Face masks have become a common sight in public since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending face coverings in April. However, that may not be the case on the University of Georgia’s campus this fall. Per University System of Georgia guidelines, masks will not be required on any of its 26 university campuses during the continued coronavirus pandemic.
UGA students and faculty have raised concerns about the lack of a mandatory rule. The university is spending around $300,000 to provide two cloth face masks for every student, faculty and staff member, but some say without a requirement to wear one on campus, it isn’t enough.
Janet Frick, a psychology professor at UGA, noted that most other public universities, both nationwide and in the South, have instituted a mask requirement. She said there is no reason that USG should be an outlier and not require masks on campus.
“The best available scientific evidence is that wearing masks reduces transmission of the virus … Many, many, many other public and private universities have already made that call. It is definitely the predominant stance that is being taken, even by Southern public universities,” Frick said. “There’s no good reason not to.”
Frick and other UGA faculty members compiled a spreadsheet of public universities’ mask policies, including institutions that are UGA’s “comparator and aspirational peers,” according to UGA’s Office of Institutional Research. The University of Florida and University of Virginia are among those requiring students, faculty and staff wear face masks in indoor areas on campus.
Other colleges that aren’t on the spreadsheet will also require face masks in the fall, including Louisiana State University and The University of South Carolina.
Students speak up
UGA students have taken to social media to express support for a mandatory mask requirement. A Change.org petition asking the USG Board of Regents, which is in charge of the university system, to implement a mask rule has garnered more than 3,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
Ciera Thomas, a rising junior microbiology major, is one of the leaders of the Mask On USG initiative that is pushing for a mandatory mask rule on all of USG’s campuses. A Google Form advocating for a mask rule was filled out by more than 2,700 people as of Wednesday, Thomas said.
Jess L’Hommedieu, a rising junior entertainment and media studies major, is in favor of an enforced mandatory mask requirement in the fall.
“The thought of a few irresponsible people causing such an outbreak on campus, it’s really scary to me,” L’Hommedieu said. “I can wear my mask to protect you, but you’re not going to wear one to protect me.”
L’Hommedieu lives with her grandparents, who are already at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19 due to their age. They also both have diabetes, and her grandfather has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, which means he is in an extremely high risk group.
L’Hommedieu said during the school year she plans to live in Athens full-time and not visit her grandparents to avoid giving them the virus. A mandatory mask policy, she said, would help prevent the spread of the disease, particularly to UGA’s faculty and staff.
Rising senior Karan Pol said he wants to see UGA students wearing masks on campus, particularly in the fall and winter, when some scientists have predicted that COVID-19 infections would coincide with flu season. Pol, who is pursuing an economics major and a master’s in international policy, said masks are the “bare minimum” of precautions that the university could take, especially if classes are in-person.
Some students are more cautious about a full mandatory mask requirement. Sara Ingram, a rising junior entertainment and media studies major, said that some students would be disadvantaged on a campus with a mask requirement and no accommodations. She said students who have asthma may have trouble breathing through a mask, and students who are deaf or hard of hearing and read others’ lips may have trouble communicating.
“I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a policy, but reasonable accommodations should be made for anyone who could be seriously disadvantaged by something like this,” Ingram said.
Board of Regents’ mandate
UGA is bound to the policies of the USG Board of Regents. Frick said faculty, staff and students have been given “no meaningful explanation” as to why face masks will not be mandatory on USG campuses in the fall.
“From day one, the USG has followed COVID-19 guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” Aaron Diamant, a USG spokesperson, said in an email. “Consistent with current guidance from those agencies, we strongly encourage everyone to wear a cloth face covering in areas of campus where social distancing cannot be practiced.”
While the state of Georgia isn’t requiring masks to be worn, the DPH website says to “wear cloth face coverings wherever and whenever practicable.” The CDC recommends face coverings be worn in public settings, noting that people can spread the virus even without having any symptoms.
“Covering your nose and mouth greatly reduces your chances of spreading the virus and provides some protection for the wearer,” the DPH website says.
Frick noted that other safety precautions are already mandated on UGA’s campus, such as mandatory vaccines and eye protection and closed-toed shoes in laboratory settings.
“Safety and health-related requirements are already the norm on campus, even if they are not required everywhere else in the state,” Frick said. “To claim that we can’t make a requirement because the Georgia Department of Public Health is not making it a requirement just doesn’t make any logical sense.”
In many cases, the state health departments of universities that are requiring masks also do not have a statewide mandatory mask requirement. The Alabama Department of Public Health recommends people wear a cloth face mask but doesn’t require it. Both the University of Alabama and Auburn University are requiring face masks in the fall.
As people protest for racial equality nationwide, COVID-19 continues to impact the Black community disproportionately.
“Current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups,” the CDC website says. Black people are overrepresented in COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to the CDC. 27.7% of Athens-Clarke County is Black, according to the most recent U.S. Census Data.
“The more public universities that I hear requiring masks, I’m just more puzzled. It doesn’t make sense to me,” Frick said. “I hope we are able to get a change of policy.”