UW extends mask mandate, but support is waning
‘The science tells us the masks do a lot of good. And the science hasn’t changed. There hasn’t been one iota of change, so I don’t know why we would change what we’re doing when it’s successful.’
The University of Wyoming has extended its mask policy once again. But that policy received more pushback from trustees than it has in the past, drawing out more forceful support from others on the board.
Arguing that case numbers on campus have remained low and that students regularly interact maskless outside the classroom, opponents said masks should be encouraged but optional.
Supporters, including administration, staff and student representation, said those low case numbers are the strongest argument in favor of keeping the campus mask requirements.
“It’s still a serious situation,” UW President Ed Seidel said. “It’s prevalent in our community although it has been decreasing. However, if you look at some national trends, you’ll see that the curves are turning around a bit right now so we have to continue to be vigilant. We are open and we intend to stay open and we have to do that through careful policy.”
But some trustees echoed the arguments advanced by Albany County School Board members just last week: with vaccinations and now boosters readily available to most people, educational institutions can make preventative measures optional.
Trustee Macey Moore reminded the board that “COVID is here to stay.”
“We’ve asked the students to hang in there with these masks and they’ve done a nice job with that and we appreciate it,” she said. “But we have to, in my opinion, at some point be ready to pull these masks.”
Trustee Carol Linton agreed.
“The students are going to be going home for Thanksgiving and I doubt they’ll be wearing masks when they’re at home socializing,” she said. “They don’t wear masks when they’re at the football games and they’re shoulder to shoulder … I think requiring them looks good, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily necessary.”
Trustee Elizabeth Greenwood went so far as to say masks offer “a false sense of security.”
“People should be encouraged to wear them if they want to,” she said. “I don’t think they should be forced to.”
But others urged that this was not the time to let up, that the current policy is clearly working and ought to be continued.
“I would hate for us to have a surge at the end of the semester and then everybody go home and we could have maybe done something to prevent that,” said Trustee David Fall.
Board Treasurer Kermit Brown offered the strongest argument for keeping the mask policy.
“Our numbers have been holding and I think we’ve been doing a really good job,” he said. “Somebody says, ‘Well because the numbers are holding, we can do away with the mask requirement.’ And the problem with that argument is it’s like trying to prove a negative. You can’t do it. You don’t know what the effect would be of doing away with the mask.”
Instead, Brown said, the science behind the effectiveness of masks and mask policies should guide the board’s actions.
“The science tells us the masks do a lot of good,” Brown said. “And the science hasn’t changed. There hasn’t been one iota of change, so I don’t know why we would change what we’re doing when it’s successful.”
The board treasurer pointed to full hospitals — pushed beyond capacity by a wave of unvaccinated patients — as well as Colorado’s complete inability to halt or slow its current surge.
“The lesson from that is if we make a change without any change in the science, and the numbers start to climb, probably you can’t stop that climb,” Brown said. “You can’t stop it once it gets started.”
Staff Senate President Chris Maki said university staff were generally supportive of the mask policy, especially those with health issues that put them at higher risk.
“We do have staff who currently cannot work remotely, but a mask is the thing that keeps them safe,” Maki said. “And having others mask is also very important to them. With a choice, this becomes an issue.”
Similarly, ASUW President Hunter Swilling added that at least one-third of the student body did not feel safe or felt only somewhat safe with the university’s current COVID precautions, suggesting those students would feel even less safe should the current requirements be lifted.
“Nothing is going to fundamentally change with the COVID-19 situation unless we require vaccinations, which is obviously not going to happen,” Swilling said.
The trustees voted to extend the current mask policy on a 9-3 vote with Chairman Jeff Marsh and Trustees Moore and Greenwood casting the dissenting votes.
The board meets again in December, two days before the end of the fall semester.