Opinion Asks: Hanover’s Mask Mandate

Should Hanover continue to keep its mask mandate? How should COVID-19 policies change come spring?

by The Dartmouth Opinion Staff | 2/18/22 4:00am

by Julia Siegel / The Dartmouth Staff

Recently, some of the bluest states in the nation announced the end of their mask mandates in an attempt to return to normalcy: “We recognize that we want to turn the page on the status quo,” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said last week. As the end of winter term approaches, marking another term with some COVID-19 policies still intact, we ask: Should the town of Hanover drop its mask mandate? Should Dartmouth? Relatedly, how should COVID-19 policies change  — or not change — at Dartmouth in the spring?

What I think is most important about how we consider Hanover and Dartmouth’s mask mandates is the frank reality of if they actually are working as intended, and the reality across America today is that people are no longer taking public health advice on COVID-19 nearly as seriously as they did during earlier waves. The tools that we have at our disposal to manage the pandemic have significantly dulled. With this in mind, it seems fairly apparent to me that trying to prolong our response to COVID-19 is no longer worth it. Despite — and let’s face the reality here — low current adherence to masking rules, cases on campus and in the Upper Valley at large are declining quite quickly, and hospital ICUs have a lot more breathing room than they did before. At this point, the damage that might be avoided by fighting tooth and nail to extend mask mandates is outweighed by the risk that reactionaries further erode the already tenuous trust the general public has in our public health system. If we are to respond to whatever the next public health crisis may be (because another crisis will come eventually, whether in the form of new COVID-19 wave or something completely different) we need to put our tools to rest for a while so we can sharpen them back up again. Personally, I am relieved we are still able to do so — we certainly wouldn’t be able to do much in the future if our public health tools were totally broken, let alone just dull. I certainly do not think public health efforts have been some sort of “attack on freedom” or “tyranny,” but the societal risk of further damage to our institutions’ legitimacy is simply no longer worth it. As mask mandates come up for review this spring, the time has finally come to let them lapse.

— Thomas Lane ’24

With the recent announcement by several states, including states that instituted some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions, to end their mask mandates, the U.S. is beginning to approach a return to normalcy. With increasing vaccination rates, promising treatments and the passing of the omicron variant, the risk of COVID-19, especially severe cases, is incredibly low. Yet at Dartmouth and in surrounding Hanover, students and residents still have to wear masks indoors. Students are required to be vaccinated and boosted, and there is nothing stopping others from also getting vaccinated, so why has policy not changed? If there are proven forms of protection from COVID-19 available to all who are at risk, there is no reason to require masks. The benefits of classroom instruction and social interactions without masks far outweigh the small risk of getting COVID-19. And given that the College has recently recovered from a large omicron outbreak, a significant portion of the student body is well protected from contracting and spreading the disease. Both Hanover and Dartmouth should re-examine their COVID-19 policies and strongly consider ending the mask mandate for the spring term and beyond. 

— Christopher Hall ’25

Due to excellent vaccination rates combined with high levels of natural immunity, the Dartmouth community is collectively well-protected against immediate severe disease related to COVID-19. As of Feb. 17, 99% of Dartmouth undergraduates, 98.9% of graduate students and 96.8% of faculty and staff report being vaccinated against COVID-19. This winter, there have been more than 3,000 new positive COVID-19 cases among the same cohort, all while the mask mandate was in place. Nationally, omicron seems to have peaked, with an estimated 73% of Americans now immune to the variant. The current COVID-19 landscape at Dartmouth is worlds away from April 2020, June 2021, September 2021 and even January 2022. Of course, certain risks related to infection remain, including the possibility of developing chronic symptoms for those without immunity and more severe disease for immunocompromised community members — but there may be better ways to serve at-risk individuals than a weak mask mandate that hardly stopped the latest outbreak. Dartmouth should prioritize academic and professional flexibility for at-risk individuals and making high-quality PPE like N95 masks available instead of implementing minimally effective masking requirements.

Considering Dartmouth’s current position, the burden of proof on the administration to keep the current masking requirement in place for the spring term is extremely high. To meet that standard, the administration must show how we can reasonably expect the mask mandate to significantly decrease the risk of severe disease for the Dartmouth community at this moment in time. Other developments or findings may come, but I have yet to see evidence that would robustly support this conclusion.

— Isaiah Menning ’24

The vigor with which COVID-19 tore through Dartmouth this term despite the imposition of mask mandates challenges the efficacy of having mandates at all. Furthermore, several new factors have changed the way we should move forward next term: the arrival of the omicron variant, the development of new drugs to treat the virus, and Grafton County’s plunging cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The day-to-day situation has changed. COVID-19 has shifted away from being a terrifying virus that shut down the country for months. Now, it is a mild inconvenience for most. There are some exceptions to this rule. But if booster shots should fail to protect the immunocompromised, new pharmaceutical treatments are constantly arriving on the market.

It’s time to acknowledge some fundamental truths. Dartmouth has multiple advantages that many cities and states do not: It is highly vaccinated, in a sparsely populated area and has an overwhelmingly young population. This has been true for months. Now, our community has an added degree of protection thanks to the widespread immunity gained from this term’s outbreak. Yet even leaders of blue states that don’t have these advantages have lifted their mask mandates. It’s time we do, too.

— Thomas de Wolff ’24