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Princeton implements universal indoor mask mandate

<h5>The entrance to McCosh Health Center.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The entrance to McCosh Health Center.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Less than two days ago, Princeton administrators described a universal mask mandate as a possibility that “remains to be seen.” Today, the University implemented exactly that: an indoor mask mandate for all vaccinated and unvaccinated students, faculty, and staff.

Masks will be required for all as of an Aug. 11 post from the University’s Instagram and Twitter accounts, as well as an email from Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan. Going forward, decisions on masking guidance are to be reviewed weekly.

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The new guidance differs from guidelines made Aug. 5, which were reiterated at Monday’s town hall and which stated that masks would be required for unvaccinated students, and “encouraged” for vaccinated students. Those guidelines were, in turn, a shift from rules put forth in early July, which eliminated masking requirements altogether. Several peer institutions moved to institute universal mask mandates near the beginning of August.

Exceptions to the Princeton requirement include “when in one’s own dormitory room or suite, when working alone in a room or cubicle or when actively eating or drinking,” according to the email from Deignan.

A post on Princeton’s Twitter account explained that the weekly review of masking guidance will be conducted by “a team of physicians and scientists.” The next announcement on masking guidelines, which will cover masking guidance in classrooms, is due by Aug. 23.

Further evaluation of the indoor masking requirement is set for September 15 or earlier, according to University officials.

“By September 15, we will have evaluated the COVID case rate of the campus community following the increase in students, faculty and staff returning for the fall semester,” University Spokesperson Ben Chang explained in an Aug. 12 email to the ‘Prince.’ “By that date we will determine whether to end, modify or extend the indoor face coverings requirement.”

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Two days before the announcement, administrators discussed the possibility of a universal mask mandate at a town hall event organized by the Undergraduate Student Government (USG).

“If we’re seeing that we are at that level that the CDC, for instance, is recommending masks for all, then that would be one reason for us to be considering masks for all,” Izzo said at the event.

As of July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in areas of substantial or high transmission wear masks indoors. Mercer County was listed by the CDC as having “substantial” transmission as of Aug. 5.

The town of Princeton is also experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, with a dozen residents testing positive within the last week. This is highest weekly average the town has seen since March 2021.

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Still, administrators made it clear at the town hall that a return to social distancing is not currently under consideration, and that the University plans to use buildings at normal capacity.

The University has mandated vaccinations for all students and employees for the Fall 2021 term and requires proof of vaccination to be submitted to the University via MyUHS for students and via VacStatus for employees prior to arrival on campus. As of Monday’s town hall, over 90 percent of students and staff have provided proof of vaccination, according to University Health Services Medical Director Melissa Marks.

“While over 92% of our campus community is vaccinated, the Princeton community is comprised of individuals who are immunocompromised themselves or live with those who are; or interact with individuals who cannot be vaccinated yet, such as children under 12 years old,” Chang wrote in justification of the mandate.

Regarding enforcement, Chang explained that a similar system will be in place as was in spring 2021, though administrators have stated that there will not be an official Social Contract.

“Just as we had in the spring, there is a progressive discipline framework in place, which includes reminders, warnings, reporting, and discipline,” he wrote.

Early reactions to the mask mandate have been mixed, with many faculty and students commenting on the University’s social media posts.

Undergraduate student Gaea Lawton ’23 told The Daily Princetonian that while she appreciates the University’s efforts to make an in-person semester possible, she was somewhat discouraged by the announcement.

“I left the town hall feeling incredibly encouraged,” Lawton wrote. “However with the recent news I am a bit concerned that this fall, they may do what they did this past spring when they said that they would reduce restrictions but we didn’t really see that come to fruition until the last day of classes.”

Other students weighed in on Instagram, where mentions of taking “gap years” were prevalent. Several pointed to the “99 percent” vaccination rate touted at Monday’s town hall, suggesting that this extremely high rate of student vaccination will reduce the campus risk from COVID-19.

Colby McArthur ’24 told the ‘Prince’ he was confused about what changed since Aug. 5, when the University announced masks would be “encouraged” for vaccinated students.

“Mercer County has had cases above the CDC threshold for masks this whole time, and I’d really just like to know what made them change thinking since then,” he wrote in a message. “I haven’t seen any explanation for the timing of the policy change yet, and I’d really like the University to be more transparent about their process.”

At the time of McArthur’s comment, there was no public justification for the move. But according to Chang’s Aug. 12 email to the ‘Prince,’ the University changed its policy in anticipation of an increase in cases due to students’ return to campus for the fall semester.

“With the Delta variant spreading twice as easily as the variants that were present back in January, we anticipate a fair number of positive asymptomatic test results,” Chang wrote. “Since we have some crowded conditions and because it is not always obvious who is and is not vaccinated, our campus meets the threshold for indoor masking.”

Other University constituents have vocally supported the announcement, including Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs Jennifer Jennings. Just minutes after the University’s tweet, Jennings retweeted it, calling the mandate a “fantastic policy move.”

“So many universities are relegating this to individual faculty, and putting them — especially junior faculty worried about their evals — in a terrible spot,” she wrote. Further down, she added: “[T]he knowledge base on vax-vax transmission is still uncertain and evolving, and this step makes sense until we know more.”

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated on August 13 to add comments from the University’s Office of Communications. 

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