria and risk assessments that are specific to our community.” 

He added that the administration “expect[s] to obtain more data about the prevalence of symptomatic infections on campus following re-entry testing of our student population after the February break” and plans to “reassess our mask policy in mid-March using these data, as well as estimates of the risk of infection in various university activities if the mandatory indoor mask policy is modified.”

Two weeks to assess what, exactly? Given that the University intends to test all students this week, a rise in cases is inevitable. Will that increase become the rationale for extending the mandate further? And if it won’t, what sense is there in waiting two weeks? Furthermore, the University has had its epidemiological models since fall 2020. Whatever the model says about the effects of removing the mandate can be determined right now. The lack of clarity and communication is disturbing. Mandates are far more tolerable when clear criteria for ending them are set. The administration has never communicated what data it would need to see to remove the requirement, leaving students in limbo. 

It also bears mentioning how inconsistently Cornell treats guidance from public health authorities. Over the summer, at the start of the Delta surge, TCHD reimposed its mask advisory. That same day, Cornell announced it would once again require masks in indoor spaces. It did not wait and make a decision based on “scientific criteria and risk assessments that are specific to our community;” rather it immediately complied with the health department guidance. But now, when guidance shifts away from masking, suddenly, the administration must take its time and make an independent decision. This is disingenuous and given how disruptive and damaging the pandemic has been to student life, candor from the administration is really the minimum we should expect.

For all I know, the University will announce Friday afternoon that it is ending the mask requirement. Or it will announce it next week. Or maybe it won’t end the requirement at all. I have no idea what the administration will do. What I do know is that many students and faculty will complain about my impatience and argue that an additional week or two of masking is not the end of the world. They will say that those of us sick of masking should stop complaining. They are certainly right that in the grand scheme of life there are far worse things than having to wear a mask. But that is beside the point. We should not accept mandates lacking any meaningful justification simply because the burden they pose is relatively minor. We are being mandated to do something that, for many, diminishes the enjoyment of class and other campus activities when the guidance from public health authorities is that it is no longer necessary. If the halls of Congress can be packed without masks, surely students shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to see their classmates and professors’ faces again.

The time has come for Cornell to put the era of draconian COVID policies behind it. Let’s hope it takes this opportunity sooner rather than later and that the senior class can enjoy the first truly normal spring semester in three years.

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.