Debate has already started over wearing masks at BYU this fall

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BYU’s announcement that masks will be required on campus during Fall semester has been met with a mix of support and criticism. (Photo illustration by Preston Crawley)

Face masks have become a politically charged issue across the country over the past few months — and BYU is no exception.

The university’s plans for Fall Semester include a requirement that students, employees and visitors use face coverings in classes, inside buildings and during interactions with others. Masks are not required in private living spaces or enclosed office spaces occupied by a single individual and are only required outside if specifically instructed or if physical distancing is difficult to maintain.

The rules have been met with mixed sentiments: Some students are praising the requirement while others view it as a violation of their individual rights.

BYU President Kevin J Worthen addressed the issue in a letter on June 23, stating everyone needs to play their part.

“The BYU mission statement says that all relationships within the BYU community should reflect ‘a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor.’ Certainly that can be our motivation for wearing a face covering, washing our hands often and staying home when we’re sick,” Worthen said.

Incoming freshman Catherine Leone expressed a similar sentiment and said it’s not unreasonable to ask people to wear masks.

“Perhaps you yourself are healthy, but that is no excuse to ignore safety protocols,” she said. “It’s not just a question of safety, but of compassion: do you care about others enough to wear a mask?”

She had already resigned herself to the idea that her first semester at college would be online rather than the typical college experience she’d hoped for. She was surprised but excited when BYU announced plans for a hybrid semester.

“When I imagined starting my college experience, I’ll admit, I never envisioned wearing a mask,” she said. “I support the mask requirement, which maximizes both safety and sociality while allowing students the experience they hope for.”

BYU student Danny Iacopucci said requiring masks is a “good call,” and it doesn’t affect his personal comfort level of coming back to campus.

“At least it means we get to all see each other again!” Iacopucci said. “Do whatever it takes to let us ‘Rise and Shout’ together again — masked or unmasked.” 

Other students are less receptive to the rule. Chemical engineering student Ryker Steiner didn’t originally support masks being required on campus but said he’s grateful classes can be in-person “if this is what it takes.”

“I have mixed feelings about the masks on campus,” he said.”Personally, I don’t have an issue with wearing a bandana on campus even though I don’t agree with how it works.”

He expressed concern about possible health problems with wearing a mask for too long and said he hopes BYU educates students about how to properly wear masks.

The CDC states anyone who has trouble breathing or is unable to remove the mask without assistance should not wear a mask. Fact-checks from Snopes, Reuters and the Associated Press found that continually wearing a mask isn’t likely to cause health problems.

“The level of CO2 likely to build up in the mask is mostly tolerable to people exposed to it. You might get a headache but you most likely (would) not suffer the symptoms observed at much higher levels of CO2,” a CDC spokesperson told Reuters.

Steiner said his other concern is “students self-policing others to wear masks and how that might just cause more division in an already contentious time.”

Divisions over the ban are already happening on social media. After BYU announced its plans for Fall Semester on Instagram, users attacked each other in the comment sections.

BYU student Erin Berglund’s comment “everybody please wear your masks” on BYU’s Instagram post, was met with resistance from another user who said, “Everybody please keep your opinions to yourselves and stop restricting the freedom of others.”

BYU student Maren Hatch responded to both comments by saying, “That’s the rule BYU has laid down. If you don’t like it, the freedom you have is to choose to go somewhere else.”

A separate post criticizing BYU’s decision to reopen campus for Fall Semester sparked another contentious thread.

“My choice to wear or not wear a mask is my right,” Sarah Plewe, mom to a BYU student, said. “Just to clarify I (sic) HAVE WORN A MASK. My point is that it is my decision to make not yours or anyone else’s.”

BYU student Kaitie Cindrich responded to Plewe by saying, “Are your individual freedoms to get a haircut or not wear a mask more important than the freedoms for someone to stay alive?” While another user responded to Plewe with “Amen.”

BYU constitutional law professor Justin Collings said the idea that individuals have a constitutional right not to wear a mask is “misguided.”

“I think the claim is nonsense,” he said. “The constitutional question to me seems clear on this one.”

He said he could think of two possible constitutional rights that individuals might use as a basis for the claim: First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty. But said he doesn’t believe either would hold up under strict scrutiny, which holds the government can only infringe on a fundamental right if the infringement is the least restrictive way to accomplish a compelling government interest.

“So in this case is there something that’s less restrictive on your speech rights or your liberty rights that can serve the purpose? And I think the answer is clearly no,” Collings said. “There isn’t something other than wearing face masks that can stop the spread of COVID as effectively.”

He said he doesn’t believe there’s a court in the country that would disagree. This would be different, he added, if an ordinance requiring masks became unnecessarily restrictive, such as requiring people to wear masks while sleeping or in private, or if the U.S. had only a handful of cases.

When it comes to requiring masks on the BYU campus specifically, the argument for constitutional rights goes out the door since the BYU campus is private property.

“You signed on to the Honor Code and as a condition of continuing as a student, you’re going to comply with the regulations of the university. And now the regulation, the University says, is you gotta wear a mask,” Collings said. “Even if you have a constitutional right not to wear a mask, it’s not a constitutional right to not wear a mask and continue as a student at a private university.”

Regardless of the legality of mask bans, the topic has served to polarize groups on both national and local levels. For example, one student’s comment on BYU’s Instagram that read “I hate face masks” was met with a mix of empathy of getting used to wearing a masks and attacks on the student’s character.

BYU political science professor Adam Brown said a big reason for this lies in the nation’s long-standing two-party system.

“That stability creates an environment where people can form a deep emotional identity tied to their partisanship without even realizing it,” he said.

In this case, opinions about face masks and other public health guidelines like social distancing have become linked to those identities due to prominent Democrats publicly embracing masks while prominent Republicans challenge them.

The factors discussed above lead Republican and Democratic voters to pick up on that signal. The American tradition of individualism may contribute also, particularly by providing a vocabulary to those opposing masks that may not be readily available in other societies.

Brown said voters then pick up on those signals. “Once a social identity like that takes hold, your mind will do weird things to protect it without you realizing it.”

He doesn’t see the politicization of safety guidelines dying down unless Republican-led states get hit as hard as New York and New Jersey were.

“If conditions on the ground lead Republican leaders to say things about public health that resemble what Democratic leaders are saying, then you can expect some of polarization around public health guidelines to die down a little,” he said, adding that this is already starting to happen with Republican governors in Arizona, Florida and Texas.

The BYU community will have to wait until Fall Semester to see how these digital disagreements play out in person. BYU has yet to announce how it will enforce the face-covering requirement.

BYU spokesperson Todd Hollingshead responded to a Universe email asking how BYU plans to enforce the rule and whether offenders would be charged fines by saying, “What we shared Tuesday (June 23) regarding fall semester are general plans and we will continue to share more detailed information as we get closer to the fall.”

Students and employees are asked to bring their own masks or request one through Utah’s, “A Mask for every Utahn” program.

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