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Princeton needs to rethink its ban on social gatherings

An open letter to Dean Dolan and VP Calhoun

<h6>Marcia Brown / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Marcia Brown / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

An unedited version of this letter was sent to Dean Dolan and Vice President Calhoun on Saturday, Nov. 27 at 6:25 p.m. 

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Dear Dean Dolan and Vice President Calhoun,

I hope your Thanksgiving holiday was joyful and relaxing. 

I recently read your email regarding an adjustment of campus COVID-19 protocols. I'm grateful for the concern that the University shows for the well-being of its community members and very pleased that we were able to enjoy a safe and nearly normal fall semester. Still, out of the many prudent and sensible mitigation measures being pursued, one newly implemented restriction is a costly, blunt, and seemingly illogical solution that will exact a very real cost in student morale and mental health. 

The recent rise in cases is not a welcome development. Sadly, it is an expected one given the seasonality of the virus and the vaccine's waning protection against infection. Thankfully, the student body is 99 percent vaccinated, and while protection against infection diminishes with time, two doses still provide a nearly impervious shield against severe disease and death. This is especially the case for younger people. While the protection against severe disease seems to wane slightly for older people, I am very confident that those more at-risk faculty and staff have received a third dose, which restores their protection against infection to nearly 100 percent. What's more, young children, who were previously denied the jab, have had access to it since the end of October. So carrying the virus home to them and causing harm is even less likely than it was.

More data is almost always a good thing and more frequent testing will provide students and staff with the knowledge necessary to protect others. Increasing our testing to twice a week will allow infected individuals to be more rapidly identified and quarantined.  

The measure that puzzles me is the ban on student gatherings consisting of more than 20 people. In particular, I feel sorry for all those students who had been looking forward to attending their eating club's formal. According to Interclub Council (ICC) Vice President Savannah Hampton, formals have “been scheduled for the coming weekend for the entire semester ... We had come up with some policies to try and make it as safe as possible, including requiring two tests this week for all members; however, that all just got thrown out the window,” she told the ‘Prince’ on Saturday. 

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Dining halls will continue to be open. In these spaces, large numbers of students will talk, laugh, cough, eat, and breathe unmasked. This is unavoidable as eating while masked is not possible. Classes will remain in-person, and even given masking, increased ventilation, and air filtration, this will pose a risk of spread. Masks are valuable and effective public health tools, but they are far from perfect. Cloth masks, which are shockingly provided by many residential colleges, seem to be nearly worthless, according to a well-run randomized controlled trial performed in Bangladesh. 

The fact of the matter is that we cannot drive the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 down to near-zero unless we return to online education. I am not advocating that. I think the risks posed by COVID-19 now that we are all vaccinated are orders of magnitude less grave than they were prior to vaccination, and I believe that the in-person Princeton experience is invaluable.

If the risks currently posed by COVID-19 are truly grave, then the University should not allow formals or other social gatherings of more than 20 students to occur, but then the University should also neither allow in-person dining nor in-person class. We know that thanks to the University's vaccine mandate and testing protocol the risk level is acceptable. At this point, switching to online instruction and closing dining halls would be met with the righteous indignation of students and parents. So too, this restriction on social gathering should be met with the same. 

A mitigation step that I believe would be incredibly valuable is the mandate of third doses for all faculty, students, and staff. The protection afforded by third doses is far greater than the protection afforded by masks or the marginal protection that accrues by preventing some gatherings while continuing to allow other high-risk situations like eating in dining halls. Your communication encouraged boosters but there is currently no mandate from the University. I do not understand why not. I hope that the University mandates and provides booster shots as soon as possible. 

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It is also currently difficult to schedule a third dose appointment, but I am hopeful that the University's resources and influence will allow it to quickly procure and administer a quantity sufficient to restore near perfect protection to the entire community. This protection will not be perfect. COVID-19 will likely become endemic and we will have to learn to live with it. I’m optimistic that between vaccines, antivirals, monoclonal antibodies, and a robust testing strategy we will be able to tolerate it as we tolerate other diseases that circulate and exact a toll but do not require us to radically change how we live. 

After multiple unusual semesters where formals and other important events were impossible, many students looked forward to a normal semester with formals and parties and other events that enrich their college experience. In regard to formals, the sudden loss of this fun and important tradition, right before it was to be enjoyed, is sure to upset many students. It will engender feelings of despair and a fear of a return to the darkest days of our pre-vaccine existence. These vaccines aren't perfect, and boosters are vital, but they are remarkable innovations that should allow us to enjoy a normal experience here. Testing further guarantees our safety. 

Please rethink this ban on gatherings. We could employ rapid tests at the doors to events like formals to further safeguard the community. Also please consider a booster mandate, they will restore incredibly high levels of protection and arrest any spikes in cases that might come soon. 

We have suffered through this pandemic for nearly two years. The University has employed the amazing innovations of saliva testing and highly effective vaccines in a way that protects the community and facilitates a wonderful in person experience. We shouldn't let an uptick in cases distract us from the fact that we are well-protected, and we should not restrict students' activities in ways that would make, at most, a marginal impact on student health but a significant impact on their well-being. 

Very Respectfully, 

David Piegaro '25

P.S.

A note on omicron. We know very little about this variant but there is some reason to worry. If it becomes apparent that it is able to evade vaccine induced immunity and is very transmissible, then severe mitigation measures will be appropriate. We have not yet seen solid evidence that our worst fears will be realized, but we must remain vigilant. 

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