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Opinion: Mask Use Reveals a Sharp Divide in Campus Mindset

(Photo Credit: Creative Commons)

By Jack Besterman | October 4, 2021

I was covering a meeting of the Student Association a few weeks ago. I did not know much about SA and I still don’t, but we needed someone there to cover it, so there I was. It was scheduled to start at 8 p.m., but I got to the Learning Center boardroom early, and the meeting started almost an hour late anyway. One angle my editor wanted me to work on was potential violations of the school’s masking policy since some SA members had been spotted not following the university’s mask-wearing protocol required for all on-campus gatherings in the past. So I spent considerable time observing and photographing examples of SA members talking with their masks down or completely absent.

It was clear that this was making people uncomfortable. At one point, someone came up to me and asked if I was allowed to be taking pictures. SA meetings are open to the public and full of elected officials. There’s no reason I would not be allowed to take pictures, but I get the concern. No one likes to be caught breaking the rules, but few of us have to contend with the possibility of having our rule-breaking photographed and published in the newspaper. But even as a student journalist, I feel it is important to function, in my capacity, as a watchdog for school officials. The Student Association takes itself very seriously with its many rules on decorum and procedure, so the areas in which it falls short should also be taken seriously.

UAlbany requires that students be masked at all times when in a group of people in a campus building. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to when you’re alone or in a dorm. But in, say, the Campus Center, a place where hundreds of people constantly come and go throughout the day, it’s much safer for everyone if we keep our masks on. And if you’re in, say, a boardroom right off of the dining area of the CC (the part with the most people in it), you would also want everyone to keep their mask on if there were a few dozen students packed in close together and talking to each other.

But that’s not what I saw at that SA meeting. Oh, there were masks there. I would hazard to say that most of the students in attendance wore their masks properly over their noses. But most students wearing their masks is not the same thing as having all students wear their masks, and campus guidelines stipulate that all students wear their masks while gathering inside campus buildings. Particularly troubling was that the SA Chairman delivered his entire opening remarks with his mask nowhere in sight. He spoke directly into a microphone that he would later pass to other members who spoke into it maskless, no doubt swapping many an airborne droplet that could potentially carry COVID-19. I’ve since heard that the faculty advisor for SA allows the chairman to remain maskless while acting in his capacity as chairman. If true, this is still a blatant double standard being applied to SA.

This isn’t a targeted call-out of SA—they are just a particularly ironic example of a larger problem. That people elected to represent the student body and act in its interest would violate rules put in place to protect the health of those students is a chilling indictment of the hypocritical self-importance under which SA operates. But still, they’re not the only people on campus who shirk masks when outside of class. Athletes in the SEFCU Fitness Center are often seen without masks, and even in the halls of academic buildings you can catch students slipping their masks under their chin when they think no one in charge is looking.

And then there’s the biggest, most infectious elephant in the room. The Campus Center is crawling with maskless students, eating and talking all at once. Don’t get me wrong; I understand that people need to eat. But the CC is an area with incredibly heavy student traffic. We don’t just eat there. We pass through on our way to classes and study in the lounge. It is a social hub of the university. In other words, it is the place where masks are most necessary for preventing the spread of COVID; but, the university allows students to go maskless there (they say that you’re only supposed to not wear a mask if you’re eating, but let’s not pretend as if that rule is enforced).

I’m the dramaturg for the theatre program’s upcoming production of "A Dream Play," and we have pretty strict guidelines that we need to follow to keep our actors and the audience safe. Both the performers and the audience will be masked during the show. There will be reduced seating, and it will be farther apart. The ventilation for the theatre will be kept on high. All of these rules restrict our ability to produce and perform a play, but we have them to keep our campus safe, so we suck it up and do it because safety is always the priority. And it frustrates me that not everyone sees it this way. Some people think this caution shouldn’t have to apply to them. But the fact is that the chairman of SA and the people who work out in the gym breathe and spread COVID just as much as actors do.

What’s the point of all this? I’m not trying to be a buzzkill who wants everyone to perfectly follow the rules all the time just for the sake of following them. But this selective enforcement of when masks should and shouldn’t be worn reveals certain hypocrisy on campus. Either these mask rules matter to keep students safe, or they don’t.

But we’re all vaccinated, aren’t we? Why should we care if people aren’t wearing masks if we’re already protected from COVID? And besides, those who are more worried about the virus can wear their masks and let those willing to take the risk do what they want. It’s true that being vaccinated greatly improves resistance to COVID and decreases the likelihood of serious infections, but it isn’t 100% effective. The dominant strain of COVID in the U.S. is the Delta variant, which is more infectious and deadlier than the strain for which the vaccine was developed. Additionally, there’s some evidence that vaccines become less effective over time. All of this put together means that masks are still necessary for the time being if we want to keep our campus and the world outside of it safe. Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together, and if there are moments where it’s necessary to take our masks off, then we need to make extra sure that we’re vigilant the rest of the time.

I’m not suggesting we expel, or flagellate, people caught with their masks down, but we shouldn’t pretend as if not wearing one is a totally normal and acceptable thing to do. The mindset that brings one not to wear a mask is an inherently selfish one—It’s a mindset that says “my momentary comfort is more important than the health of those around me.” We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for keeping our community safe.

No one enjoys wearing a mask (except for me; I think it adds some much-needed mystery to my outfit). All this concern over safety can feel like fear-mongering or giving in to despair, but that’s not my goal. My goal is to foster a sense of connection between us and a recognition of our interdependence. The only way that all of us will get through this is if we all work together. So please, wear a mask and stay safe out there, Great Danes.

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