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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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GW needs a mask enforcement mechanism to limit rising COVID-19 cases

For a brief moment in time, GW was without an indoor mask mandate. Although this experiment proved to be short lived, we can reasonably expect that masking will not be required of students forever as the world comes to terms with COVID-19’s endemic nature. But how long we will have to wait depends on our own ability to make intelligent use of our masks – wearing them indoors to limit the spread of the virus and keep students learning in person.

On my way to my first class since the University’s mask mandate was lifted last week, deciding whether I would go maskless for the very first time at GW prompted much thought. Wearing a mask would protect myself and my classmates, but virtually everyone in my vicinity is fully vaccinated and at very low risk of serious symptoms. If I kept the mask on, would I stand out in a bad way if everyone else went mask free? The social ramifications didn’t outweigh the health logic, but I did seriously consider them.

When I walked into class, that fear had not become reality. A majority of my classmates were wearing their masks, including the professor. I felt at ease at first, proud of my GW community for taking the coronavirus seriously so that we could build towards a safer future when the pandemic no longer interrupts our daily lives. As class went on, I started to notice the students around me who had decided to sit among us maskless now that the mandate was over. My pandemic-wired brain did not like that image. I had spent so long in a system where masks were mandatory and those who entered buildings maskless were breaking the rules, as well as endangering their classmates. In the past, students who shirked their responsibility to mask up sent a message to me that, more importantly than their personal stance on masking, they felt that the rules did not apply to them.

In GW’s brief post-mandate era, I wondered if it was still fair for me to associate my unmasked classmates with any above-the-law feelings of entitlement. They weren’t breaking the rules, but they were deciding to be slightly more comfortable instead of taking an action to keep neighboring students from getting sick. Many would like masking to be left to their own discretion, but I have a hard time respecting the “personal choice” of those who have decided against taking simple steps to protect others. It’s easy to be a free rider, but if nobody picks up the reins, we all suffer.

I felt frustrated by these maskless students because we have so much to gain from doing everything in our control to fight back against the pandemic. If students can avoid getting sick, they can avoid missing classes or even exams because of isolation. Mask wearing is an incredibly easy step that we can all take to keep ourselves and those around us safe. Students at a higher risk of developing serious symptoms will be protected, nobody will have to worry about bringing the virus home with them at the end of the semester and we can keep D.C.’s hospitals from being overrun with COVID-19 patients. That’s the end goal – slow this virus down so it doesn’t cause major interruptions to our society. So when GW announced that the indoor mask mandate was back after only a very short sabbatical, I was not surprised but disappointed that students need a hard-and-fast rule instead of simple guidance to do the right thing. The reason we still have to deal with this virus at all is that we can’t be trusted to make remarkably low-cost decisions for the collective good. Perhaps if students had continued to mask up when the mandate became a “strong recommendation,” we could have kept cases lower and enforcing the mask mandate once more would have been unnecessary.

Going forward, GW needs a substantive enforcement mechanism to keep people from breaking the rules. If the rules are not enforced, there may as well be no mandate at all. I’ve seen GW employees politely remind students at the University Student Center to put their masks back on after they’ve finished their meals from Panera, but that’s a far cry from the oversight that is necessary to make students take the rules seriously. To start, professors need to be serious about requiring masks in their classrooms and asking students who will not mask up to leave class. If GW won’t improve upon enforcement, more students will begin to violate the mask mandate as they grow weary of pandemic regulations. Should that happen, students will have to be more diligent about reminding their less responsible peers about wearing their masks indoors. The people who skip out on the rules need to feel some social pressure to do the right thing.

One day, and hopefully soon, the masking issue will once again be a matter of personal choice, but that can only happen if students are willing to do their part and wear their masks responsibly. It takes diligence but also common sense – there are indeed certain times and places where mask wearing has very little impact. Classes or student organization meetings with 10 or fewer students may not be a place where masks are necessary. But in lecture halls, classrooms and public spaces, proper mask wearing is essential. Students must remember that this is a university campus in a big city where people literally live on top of one another. We’re going to have to mask up longer than our rural and suburban counterparts to handle this pandemic.

The entire world has been bending over backward to respond to the pandemic’s relentless curveballs, like COVID-19’s alphabet soup of variants, but we cannot allow ourselves to give up and hope that others will do the right thing for us. Every member of this community has to work tirelessly to see that the mask mandate is adhered to through the semester’s final stretch. The ‘I’m just tired of wearing it’ rationale threatens to put us right back where we started.

Zachary Bestwick, a sophomore majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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