‘YOLO’: Community celebrates, criticizes UC Berkeley mask mandate lift

Photo of a masks required sign
Can Jozef Saul/Staff
In compliance with city of Berkeley and Alameda County health departments, UC Berkeley will be ending its mask mandate Feb. 28. The decision prompted a variety of responses from the campus community, with many feeling either excited or nervous for the lift.

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On the heels of campus’s Friday announcement that masks would be made optional in most indoor settings, campus lecturer Nicholas Weaver took to social media to celebrate. In a tweet, he welcomed the coming of Feb. 28, the mandate’s expiration date, as you only live once, or “YOLO,” day.

“February 2022 is not March 2020,” Weaver said in an email. “When I’m lecturing I’m going to ditch the mask and YOLO.”

Weaver, who is leaving his position after this semester, noted that his support for lifting the mandate follows his historic caution toward the pandemic, including a preemptive push to put Computer Science 61C, which has more than 400 students, online before campus took action. Many others, however, expressed concerns about lifting the mandate, arguing that it is still necessary. To some, it even feels like a matter of life or death.

Campus graduate student Julia Métraux, who has an autoimmune condition, said the decision to lift the mask mandate was “reckless” given the threats of COVID-19, especially given the possibility of another wave.

“It’s an incredibly selfish attitude to have,” Métraux said of Weaver’s comments. “I think (of) that risk of possibly dying if I get COVID-19.”

While Weaver noted he would continue to wear a mask in crowded settings, he said he doubted the efficacy of widespread use of lower-quality fabric and surgical masks in curbing COVID-19. Students who are concerned about infection, he added, could still wear high-quality N95 masks to protect themselves.

Weaver’s YOLO attitude seems to be a minority viewpoint, however. Leaders from the Berkeley Faculty Association, United Auto Workers, or UAW, 2865 and the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT, Local 1474, have come out against lifting the mandate.

UC-AFT Local 1474 co-chair Crystal Cohen, who represents union lecturers, said she supports a petition to maintain the mask mandate, especially in light of the continuing spread of COVID-19 and “extremely poor” ventilation and social distancing in lecture halls.

“Removing the mandate now would only create more uncertainty, anxiety and absences among students and faculty and negatively impact learning,” Cohen said in the email.

Cohen’s fellow co-chair, I-Wei Wang, who represents union librarians, said library workers did not feel prepared to enforce mask mandates and that administration should account for the library community in setting its policies.

Ending the mask mandate while COVID-19 cases remain common raised concerns for student academic employee union UAW 2865 members, according to UAW 2865 Berkeley recording secretary Samuel Chan. Vulnerable student employees, he added, would be harmed by the end of the mask mandate.

Despite some community concerns, the decision to lift the mask mandate is consistent with the city of Berkeley and Alameda County health departments, according to John Swartzberg, campus public health professor. Campus COVID-19 cases are down from their peak of 634 cases in the week of Jan. 9 to 270 in the week of Feb. 6, according to the campus COVID-19 dashboard.

Swartzberg noted that he would have pushed lifting the mask mandate back by two to three weeks to allow infections to further decrease. He added that “good masks” categorically protect against COVID-19.

Campus lecturer Kaya Oakes said in an email she supports keeping the mask mandate until at least February and then reevaluating. She cited her mother who has Parkinson’s disease and many of her colleagues with children who cannot be vaccinated.

“We’ve already had Covid exposures for two semesters and masks are one of our last defenses,” Oakes said in the email. “My concern is primarily the protection of the most vulnerable.”

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @gabeclasson.