Mask off, mask on: US universities reinstate mask mandates amid rising COVID cases

New masking rules in the US
Several US campuses are restoring mask mandates after new spikes in the BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron variant, with some universities moving classes and exams online. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

Just as many countries are ditching face masks in public, the opposite is happening in the US. An alarming surge in COVID-19 cases on campuses has pushed some universities to reinstate mandatory masking rules in certain areas, with some reversing the decision just mere days after issuing mask-free mandates. 

The subvariant BA.2 of the Omicron variant has rapidly spread nationwide, and is now the dominant strain of the virus in the US, CNBC News reports. Among the universities reinstating strict masking rules are Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, and Georgetown University.

Columbia requires its students to wear non-cloth masks in classrooms while Georgetown recommends against wearing a cloth mask alone.

Mandatory masking was dropped ahead of spring break when Omicron cases started to decline, but students must now return to an all-too familiar norm once more. “I feel like last summer everyone was like, ‘Oh, this is it. We’re nearing the tail end,’” Nina Heller, a junior at American University in Washington D.C., told ABC News. “And then that didn’t quite happen, and now we’re here at summer again, and there’s kind of no end.”

“As much as we would like to move on and think that the pandemic is over, and I think we all would like that to happen at this point, it’s wishful thinking,” ABC News quotes Anita Barkin, co-chair of a COVID-19 task force for the American College Health Association. “The pandemic is still with us.”

New masking rules in the US

No uniform mask mandates are currently enforced nationwide in the US, forcing schools to respond to the pandemic on a case-by-case basis. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

No uniform mandate on masking rules

Mask mandates continue to be a politically-charged debate in the US. The Biden administration had earlier appealed for a reversal on a ruling that lifted mask mandates for flights and public transit. At the time of writing, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the new case average at over 53,000 daily, with an average death rate of 334 each day. 

“The national debate over mask mandates is certainly reflective of both pandemic fatigue and the deep political divides we have in terms of the public health policy related to COVID,” Neil Maniar, director of Northeastern University’s Master of Public Health in Urban Health Programme, told CNBC News. 

“We’re going from this one-size-fits-all approach to much more localised, much more tailored approaches that really respond to what the level of COVID is in a certain community, organisation or university,” Maniar added. 

On April 22, 2022, Philadelphia lifted its indoor mask mandates in the city’s official press release after seeing a decline in average new cases and hospitalisations. Six major universities relaxed their tough masking rules that were introduced just days earlier: Thomas Jefferson University, Drexel University, Temple University, La Salle University, and St. Joseph’s University.

In Washington D.C, Howard University and George Washington University announced that mask rulings will stay until the end of the spring semester. Howard also mentioned that some undergraduate courses and exams will be carried out virtually for extra caution. Meanwhile, the city itself has cleared mandatory masking rules, and has not made any mention of reversing its decision. Masks are optional on public transportations in the city.