Jason Cantarella, a professor in the mathematics department at the University of Georgia, protests the university's COVID-19 policies in Athens, Georgia on Aug. 27, 2021. The United Campus Workers of Georgia held a protest where they dressed in black for a "funeral" for common sense to display their dissatisfaction with UGA's lack of a mask and vaccine mandate. (Photo/Julia Walkup, jwalkup@randb.com)

The University of Georgia chapter of the United Campus Workers of Georgia held a demonstration in front of the Administration Building on Friday afternoon, protesting the University System of Georgia’s decision to not implement mask or vaccine mandates for the fall semester.

Despite the heat, more than 50 people attended the demonstration, standing silently on the lawn outside the building and holding signs. 

“I want UGA to be safe. I was online, in college, for the past year, and I was hoping this year would be safe enough to be on campus,” said attendee Olivia O’Brien. “So far, it’s looking not safe … I just really hope something can come out of [the demonstration].”

UCWGA, a union advocating for USG employees’ interests, has been vocal about its disapproval of current COVID-19 protocols. This summer, the group held a protest outside the Board of Regents’ offices in Atlanta demanding USG implement mask and vaccine mandates, and created a petition that gained more than 1,200 signatures calling for more safety measures. 

UCWGA Co-President Paul Grant attended the event and said that many elite private universities, such as Emory University and Duke University, have mandated vaccines for all faculty, staff and students. He said it demonstrates a difference in how people are valued. 

“If you’re at Harvard or Yale or Duke or one of these other places, the assumption is one day you might be a, you know, a billionaire, a Supreme Court justice, a president, a CEO of a major corporation, and no one’s going to take a chance with your life,” Paul said. “If you’re at UGA or Tech or Georgia State or Georgia Gwinnett, apparently you’re not as important.”

Several attendees mentioned concerns over how few people have been wearing masks in campus facilities as a reason for participating in the demonstration. Others cited living with vulnerable people, such as children or elderly relatives. 

However, not everyone was supportive of UCWGA’s agenda. UGA graduate student Mike Francis carried a sign reading, “my body, my choice” in response to UCWGA’s call for mask and vaccine mandates. Several passersby stopped to commend his message. 

“It’s very simple: vaccine mandates on a medical product that has existed for less than a year are unprecedented. I don’t like where this goes in the future, I don’t like the fact that I either have to be held down like a dog and get an injection I don’t want or I lose my job,” Francis said. 

Medical experts continue to emphasize that the vaccines are safe and effective at preventing severe cases of COVID-19, including protecting against the highly infectious delta variant. The vaccines have also undergone rigorous clinical trials, and the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite the opposition, the demonstrators persisted. 

“I’m sympathetic to the administration, this is a major organization, a major institution, all these various institutions in the system, so I understand that they have to make difficult decisions,” Grant said. “But this is a 100 year pandemic, it’s an emergency, it’s a crisis. If we don’t get it under control, it’s only going to get worse.”

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