This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.
COVID-19 has drawn divisive lines between friends, families, coworkers and everyone in between. It’s not an easy topic to avoid, and it’s a controversial one once it gets brought up. Mercer University knows this and is avoiding taking a truly definitive stance on masks. The university administration needs to step up and have a strong stance on masks for the safety of both the Mercer and Macon communities.
Before tackling the issues on why masks should be required, the policy itself has to be addressed. The school’s current mask policy, which is essentially an ambiguous set of recommendations, is a problem whether you support mask mandates or not.
The most recent policy update was released Aug. 12 by the university and said that unvaccinated individuals are required to wear masks. The policy also states that vaccinated individuals are not required to wear masks but are “strongly encouraged” to do so.
This policy is impossible to enforce. Mercer simply does not have the resources to keep track of who is vaccinated and enforce unvaccinated students to keep their masks on. While students will submit proof of vaccination prior to the beginning of the semester, there is virtually no way to constantly check people’s vaccination status.
As it stands currently, faculty will not be provided a list of unvaccinated students, according to the Provost’s office. This means that they will be unable to enforce unvaccinated students wearing masks within their classrooms.
Another problem lies in the fact that Mercer’s policy allows departments to have their own individual mask requirements.
On Aug. 18, the Journalism and Media Studies department is enforcing all students to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Other departments are currently developing their own policies that may differ.
This is chaos. While many students do have most of their classes in one area of study, many more have a variety of classes in different departments and buildings. Students should not have to keep up with varying masking policies when moving between classes. It is extremely inefficient at best and a huge health risk at worst.
This policy also shifts the blame for enforcing masks onto departments and professors instead of the school administration. The entire job of the administration is to make decisions on school-wide issues, yet it deferred this choice to each individual area of study. Now department chairs will be blamed by students who may not agree with certain policies despite the fact that the administration is at fault for making their policy so open-ended.
This simply is not fair to department chairs who have enough to deliberate on within their actual jobs, nor is it fair to students who will undoubtedly want answers about why certain mask requirements were put in place.
Perhaps the most important reason for Mercer actually developing a policy, though, can be found in the data. On July 17 in Bibb County, there were not any new COVID-19 cases, according to the New York Times. The seven-day average that day was listed at 12 new cases. This is an outlier, of course, but it shows that the area did at one point have a moderate handle on the pandemic.
On Aug. 17, there were 211 new cases in Bibb County. The seven-day average for new cases was 173. This ties in with a national trend, as the country recently broke the 100,000 case mark and saw some states break records for hospitalizations.
The same New York Times article lays out simple graphs that display the obvious: these meteoric rises in cases are directly tied to the low vaccination rates across the nation. As long as vaccination rates remain low, the delta variant of COVID-19 will continue to spread. Masking and social distancing are necessary to prevent this.
Those drastically increased Bibb County numbers are without the presence of a student body that will be filled with unvaccinated students and maskless students. Either Mercer enforces masks for everyone or it requires vaccinations of all students, and it’s too late for the latter to make a meaningful difference with the delta variant.
Mercer has made a distinct effort to build its relationship with Macon and Bibb County in recent years. The university has helped renovate nearby neighborhoods, brought people to the downtown area and provided jobs to citizens. The communities of Macon and Mercer are inherently linked as a result, with Mercer students and faculty interacting with surrounding areas more than ever.
With this in mind, Mercer simply cannot be responsible for the deaths or hospitalizations of Bibb County citizens. After all of the building Mercer has done in Bibb County, it risks it all by having a mask policy that could lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases and subsequent deaths.
The logistical problems with requiring vaccinations are easy to understand, but there is no logistical issue with enforcing masks. It makes everything simpler for everyone involved. Even not having a mandatory mask policy — as opposed to the “policy” that’s currently in place — would be simpler.
The bottom line is that Mercer’s current mask policy is indecisive and utterly fails to protect the student body. The university desperately needs to make a decision on whether or not they wish to fully enforce masks.
Regardless of their opinion on the necessity of masks, Mercer needs to have their policy apply to everyone and extend as a blanket to all areas of campus. At least let students be sure of what’s asked of them — to mask or not to mask — even if it means an increased number of COVID-19 cases.
Micah Johnston ‘22 is a journalism and media studies double major who has written for The Cluster since his freshman year at Mercer. He has written on and reported for Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Macon Telegraph and The Macon Newsroom on a variety of topics. He received the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s Junior Honors Award for the 2020-2021 academic year. Micah’s other interests include obsessively following Braves and Mariners baseball, constantly listening to all kinds of music and probably eating junk food.