Michigan’s Mask Mandate Repeal Falls Flat

On March 10, the University of Michigan announced that starting on March 14 it would be partially repealing the mask mandate that had been in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 14, masks have been optional in most indoor spaces on every University of Michigan campus with the exceptions of “classrooms and instructional spaces during class time,” patient care areas, COVID-19 testing sites, and U-M public transit. The repeal is in response to consistently low case numbers of COVID-19 and almost universal vaccination. University administrators are absolutely right that masks need not be worn in “most indoor spaces.” Why, though, must students continue to be mandated to wear those bothersome stage props in any time or place?

First of all, there is nothing significant about the date March 14, 2022 with regards to COVID-19. Why not enact the repeal beginning on March 15 or November 6? The arbitrary nature of mask mandates and their implementation exemplifies the arbitrary nature of the masks themselves.

If I had gone to a university dining hall for breakfast on March 13, and failed to don my protective device as a token of my obeisance to ScienceTM, then I would have been guilty of apostasy. The university would have been entirely within its rights, however silly those rights are, to reprimand me for not being willing to do my part to protect my classmates whilst we are perpetually “in the middle of a pandemic.”

If I went to the same dining hall on March 14 instead, would the COVID covenant suddenly be broken? Despite no discernible change in the transmissibility or deadliness of the disease itself or in the vaccination status or vulnerability of the general student body, the threat has dissipated, along with the need for protection. It seems to me that most people at Michigan would have been equally safe if the same repeal had been implemented far earlier. 

The arbitrary nature of mask mandates and their implementation exemplifies the arbitrary nature of the masks themselves.

Although the updated mandate is in full effect, several problems remain. Students are required to wear masks in classrooms and instructional spaces during instructional time. Fair enough. Groups of students who are all in the same class, however, can congregate maskless in close quarters directly outside of their classroom for upwards of five minutes while waiting for their class to begin. I have personally witnessed several such instances. I also routinely go to the dining hall after class accompanied by several people with whom I have just had class. What exactly is the medical difference in those cases?

While not the end of the world, masks and other pandemic policies have had a deleterious effect on the learning experience. It is unnecessarily difficult for instructors and students to hear one another, resulting in avoidable clarificatory questions and wasted time. Many students also continue to take advantage of lax policies by gratuitously attending class virtually or requesting extensions, thus preventing professors from running their classes as they might wish to. 

Rather than addressing any of these issues, the university’s statement merely notes that “mask use is still suggested as an effective strategy for enhanced personal protection.” It is entirely possible that that is true, and so individuals who are unvaccinated, carrying a comorbidity, or simply make a more timid personal risk-benefit analysis should be able to continue wearing masks if they so choose. Just as students should have the choice to wear masks if they are concerned about the virus, they should also have the choice not to wear masks if they favor a more traditional learning environment for themselves.

Masks and other pandemic policies have had a deleterious effect on the learning experience.

I would like to see the scientific figures that justify continuing to allow the potential danger to at risk individuals outweigh the collective benefit of discontinuing mandated masking. In the presumable absence of such evidence, remaining mask mandates at the University of Michigan should be discarded like the charades they are.

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About Chris Coffey

Chris Coffey is a sophomore studying history in the Honors Program. He is also involved with the Michigan Journal of International Affairs and the Michigan Foreign Policy Council. In his free time, Chris enjoys tennis, chess, and investing.