A scene from the third week of the academic year: I was sitting in the Honors Reserves section of McCabe, minding my own business, when someone else conspicuously decided not to mind theirs. I heard a loud “Excuse me!” from behind the shelves, and a woman (no names will be used in this piece), insisting that another student pull his mask up all the way over his nose, huffily proclaimed, “It’s not that hard!” This would have been merely annoying, not interesting, if the Swattie who demanded perfect mask discipline had not herself been eating lunch (itself against library rules) only an hour before.
This self-appointed member of the mask police wasn’t only a hypocrite, she was a self-righteous hypocrite, which is why I think this incident is actually very helpful for thinking through the current state of COVID restrictions on campus, and about how they are far more about show than substance. After all, most people believe their own bulls–t to a degree; rare is the individual who consciously decides to do something which goes against their principles.
So what, then, is the bulls–t in question? It’s the woman in the library’s conception of the mask as a symbol of willingness to “fight COVID”— this point is crucial — rather than a tool for preventing the spread of COVID. Her anger wasn’t really directed at her fellow Swattie’s sloppy efforts at masking. It was that, in her mind, she had an excuse to take down her mask, while he didn’t.
The Swattie in McCabe’s thinking wasn’t only due to mistaken beliefs about how, exactly, COVID spreads. It spreads through aerosols that float throughout a given space, and it certainly doesn’t stop spreading when you’re eating lunch. Her anger was also due to an approach to masking as primarily a symbolic act, an approach totally disconnected from the mechanics of COVID transmission (again, COVID spreads whether or not you are eating), but utterly engrossed by policing the willingness of others to signal that they, too, are extremely concerned about COVID.
The problem, however, is that this is also the approach of our college’s administration.
This is the only approach that makes any sense of the college’s COVID policies. The administration has repeatedly stressed that they consult with a public health expert when making their policies, so surely they know that COVID spreads through aerosols, not particles; the former is far more contagious. They must also know that masks are at best only partially effective at containing the spread of COVID, as many studies have shown. The only large, randomized control-trial testing the effects of community surgical mask usage (which the majority of Swatties do not seem to be wearing) done to date found an 11% reduction in likelihood of contracting COVID when masks were promoted, which is good but hardly a game-changer. One also suspects that the Bangladeshi villagers in the study weren’t having unmasked sports practices in the Fieldhouse.
Why else would masks be enforced strictly while getting food in Sharples, but come off for the far longer period of eating, talking, and laughing with your friends, packed in an enclosed space with hundreds of other students? Why else would masks be mandated in all campus buildings, except when that building is the Matchbox, occupied by masses of students exercising and breathing heavily (spraying floating aerosols all over the room)?
But the extremely serious tone taken in emails from deans to students indicates that they view mask-wearing as the thin line between a “safe” campus and COVID apocalypse. Last week, Dean Terhune lectured us all via email about the “flagrant disregard” of students who didn’t wear masks for the 30-foot distance from their dorm to the shower (what magical properties does Dean Terhune think a dorm shower has which enable it to stop COVID in its tracks to begin with?) and lecturing the campus about the need to “remain vigilant.” One has to conclude that our administration sees masking as in some ways absolutely vital.
They must know — there really is no way that they can’t know — that the way our campus actually functions includes putting students together in large groups, in indoor spaces like Sharples, the Matchbox, and classrooms, often unmasked. If they really believed masking was important in a disease-transmission context, you would expect at least one email outlining how much more effective surgical masks are compared to the cloth masks that proliferate on campus.
Why, then, do administrators focus on masking — alongside testing and quarantine, which do matter quite a bit more — so much in their communications to students from their perches in Parrish? There are two non-contradictory answers.
The first is that the Deans are much like the Swattie in McCabe — invested in masking as a symbol of vigilance and public spiritedness. They are morally scandalized by the prospect of a few students “chinstrapping it,” a response unrelated to the actual dangers it poses to the college community. This shows, to put it charitably, a worrying lack of connection to on-the-ground experience and scientific evidence on the part of the people running one of the most academically rigorous colleges in the country.
The second is that the Deans are also, consciously or not, executing a deeply cynical strategy. By constantly lecturing students about their own failings while running a campus that by its very nature enables COVID to spread, they are giving themselves the ability to blame the spread of COVID on students while deflecting it from themselves.
They, and some students, are engaged in a discourse based more on assigning moral status to individuals rather than “stopping” the spread of COVID. It might be because almost no one on campus is really, seriously, honest-to-God concerned about the risk of COVID. If you eat in Sharples, exercise in the Matchbox or the Ware Pool, play an indoor sport, go into Philadelphia, or really spend any large amount of time indoors wearing anything other than an N95 mask — and remember, even those masks are not a guarantee against COVID — you aren’t really that worried about being exposed to COVID.
Luckily, you shouldn’t be. The risks of COVID to vaccinated individuals are incredibly low. They are actually lower than the flu’s risks, even when factoring in Delta (which, according to experts, probably isn’t significantly more dangerous on a per-case basis than previous strains).
Of course, those questions are entirely separate from the question of whether COVID can effectively spread in a semi-isolated community with near 100 percent rates of vaccination along with immunity from previous disease, the combination of which creates even stronger immunity than vaccines or previous infection alone. Early evidence from the return to campus seems to indicate that the virus won’t be spreading, with testing and quarantine proving enough to keep our case counts extremely low.
Finally, if Delta is anywhere near the upper end of estimations of infectiousness, then there is also no world in which you will not be exposed to COVID at least once in your lifetime. The disease is going to become endemic. A fully vaccinated community like Swarthmore may have herd immunity. Almost nowhere else in the world will for a very long time, perhaps ever. If you believe that the U.S. will eventually achieve vaccination rates similar to Swarthmore’s, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Those students who spent the first year or so of the pandemic practicing caution so that they could avoid ever being exposed to COVID (which was my approach until Delta came onto the scene) should either shut themselves in their rooms and eat Sharples takeout forever, or come to grips with the fact that they will at some point (possibly not at Swarthmore) face COVID. Luckily, being vaccinated means that you probably won’t even display symptoms.
I think that a lot of Swatties have understandably failed to grasp this point, enveloped in the worry and fog of the past two years. If someone had told you a year ago that not only would the vaccines be almost 100 percent effective against death and severe disease, almost every person on campus would be vaccinated, but also that we still were mandating masks in classes, libraries, and dorms while severely restricting campus social life, I bet you would have called them crazy. You might have asked if there would be any progress that would result in restrictions relenting. You might not arrive at a conclusion that you like.