Opinion: Provo needs a mask mandate or BYU’s in-person plan is at risk

A family walks by the Harold B. Lee Library on Aug. 22 BYU has adopted a mask requirement on its campus, but the Provo City Council is currently debating whether to enact a mask mandate for the city as thousands of students return for the start of the Fall Semester on Monday, Aug. 31. (Hannah Miner)

I’ll board an international flight back to Utah in a few days to start Fall Semester classes at BYU.

I have a lot of worries about this semester, but one has been keeping me up at night lately: Am I spending hundreds of dollars to travel back to Utah (and possibly risking exposure to COVID-19 in the process) just for BYU to go online again after a week or two?

Other U.S. universities that have recently reopened haven’t fared too well. Notre Dame and The University of Carolina at Chapel Hill both suspended in-person classes within a week of returning to campus due to COVID outbreaks. Others — including Oklahoma State University, the University of Alabama, and Colorado College — have seen cases spikes but have yet to cancel classes, although some have suspended students who violate safety guidelines.

According to BYU professors Chantel Sloan and Ben Abbott, BYU is unlikely to cope any better. The two both presented their research in a Provo City Council meeting on Aug. 18 during a discussion about a possible mask mandate.

Their simulations show that roughly 10,000-13,000 students could be infected within 40 days of returning to school, but strict quarantining could reduce cases to between 500 and 1,000.

Although many students would likely only have mild symptoms, they can still spread the virus to high-risk individuals, and, according to Sloan, many students would need hospitalization and one out of every 2,000 infected students would die.

While BYU’s mask requirement and other safety guidelines will help prevent COVID spread, what students do off campus may thwart the efforts BYU has made to ensure in-person learning continues until Thanksgiving.

Large, unmasked gatherings where social distancing is not followed, such as a party hosted by Young/Dumb on Aug. 7, as well as the interconnectedness of student off-campus housing both offer chances for COVID to spread through the campus community.

City Council members cited both of these issues as concerns that have driven them to consider enacting a mask mandate, and Sloan and Abbott’s research states interactions outside the classroom “can overwhelm measures focused only on limiting exposure in a classroom setting” and that “reducing community spread should be paramount.”

We know that following safety guidelines and using masks help stop the spread of COVID, but political divides and misinformation mean not everyone will use them. In fact, only areas with mask mandates have achieved 80-90% mask-wearing compliance, according to Abbott.

So where does that leave us? BYU has taken measures to protect us on campus, now it’s up to the City Council to follow suit and do the same to protect us and Provo residents off campus. The City Council has already passed a resolution encouraging masks, but that may not be enough.

The council is slated to meet Tuesday, Aug. 25, to continue discussions about whether to pass an ordinance mandating masks in Provo.

Ordinances to protect residents are nothing out of the ordinary — they require seatbelts, have regulations against speech that harms others, and discipline individuals for drunk driving — and we accept these limits within our “liberty.”

Last month I interviewed BYU constitutional law professor Justin Collings about whether mask mandates violate our constitutional rights. “I think the claim is nonsense,” he said in the interview. “The constitutional question to me seems clear on this one.”

It also seems pretty clear to me what the City Council’s decision should be: If BYU is going to have any chance of staying in person this semester, we need a mask mandate in Provo.

Yes, there are valid concerns about a mask mandate, such as how it would be enforced and by whom, but the alternative doesn’t look very promising.

I want to hope that all BYU students will be motivated to wear a mask by “a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor” as President Kevin J Worthen stated in a message about the Fall Semester, but I have a hard time believing that will happen on its own.

I’ve spent this summer watching fellow students in Utah post about attending large pool parties in off-campus housing, going to parties and weddings, and hanging out with friends. But I rarely see masks or other safety guidelines being followed.

“On your honor” may — for the most part — work for things like beards, drugs and church attendance. But I’d rather not take my chances during a global pandemic. We need a mandate — and one that can be enforced in a manner that isn’t too harsh but will still deter students and others from opting our of wearing a mask.

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