To Mask Or Not To Mask?

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There hasn’t been much mention of COVID parties lately on Facebook group pages. Before the Fourth of July there had been a spate of articles about alleged parties that had taken place in T-Town, the purpose of which had been said was for party goers to compete in becoming infected by the Coronavirus. None of the culprits, who were said to have been involved in them by a local doctor, have ever been found.

A statewide mask order that was issued by Governor Ivy went into effect on July 16th. It will be in effect at least until July 31st. The order was issued after a significant statewide uptick in COVID related hospitalizations. A city mask ordinance in Tuscaloosa had already been in effect since July 6th which would have applied until August 5th. The state order superseded any local regulations. There has been a mixed response to the mask order.

There had been the ongoing debate between mask skeptics and those who believe in masks, Caitlan McCabe’s article in the Wall Street Journal “Face Masks Really Do Matter. The Scientific Evidence Is Growing” supported the use of masks. She discussed among other things that “research suggests that face coverings help reduce the transmission of droplets.”

One major concern that has increasingly been discussed on Facebook has been the return of nearly 30,000 university students to T-Town. Many permanent residents looked at the inevitable reopening of the University of Alabama with trepidation. There was also concern expressed by Safe Return UA, a staff, faculty and student-led campaign. Safe Return UA called for “universal COVID-19 testing, adequate family and medical leave, employment protections and public accountability for the upcoming academic year at the University of Alabama.”

Al.com‘s Dennis Pillion reported on the plans to test every college student in the state. He quoted the University of Alabama Birmingham‘s Dr. Michael Saag as having said that “every student is going to be asked to wear a mask, as well as all the staff and the faculty on the campus to try to mitigate the spread while they’re there. My hope is that if everyone’s wearing a mask when they’re out and about, when they’re inside enclosed spaces.”

According to Pillion, Sang explained that the testing will involve samples from multiple students — five to 10 at a time, depending on the circumstances — which will be combined. If the pooled sample tests negative, all the students in the pool are negative. If the pooled sample tests positive, the lab can then test the individual samples to find which students in the pool are positive.

“‘The thing that will throw us off is if the prevalence in the community of students is over 4%,” Sang said. “We don’t anticipate that based on preliminary data that we have so far, but it’s very fluid, and we’ll have to see what we get.”

The University of Alabama‘s Return Plan leaves many questions to be answered.

In terms of the plan’s safety practices there seems to be a good deal of reliance on voluntary cooperation. “Individuals who fail to complete these measures will be asked to repeat the training. Continued non-compliance will result in further review through the Office of Student Conduct or Human Resources and could result in dismissal. We will continue with messaging on the importance of and requirement to wear face coverings and other PPE. In keeping with Crimson Tide tradition, we are confident the University community will join together to help each other.”

Should the state or city mask orders expire there would be no obligation for students to wear masks in public in off-campus areas.

“Face coverings are required in all UA facilities, with limited exceptions. A face covering is not required in your own room or suite in University housing. However, it will be required in common areas, like residence hall lobbies. We also strongly encourage you to use a face covering in all public settings.

“Face coverings are required inside all University-owned buildings, and outside during on-campus gatherings and in other on-campus settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain.”

“Along with your personal room and suite in University housing, you do not have to wear a face covering in enclosed offices, enclosed study spaces, your vehicles, outdoors where distancing is met and when doing certain physical activities such as working out at specified University Recreation facilities. Although not required in these instances, use of a face covering in all settings is strongly encouraged.”

In order to keep the “campus community as safe as possible during the school year,” some students are being moved from residence halls to the off-campus Loft apartments.

“We apologize for any inconvenience, but we expect the new facilities to be comparable or an enhanced option to students’ previous assignment, including a private bathroom for each resident, and a washer/dryer in each apartment. Every effort was made to assign students with roommates in their roommate group, possibly along with one additional student. Students still live under the HRC housing contract, which will last only for the academic year, although students will have the option to remain through July 2021, at no additional cost. Students will pay a reduced rate, and utilities will be included.

“Crimson Ride will also provide transportation between campus and the Lofts. We understand this is unexpected news, and we regret that it may add to what has without doubt been an uncertain few months. The University does not make the change lightly, but only because of its obligation to be proactive in planning for capacity issues while following the guidelines outlined in the University’s Plan for a Return to Full Operations and keeping the campus community as safe as possible during the school year. Students who instead prefer to make their own off-campus arrangements may cancel their housing contract if they prefer.”

The usually crowded and hectic Sorority Rush will initially conducted online. “Most sorority recruitment rounds, which begin Saturday, Aug. 8, will be held virtually, with potential new members interacting with current sorority members via Zoom.”

In terms of campus gatherings and Greek activities “personal responsibility” for safe behavior is called for.

“Social events and group experiences will be planned to preserve the experience, consistent with health and safety requirements. Details will be released for each event. Students should take personal responsibility to protect themselves and others from infection.

“Student groups, including Greek organizations, are strongly encouraged to move events outside and use online meeting platforms when possible. Student groups must abide by all stated occupancy limitations when hosting events or gatherings indoors.”

How off-campus activity will be regulated, if at all, is uncertain although on-campus activities have restrictions.

“UA, in compliance with the UA System Health and Safety Plan, has implemented additional restrictions on certain events in an effort to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Event attendees should enter a facility or event only after having completed the Healthcheck assessment tool.”

Recently, even after the statewide mask order, young people who were not wearing masks and were standing shoulder to shoulder have been observed outside of bars that traditionally serve students. The order stipulates that masks should be worn by people who are within 6 feet of a person from another household. In order to eat or drink masks would need to be removed of course.

The Tuscaloosa Rotary Club had a “socially distanced” meeting with University of Alabama President Andrew Bell as its guest speaker. Apparently pictures on Instagram showed that a distance of six feet between Rotarians was maintained. It took a fairly large ballroom to maintain such distancing for fewer than forty people. There are few comparable spaces available in campus bars.

There have been problems with fire code violations at venues that University students have frequented. No details were provided by Tuscaloosa’s Fire Chief Randy Smith about the 22 businesses in May that were in violation of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s reopening guidelines according to an ABC 33/40 story.

Alison Snyder in Axios reported, “More young people are being infected with the coronavirus, and even though they’re less likely to die from it, experts warn the virus’ spread among young adults may further fuel outbreaks across the United States.”

A fear of having student “super spreaders” of Coronavirus in the community exists for many permanent residents. They are not reassured by the University of Alabama‘s plans for reopening. Many of them have had previous experiences with students that caused them concern. A survey in 2012 by Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together reflected a general antipathy towards student housing.

The pandemic will perhaps provide an opportunity for the University of Alabama and its students to regain the trust of the permanent residents of T-Town.

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