Nobody wanted to wear masks this semester. Of course, that’s been the case since the start of the pandemic, but I’d seen enough glimpses of normalcy over the summer to be excited to shed the necessary inconvenience of the mask. But when Kentucky’s public university presidents all signed a letter saying that they would be enforcing mask policies in the fall semester it wasn’t wholly unexpected.
The rise of the delta variant and the pace of vaccination both nationwide and in Kentucky seemed to indicate that we would be wearing the masks for a while longer. According to the Mayo Clinic, Kentucky is 47.6% vaccinated as of Aug. 24, but the case numbers in Kentucky are close to their peak, with all but one Kentucky county in the red, the highest danger zone for COVID.
All these things make some sort of mask policy seem like a good idea. However, the way that Eastern Kentucky University has enforced it makes as much sense as drilling a hole in the bottom of a boat to let the water out. The first and most blatantly nonsensical thing that EKU did was not putting the mask mandate into place until Aug. 15, a week after the start of move in. This means that approximately 2,600 freshmen were unmasked in the Center for the Arts for hours at a time, and all of the traffic in the residence halls as students moved along with other Big E Welcome activities were also unmasked. Also, at the peak time for Case Dining Hall all semester, not a single student was required to wear a mask.
But then, once the magical date of Aug. 15 was reached, students could be written up for walking in their mostly empty hallway from their room to the bathroom without their mask.
COVID-19 did not disappear for the week of Big E Welcome, and the weird policies that surround COVID-19 did not disappear at the end of the week. Now, students must wear a mask as they participate in the low risk, quick activities of getting food in Case, but as soon as they sit down at a table shoulder-to-shoulder with nine other students, they are immune to harm and can remove their masks for a nice leisurely lunch. After all, science clearly shows that germs sleep while we are eating. They’re courteous like that. To be fair, wearing masks through the lines at Case likely protects the workers, some who are elderly and thus at a higher risk of catching a serious case of COVID-19.
I am not entirely opposed to the mask mandate, as it seems rather like a necessary evil, but the strange arbitrariness of its enforcement at EKU this semester seems theatrical, as if they are trying to have the appearance of doing good without actually doing anything good or even sensible. EKU boasts that they had no classroom transmission in the last two semesters. That is certainly a worthy achievement, and a monument to how well they planned to enable in-person classes, and it should be celebrated. But I would also venture to guess that there was minimal transmission in residence hall hallways and lobbies by people going from their room to the bathroom or the laundry room, and quite a bit of transmission between people eating lunch in Case. The CDC defines ‘close contact’ as 15 minutes within six feet of someone. If two students are intentionally spending more than 15 minutes in a dorm bathroom within six feet of each other, they are likely catching more than COVID-19, and need more than a mask for protection.
Masks, used correctly, are effective at preventing transmission of the virus, and requiring them to be worn in classrooms is a good, even though not perfect measure without spacing. Since a significant though unknown portion of the student body is likely vaccinated, the measures in place do not need to be as foolproof as they were the last two semesters. However, the way that EKU is enforcing some measures seems absurd. Two things add to the strangeness. First, most people have had the opportunity to get the vaccine at this point, one that appears to be safe and effective at preventing a serious case of COVID-19. So, much of the precautions being taken are to protect people who are not taking a reasonable preventative measure, and do not particularly care to protect themselves from COVID-19, but because of their decision those who are vaccinated are still required to wear masks as COVID spreads. Second, enforcing the mask mandate in sparsely populated transitional areas like dorm lobbies, hallways, and bathrooms, while allowing, not unreasonably, unmasked congregations in Case makes little sense.
In short, EKU should probably consider ending the mask mandate for dorms, as putting your mask on to walk by the check-in desk or to the bathroom is an everyday bit of replacement for the dear departed theater department, and it seems that the task of throwing on a mask to walk through mostly empty lobbies and hallways is a symbol “full of sound and fury, accomplishing nothing” (to abuse Shakespeare).