‘A perfect breeding ground for COVID’: UC Berkeley residence halls enforce mask mandate, strive to prevent outbreaks

Photo of Blackwell Hall
Charlene Wang/Staff
As the flurry of student move-ins comes to an end, many are concerned about the potential for another COVID-19 outbreak. However, UC Berkeley administration has instituted guidelines and policies to ensure student safety and reduce the possibility of a superspreader.

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Though last week freshmen flocked to stores in search of mattress toppers and UC Berkeley came alive with parents decked out in head-to-toe campus merchandise, the pandemic lingered.

Move-in looked different — several thousand students lugged bins up and down Berkeley’s roaring streets while wearing masks.

Amid continued safety concerns, campus enforced three COVID-19-related housing protocols as students moved in, according to UC Berkeley spokesperson Adam Ratliff. Residents were required to take a COVID-19 test at University Health Services, or UHS, prior to checking in, unvaccinated students had to self-sequester in their room for one week upon arrival and face coverings were — and continue to be — mandated inside campus housing and dining facilities.

“We are excited to have more residents living with us this semester,” Ratliff said in an email. “Many of our COVID protocols have been in place for some time, but we have to remain nimble and flexible because public health guidelines change often.”

As of press time, more than 94% of both undergraduate and graduate students are fully vaccinated, and 88% of faculty and staff are immunized, according to UC Berkeley’s coronavirus dashboard.

But while university mask mandates and vaccination requirements aim to create some semblance of normalcy, the chimes of the Campanile bells now signal a return to academic life that has left many reminiscing over past virus outbreaks in the dorms.

To John Swartzberg, campus clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology, UC Berkeley’s safety measures are robust and will likely be successful. He anticipates that cases will arise, but does not foresee large outbreaks despite dorms acting as “a perfect breeding ground for COVID.”

The most effective ways to control the virus are through surveillance testing, vaccination and contact tracing, according to Swartzberg. To prevent superspreading events, students must adopt “nonpharmaceutical interventions,” such as social distancing, and be mindful of potential symptoms that arise because vaccinated individuals who become infected often develop mild symptoms similar to allergies, he said.

“It really requires vigilance on the part of the students and not just depending on public health interventions and the vaccine,” Swartzberg said.

The only time residents of campus housing are exempt from wearing masks is when they are in their living space, eating or drinking, brushing their teeth or taking a shower, according to Ratliff. UC Berkeley is also carrying out contact tracing — UHS will notify students to get tested if they may have been exposed to a positive case — and is mandating once-a-week testing for unvaccinated residents.

Residents who test positive will be isolated and their close contacts will be relocated to another housing unit if unvaccinated, Ratliff added. Neighboring students who are vaccinated and asymptomatic do not need to isolate, and will instead be screened for symptoms over two weeks and tested.

Similar to Swartzberg, Arthur Reingold, division head of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, expects to see a small number of cases on campus. Reingold remains hopeful and confident that cases will not impede in-person instruction.

“I hope people show some judgment, but at some ages, the urge to go out and have fun and spend time with your friends is very strong,” Reingold said. “So, we’ll see.”

Enforcing campus policy

As freshmen embrace their newfound freedoms and bask in the glimmer of fresh adulthood, resident assistants, or RAs, serve to enforce safety measures in residence halls and create a home away from home for new students.

Normally performing in-person duties such as opening doors for people who are locked out or responding to crises, RAs have been advised to deal with matters over the phone whenever possible, according to a campus senior who is currently in her third year as an RA.

Nonetheless, the RA, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said she has rarely conducted duties over the phone.

The RA said there are far fewer residents complying with the mask mandate than last semester. While she said residents had to self-sequester upon arrival at the dorms until they had two negative COVID-19 tests in the past, students this fall got tested when they moved in and were socializing indoors without masks hours later.

When a resident is locked out of their room without a mask on, there is not much that can be done besides throwing a mask across the hallway, she added. And with no testing mandate for residents who are vaccinated, the RA expressed unease about her daily responsibilities.

“I’m gonna get tested once a week because I’m gonna let unmasked people into their rooms at two in the morning after they go to frat parties,” the RA said.

If a student fails to comply with campus public health policy, they could be subject to a Center for Student Conduct investigation and potentially barred from all or part of campus, according to Ratliff. For registered student organizations like CalGreeks groups, such violations could compromise their campus affiliations, he said.

But in an effort to be restorative rather than punitive, mask violations tend to go unhandled, the RA alleged. RAs can write incident reports, but she described them as a “punishment with no punishment.”

Social gatherings begin anew 

As students learn of new COVID-19 cases sprouting in dorms, a shared longing for people to abide by safety protocols has bonded some.

Three campus freshmen living in the residence halls echoed a general sentiment of feeling safe in their respective dorms, noting that RAs have been enforcing the mask mandate. But the situation remains uncertain as social gatherings that form the cornerstone of dorm life and act as a petri dish for the virus begin.

Aditi Chatterjee, a freshman living in Unit 1, said in an email that there was a large welcome party hosted by UC Berkeley’s New Student Services in her building’s courtyard on the last day of move-in. Freshmen came out in droves to dance to the Cal Band performance. A fellow Unit 1 resident, Jasmine Turner noted that most students have been wearing masks in her building and there have not been many large gatherings due to visitor restrictions.

“I feel so immensely grateful to be able to meet new people from all over the world and to have grown so much within just a week being on campus,” Chatterjee said in an email. “The overall atmosphere on campus right now is just of genuine enthusiasm and thirst to learn again in-person.”

During the first few days of move-in in Unit 3, many students kept their doors open so people could socialize, according to resident Inga Gous.

She added that she hopes COVID-19 restrictions from the past do not reappear, fearing it could affect her mental and physical health.

“It would be really tough to go into that rut again,” Gous said in an email.

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.