‘Seeing smiles again’: UM reacts to end of mask mandate

On Tuesday March 1, UM announced that they will no longer require students, faculty and staff to wear masks in all indoor spaces. After nearly two years of debate on COVID-19 protocol, the change has been met with widespread approval, despite some supporting continued masking.

“This is basically the calm after the storm,” said Elisiene Jean, an alumnus of the University of Miami and assistant circulation manager at the Richter library on campus. “This time should be celebrated. It’s time for us to come together and focus on what’s important here.”

Now, classmates and professors that have never seen each other’s faces in full are getting to know one another in a new light.

“I think the best part about eliminating the mask policy is that now we can share our beautiful smiles on campus,” Jean said.

UM has required students to wear masks to varying degrees since the fall 2020 semester. The latest guidelines required masks in classrooms, on the first floor of residential colleges, in the library, when entering the dining hall and in the Wellness Center, including while exercising.

The end of the mask mandate was announced through an email from UM communications to the university community on Monday, March 1.

“Through the consistent and collective efforts of our entire University community and due to the dramatic decline in cases and high rate of vaccination across our campuses, we now have reached a point where we can safely update our indoor mask guidelines,” the university said.

Some students that supported mask mandates throughout the pandemic said they feel the threat no longer warrants such strict protocol.

“It’s not too much of an inconvenience. It’s just better to be breathing free,” said Marty Cohen, a freshman studying business technology. “Air is free. Let’s get some of it.”

Not everyone is happy about the change, however. While many students said they found the mask to be an inconvenience, some essential workers are worried for their safety.

“There’s some people that want to wear the mask and they’re around the people that don’t want to wear the mask,” said Tory Sherman, a cashier at Hecht-Stanford dining hall. “Some people probably live with their families and they get sick and go home.”

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, UM has based their masking requirements on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines. Some faculty expressed approval for the university’s handling of pandemic protocols.

“I think the decisions that UM has made about this issue have not been driven by politics,” said Louise Davidson-Schmich, a professor of political science at UM. “President Frenk is a public health expert and I think they have been public health driven policies.”

Davidson-Schmich noted that Florida public schools haven’t had a mask mandate since Nov. 2021, despite the Omicron surge in Jan. 2022. However, she remains somewhat apprehensive towards the shift to ‘no masks.’

“Personally, I would feel a little more confident teaching a big class like this if we could all wear masks,” Davidson-Schmich said.

According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people only need to wear masks indoors in counties with substantial transmission. From March 1-7, Miami-Dade County’s transmission was classified as “low” with a weekly average positivity rate of 4%.

In the same week, UM’s test positivity rate was 0.6%.

“I think it was appropriate for a while but now it’s time to move on,” said David Spigelman, a professor of economics at UM. “I find it annoying. I think it’s harder for students to hear me and understand what I’m saying. It’s harder to gauge reactions from students.”

Spigelman said he felt the masks were preventing students from interacting, leading them to behave overly shy or paranoid, inhibiting conversation and encouraging students to stick to their screens.

He also offered some economic analysis of the situation.

“Reducing restrictions is going to encourage more people to go out, and there will probably be an increase in expenditures,” Spigelman said. “The removing of the mask makes people feel more secure to do more things.”

One of these things may include going to the gym, where many students claimed they had difficulty exercising because of the Wellness Center’s masking requirement.

“Working out with a mask is rough,” said Sophia El-Zahr, a lifeguard and assistant facility manager at the Herbert Wellness Center. “Masks are irritating, but it’s for the wellbeing of our community.”

Now that the mask mandate is lifted and more people workout maskless, El-Zahr enjoys getting to see everyone’s face.

“I’m very happy about it being lifted because I can see people’s smiles. It’s more personable,” El-Zahr said.

Reed Spahn, a sophomore music major and patron of the gym, said he’s happy that ‘gym face,’ the ugly face one may make when lifting a lot of weight, is back in the weight room.

“Making ugly gym faces is just part of being in here,” Spahn said. “If I see someone making an ugly face that just means they’re pushing real hard.”