It seems that one of the most visible symbols of the pandemic may soon fade from campus. After two years and change, indications are that Penn’s mask mandate may soon disappear, just like grab-and-go dining and socially distanced classrooms. But instead of leaving the fate of our mask mandate to the powers that be at Penn Wellness, we should instead leave it to the direct shareholders of the University — our community at large.
First, a precondition: The mask mandate should not be removed unless our campus health experts say it is safe to do so. Considering Philadelphia’s city government ended the general mask mandate a few weeks ago and Philadelphia public school students are no longer required to mask, it’s likely that Dubé and company will come to the same decision.
However, the trouble with ending the mask mandate is that the decision often leaves out those most vulnerable to ending masking. We often think of this as meaning just the people with the highest risk of severe COVID-19, such as with compromised immune systems and other diseases. But ending the mandate also affects the people who just don’t want to get COVID-19, and that group includes more than just epidemiologists. It includes the many staff who commute home daily to their families and neighbors, and even the students who interact regularly with non-Penn groups of people.
The point here is not to debate the merits and demerits of masking, but instead to urge that we need to give these people, along with everyone else, a substantial voice in this important campus decision. Since the benefits of masking are largely community based — my mask protects you, your mask protects me — ending the mask mandate essentially leaves no escape route for those who want to continue wearing masks. It means that we need to give everyone who would be affected a say in the issue.
How do we do this? Just use some old-fashioned popular democracy. Every person with a PennID or PennCard should get a vote on the mandate. Should it end? Yes or no. We have that type of infrastructure in place (just repurpose the election system used for student government elections.) Our community, at such a politically active Ivy League, is certainly engaged enough to vote on this.
Ahead of a vote, we need two assurances from Penn’s administration. One is that the vote will be binding for the remainder of the semester — there’s no point in holding a vote if the results will just be discarded. The second is that we can actually have a period of Penn-supported public debate on the matter. That means hearing from campus health and the administration, student organizations, disease experts, staff groups, and greater community members. In fact, I would argue that a week-long, campus-wide debate on the mask mandate would actually be a better model of what democracy should look like than regular elections. After all, Penn’s campus is overwhelmingly left-leaning, so our regular elections are hardly contentious.
After this debate, let the majority rule. If the community says to remove the masks, then so be it. If they want them kept on, then on they will be kept. This is this type of decision-making that we’ve so desperately missed through the pandemic until now. The early health decisions were made unilaterally by the elected officials in charge — generally speaking, the governors and mayors of communities nationwide. Later public health decisions, which came after the shock of the pandemic wore off, became increasingly political. In just one example, Florida Governor Ron Desantis actually banned school districts from enacting mask mandates (this was later thrown out by the courts). And, of course, government secretaries and commissioners of health are rarely put there via direct election.
So let the Penn community decide the fate of masks on campus. Let us do it with interest and debate and integrity, and let us prove that we are the model citizens we strive to be.
ALFREDO PRATICÒ is a College senior studying American History from Philadelphia. He previously served as the DP’s opinion editor. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.