‘Better to be safe than sorry’: Occidental maintains indoor masking requirements

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mask policy
Free masks and tests are available at the COVID-19 Testing Center in the Arthur G. Coons administrative center (AGC) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Thursday, March 3, 2022. Hudson Johnson/The Occidental.

Assistant Dean of Students for Emmons Wellness Center Devon Sakamoto announced via email Feb. 24 that Occidental would be leaving its current masking policy in place, following the LA County Department of Public Health’s decision to lift mask requirements in most indoor settings March 4. In the email, the college announced its decision to maintain its indoor masking requirement through spring break and plans to reassess campus guidance upon the return from break. The week ending March 5, Occidental had 11 total cases under management among faculty, staff and students, and a 0.6 percent testing positivity rate.

Marty Sharkey, vice president of communications and institutional services and co-chair of Occidental’s COVID Operations Group (COG), said the privacy of medical information, specifically vaccination status, is a factor COG must consider while developing policies for masking on campus.

“We would have to confirm the exact vaccination status of everyone in every building, and that could get complex because we do not want to let other individuals know about other people’s vaccination status,” Sharkey said. “Also, with everything working well right now, there is no reason to make a quick decision to change the policies at Oxy the same day [LA] county came up with their information.”

Amos Himmelstein, vice president for finance, planning, and operations and member of the COG, said COG determines policies that aim to limit the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“We do not want to stray too far from the county’s guidelines,” Himmelstein said. “We have an external consultant, Dr. Kim Shriner ’80. She has been very helpful to us and gives us guidance as well. There is no perfect answer to anything that comes up since none of us have a pandemic playbook.”

Sharkey and Himmelstein said the combined efforts of students, faculty and staff are helping to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and that the college will continue to adjust its safety measures as health and safety recommendations continue to develop.

“It’s impossible to predict the guidelines because you never know what may be coming down the road,” Sharkey said. “Just looking at what is in front of us right now, I would think that given the relaxing of the mask mandates that we are seeing right now and the declining numbers, it would not be inaccurate to say there is no potential for some type of relaxing here.”

mask policy
A sign stating the indoor masking policies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Thursday, March 3, 2022. Hudson Johnson/The Occidental.

According to Sharkey, the college administration does not foresee a significant surge of COVID-19 cases resulting from students’ spring break travels.

“There will be testing that first week upon return and we encourage all students to wear their masks when they travel and be safe, but we will not have anyone stagger their returns,” Sharkey said. “The context of coming back to campus in mid-March is very different than January when we were in peak omicron. The incidents of COVID in March are much lower.”

Himmelstein said the college was cautious about loosening restrictions too fast, citing surges in cases at other college campuses earlier in the pandemic.

Sharkey said the college can be flexible in implementing LA County guidelines so long as they meet the minimum standard.

“The county gives guidelines,” Sharkey said. “They do not govern every specific aspect of how things are implemented. Sometimes there is discussion amongst the COG of what the guideline says, and how we should implement it specifically for us — mainly if there is any reason to be more conservative than the county guideline.”

Sharkey said the COG decided to keep weekly surveillance testing for all students, faculty and staff, even after LA County’s guidelines changed, because the majority of people on campus wanted it to remain.

If there comes a time where [the college’s] indoor masking rules get relaxed, I think we would still strongly encourage anyone who wants to wear a mask to do so,” Sharkey said. “I do not want to get into what our exact direction will be once the mandates are relaxed — that’s too far off. We certainly want anyone who wants to wear a mask to be comfortable wearing a mask.”

Shae Campbell (first year) said that masks should be worn for the safety of those on campus with pre-existing health conditions.

“I think that we should respect the people on our campus who are immunocompromised,” Campbell said. “I think that masks should still be required in all our enclosed spaces like our dorms and our classrooms.”

Prithvi Dinesh Chandra (junior) also said he understands the importance of continuing to wear masks on campus for the safety of others.

“I think it is fine. I am completely okay with the idea of wearing masks around campus still. I honestly do not see a problem with it,” Dinesh Chandra said. “I think on campus, it is better to be safe than sorry, especially with packed places like the MP [Marketplace] and the Cooler around mealtimes.”

Updates to the college’s masking policies and other COVID-19 related policies can be found here.