No more mask mandate: UC Santa Cruz students greet coming change warily

Fourth-year student Destyni Ellis, 24, sits outside the Earth and Planetary Sciences building at the UC Santa Cruz campus.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I have a teacher who was like, ‘Away with the masks!’ And just wants to see everybody’s faces. But I know people are gonna still wear it and be cautious about it.” After two years of pandemic restrictions and remote learning, UC Santa Cruz students wonder about the school’s move to lift its mask mandate effective Sunday.

UC Santa Cruz is set to lift its indoor mask mandate Sunday, April 10.

As with most COVID-related transitions that involve a balance of freedom and risk-taking, students have mixed feelings about the loosening restriction. Many are surprised that the school is lifting the mandate two months after the Omicron surge, and at the same time as other regions of the world experience new surges. Other students are ready for a new phase in the long journey to normalcy.

As of March 29, 92.6% of UCSC students and 98% of employees were vaccinated and up to date with boosters, according to the school’s online tracker.

Following the winter’s Omicron surge, the university’s positivity rate declined significantly, as rates did across the country. The peak seven-day positivity rate for students and employees for samples collected on site was 6.81% on Jan. 13; as of Tuesday, it was 0.47%. Officials also report zero cases of transmission in classrooms or workplace settings on campus.

On Tuesday, UCSC students walked to and from class in varying degrees of masking: a mask covering their face, a mask below their chin or no mask at all.

UCSC officials said they chose April 10 to give students time to get tested as they return to campus from spring break, and because of lower transmission rates in Santa Cruz County amid the state’s updated masking guidance. Officials also emphasize that staying up to date on vaccinations and getting tested will continue to be important parts of their effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Many students said masking should continue to be required where lecture halls with more than 100 people make physical distancing difficult. Because of the possibility of being asymptomatic, students were particularly concerned about other people being unmasked.

“Even though right now, I’m perfectly fine, tomorrow I could think I’m fine, but then I might be contagious [and have COVID],” said freshman Angel Remigio, 18.

Remigio, a computer science major, said he tested positive while he was at home in Los Angeles during spring break. He had to delay his return and got back to campus just Monday after testing negative.

He was asymptomatic. Now, he worries that when the indoor mask mandate is lifted, people who are asymptomatic and unmasked indoors will spread the virus.

His friend, psychology major Adonis Bonilla, 18, said he feels it’s not safe generally but he can understand that in certain situations some people prefer to unmask.

For example, he said, maybe teachers who are distanced from other people in classrooms and can talk more clearly without a mask could safely not wear one. But he doesn’t think students in cramped lecture halls who can’t socially distance should be allowed to remove their masks, as transmission will be more likely.

“I don’t know if having 100 or 150 people crammed together with no mask would be the best idea,” Bonilla said.

While all UC campuses will continue to require masking for everyone regardless of vaccination status on public transportation and in clinical settings for the foreseeable future, each campus has slightly different policies and dates for ending or amending masking requirements for most indoor settings.

For example, UC Berkeley stopped requiring masking indoors March 7, instead strongly recommending it. At UCLA, instructors who could maintain physical distance were allowed to remove their masks during instruction starting March 28, but masks will continue to be required in indoor settings through Monday.

Cabrillo College officials extended the school’s indoor mask mandate through the end of the spring semester, or May 21, per President Matthew Wetstein.

Here’s what UCSC students told Lookout on Tuesday about the lifting of the mask mandate.

Rose Kleinfeld, 19, first-year student studying politics

First-year politics student Rose Kleinfeld, 19, walks through Quarry Plaza on the UCSC campus.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“I don’t really know how to feel. I feel kind of mixed. I just think that I know that there’s a population of people on campus that aren’t vaccinated and just aren’t really careful about COVID. And so I just feel that like, with the lifting of the mask mandate, that I think more people might get COVID. And especially with new variants surfacing in other parts of the world, I think it’s just maybe a little too soon. And I just don’t think it’s the best move. And also, I know that there are people who are immunocompromised, and so you’re just putting them at serious risk by lifting the mass mandate. I think that they should just keep it enforced in certain places, especially in lecture halls, just keep it on.”

Daniel Gerst, 18, first-year student studying computer science

“Initially, I was happy, because I feel like sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming, especially when there’s not a lot of people around or you’re just with your friends, but in big lecture halls and whatnot, I feel like it’s still might be necessary to prevent the spread of COVID on campus, because it’s still a big deal. It’s still a big problem. And we don’t want to be on the wrong side of that problem.”

First-year computer science students Daniel Gerst (left) and Dalal Raafeh walk on the UC Santa Cruz campus.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Dalal Raafeh, 18, first-year student studying computer science

“When in a small group, or just in the dorms and interacting with a small group, I think it’s OK, because I feel like I know who my friends are interacting with. And we’re all very safe. And I feel like we’re all very conscious and very aware that COVID is still happening. And for example, when we do go out to stores or anything, we do wear masks. But I feel like when we go into a bigger group, like a lecture hall or anything, I would feel more comfortable with a mask, because I’m not very aware of how people are interacting and and sometimes, COVID, especially the new variant, a lot of people are not very aware of it and mistake it as a flu.”

Destyni Ellis, 24, fourth-year student studying education

Fourth-year student, Destyni Ellis, 24, rests outside on the UC Santa Cruz campus, on April 5, 2022.
Fourth-year student Destyni Ellis, 24, sits outside the Earth and Planetary Sciences building on the UC Santa Cruz campus.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I think they’re gonna extend it anyway, like how the university started with remote instruction last quarter. So I feel like with this, it is a big change. And I feel like if they see the cases rise at all, they’ll extend it. I feel like I’ll probably still wear the mask, at least at first just to see how everything is. But I’m vaccinated, so I’m totally comfortable and can go either way. I can see why people will be excited about it. I have a teacher who was like, ‘Away with the masks!’ And just wants to see everybody’s faces. But I know people are gonna still wear it and be cautious about it.”

Brian Cheng, 21, third-year student studying computer science

Third-year computer science student Brian Cheng, 21, studies near McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Frankly, I was surprised that it was going to be lifted so soon. And I assumed because of Omicron, earlier this winter, that we would still have time, at least until summer, that the mask mandate might be lifted, but I didn’t realize it would be lifted so soon here in the spring. I don’t know how to feel about it. Because on one hand, everyone is eager to return to normality, like no masks and everything. But on the other hand, I understand that COVID is still a major issue. And I’m just worried about how long COVID is going to last. And if we drop the mandate now, I think the infection will just continue to keep on going. So yeah, I suppose I would say like, just extend the mask mandate a bit further, maybe a month or two. But looking after that, further from that, I’m not sure.”

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