Club athletes, gym users voice frustrations with inconsistent, overly stringent enforcement of mask mandate
While varsity teams are allowed to practice and play without masks, violations of the mask mandate have prompted the College to shutter Zimmerman — the only fitness center open to non-varsity students — and suspend the men’s club basketball team.
On Nov. 5, interim director of athletics and recreation Peter Roby sent a campus-wide email announcing that, due to gym users’ “non-compliance” with the College’s indoor mask mandate and “rude, inappropriate behavior” toward gym staff, Alumni Gym would once again be closed to regular gym users from Nov. 8 to Nov. 9. This second closure of the College’s only gym open to non-varsity students, coupled with the recent suspension of at least one club athletics team due to mask non-compliance, has raised questions about inconsistencies in the College’s mask policies, which exempt varsity teams from wearing masks during practice and games.
The gym had previously closed on Oct. 6 in response to students disobeying masking requirements. An Oct. 5 email sent to club sports athletes stated that the closure was intended to “get people’s attention so that overall compliance and respect for the College’s policy and building staff improves.” Club sports athletes were still permitted to use gym facilities during the closure, according to the email.
Club sports athletes have also faced repercussions for non-compliance. The men’s club basketball team recently faced a temporary suspension due to inadequate masking: On Oct. 22, athletic director for club sports and intramurals Heather Somers emailed leaders of the team to notify them that they would be barred from practicing for over two weeks, according to screenshots of the email obtained by The Dartmouth.
Men’s club basketball team captain Thomas Brown ’22 said that, although the suspension was originally supposed to last through Nov. 8, it was reduced to Nov. 2 following meetings with Somers.
Brown said the team had been “really trying” to comply with the mandate but made “one or two slip-ups” that resulted in the suspension. He added that it has been challenging to play basketball while wearing a mask.
“It’s pretty difficult to breathe, and your mask gets sweaty and wet pretty quickly, so I’m hoping they’ll lift [the mask mandate] soon — maybe for the winter,” Brown said.
Brown explained that while varsity teams are not required to wear masks while playing indoors, club teams are required to wear them at all times indoors except while drinking water. During a meeting with Somers, Brown said that Somers described mask enforcement for club versus varsity sports as “apples and oranges.”
According to interim director of athletics and recreation Peter Roby, the difference in masking requirements for varsity and club athletes is in part due to COVID-19 regulations at other schools for visiting varsity athletes.
“We do have more testing protocols for our [varsity] athletes in season because they’re going to have to travel to schools that are going to require a negative COVID test within 72 hours of coming to campus, and so if they only test once a week and it’s early in the week, they might not fall within the 72 hours,” he said.
Roby said another difference is that varsity teams usually practice in private facilities, while club sports teams often play in “more public venues.”
“Our expectation is that because there’s nobody else publicly in that space, there’s less risk because [varsity athletes] are in a closed environment with respect to what they’re doing with their individual teams and their facilities,” he said.
Roby added that expanding twice-a-week testing beyond varsity teams might be a costly endeavor for the College.
“One of the things that we have to acknowledge is that there’s a cost associated with all of these tests,” he said. “You’re trying to do the best you can with the money that you have, for the most people, and so you have to make some decisions about what’s reasonable.”
Varsity volleyball team member Ellie Blain ’24 said that the team is allowed to go maskless during practices and games at Leede Arena due to the twice-per-week testing regimen the College offers varsity teams. However, Blain said the team still must wear masks during conditioning at Floren Varsity House.
“Whenever we’re lifting — or [not] playing volleyball — we’re always in masks, so in Floren or in the weight room, we have to wear masks when we work out,” Blain said.
While Brown said he felt grateful for the College’s decision to reduce men’s club basketball’s practice suspension, he believes that weekly COVID-19 testing and masks off the court would be sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He added that he hopes the mandate will soon be adjusted to allow his team to go maskless during practices.
“I definitely understand why [varsity] wouldn’t have to wear masks — [but] I … don't really get why we have to wear masks, too,” he said. “Given all our COVID restrictions and all the times we’re getting tested, I think it’s safe enough to play without it.”
According to Roby, a decision to extend the mask mandate exemptions to club athletes or other gym users would likely come from an agreement between the COVID-19 task force and “a number of people that are overseeing some of the decisions” regarding mask mandates and COVID-19 testing.
According to Will Tarnowski ’24, a regular at Alumni Gym, the enforcement of the mask mandate on campus has been asymmetric on other fronts, as well. Tarnowski expressed frustration about the variable enforcement, noting stricter enforcement at West Gym than other locations.
“I think, ideally, the mask mandate [would be] an optional policy, but if not, I think there needs to be a general consensus on the enforcement of the rules,” Tarnowski said. “The reason why it’s a problem [in the gym] is that they’re enforcing it more heavily than the rest of campus — there has to be a cultural understanding of how it’s enforced overall.”
Tarnowski said he has noticed little-to-no enforcement in other spaces, such as Greek houses and Baker-Berry Library.
“I got banned from the gym [for a day] because I had my mask under my nose, and I know they shut down the gym for a day a few weeks ago,” he said.“That’s frustrating to me, because I feel like the gym is a more spaced out place than a lot of other campus areas, and I feel like [Dartmouth Safety and Security] knows there are [unmasked] frat parties going on.”
Students are also frequently maskless throughout Baker-Berry Library and in dining halls — in the latter, students are allowed to remove their masks while seated.
Tarnowski cited the positive impact of exercise on students’ mental health as another reason why the College should move toward a mask-optional policy at the gym.
“The one place where you're trying to improve your health, in my experience, is actually the one place where they will enforce [the mask mandate] very strictly,” he said. “For me, it’s more than just going there just for 30 minutes to break a sweat — the gym is a stable part of my life that probably has best contributed to my mental health.”
Heather Somers did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Interim Dean of the College Scott Brown declined to comment on the record.
Correction appended (3:00 p.m., Nov. 9, 2021): A previous version of this article made reference to the “club basketball team.” There are both men’s and women’s club basketball teams, and only the men’s team was suspended for noncompliance with the mask mandate. The article has been updated to clarify which team is being referred to.