Face masks had been required in on-campus buildings for 664 days.
That count stopped Saturday.
For the first time since New York State implemented its mask mandate on April 15, 2020, no students, faculty, staff or visitors — vaccinated or not — were required to wear masks indoors following UB’s decision to lift its requirement on Saturday.
After two years of wearing masks, students told The Spectrum they are feeling many different, sometimes conflicting emotions.
“Part of me wants to go maskless because it’s taken on the same feeling as wearing a tank top on the first day of good weather,” Alexandra Saccone, a sophomore English major, said. “But [masks] are important COVID-19-wise, and also so people can’t see me cuss them out under my breath.”
Saccone said they would continue to wear their mask indoors. But their conflicting impulses were hardly unique.
“I go out with my friends, and we interact in environments where we aren’t wearing masks,” Trey Jenkins III, a sophomore psychology major, said. “So it’s not really an issue for me to come on campus and not have to wear one… But I have a lecture of 400 students, and that’s why I have a mask. I’ll put it on if I don't feel comfortable.”
Other students, like freshman biomedical sciences major Kayla Dechow, worried about immunocompromised UB community members.
“It’s more freeing to have the personal choice, but from a medical perspective, if everybody is not wearing masks, then there’s not really much of a point,” Dechow said. “The immunocompromised people can be wearing masks, but COVID-19 is [still] going to be everywhere.”
Some disabled, immunocompromised and elderly people have feared that the end of mask mandates will “leave them behind,” according to NBC.
Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UB Department of Medicine, advises those who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, unboosted (if eligible), over 50 years old or pregnant to continue wearing face masks for the time being.
“Cases are down, but we’re not quite at the low level we were pre-Delta wave at the end of June,” Russo said. “Cases will hopefully continue to fall, so hopefully they’ll get to very low levels and those people in those risk groups could feel increasingly comfortable, [and] maybe they’ll no longer have to wear a mask.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul reinstated New York State’s indoor mask mandate in mid-December in response to rising caseloads caused by the omicron variant, according to NPR. That requirement was lifted for businesses in early February, according to CBS, and for K-12 schools March 2. Hochul stopped short of ending mandates in higher education institutions but allowed colleges and universities to remove their mask mandates in consultation with their county health department.
“I am pro-mask, but when we have a population like this that is required to get the vaccine, I don’t think it’s necessary, personally,” Michael Fernandez, a freshman biology major, said. “In class, if it’s a huge population, like in Knox 20 with 400 students, I’ll probably wear it there. But if it’s like my Calc 2 class, which is a smaller class, I don’t find a need to.”
But even in her smaller classes, professors are encouraging students to wear masks, Megan Kane, a senior biological sciences major, said.
“In my smaller labs and closer knit classes, I still am wearing a mask,” Kane said. “And my professors have told us, ‘Listen, we’re not going to say you have to wear a mask. However, just out of respect for each other, just keep wearing your mask.’”
Crew Ferrentino, a freshman business administration major, said that while he doesn’t plan on wearing a mask anywhere on campus, he still plans to wear one when visiting elderly relatives who live in the area.
“It’s such a big school, and even if it’s not COVID-19 and it’s just a cold, it’s not worth the risk,” he said. “Call it a double standard.”
But there are no double standards for Ofeibea Micah. The freshman English major plans to continue wearing a mask while indoors.
“I feel like it’s my own personal choice,” Micah said. “If things are going smoothly, then maybe I’ll consider taking it off.”
Micah’s caution stems in part from her fear that students returning from spring break will cause infection rates to rise again. If it were up to her, the mandate would’ve ended “a couple weeks after spring break.”
“This trend keeps on happening, where cases go low, and then we relax things, and then they go high again,” Micah said. “So I think it’s just going to keep following that same pattern.”
The mandate was lifted on Saturday due to “rapidly” falling caseloads in Erie County, UB’s high vaccination rate and the school’s testing program for the unvaccinated, Russo says.
Still, some students, like Wyatt Belanger, a freshman mechanical engineering major, felt that UB’s booster requirement and testing regiment should’ve been enough on their own.
But Krishna Sameer Poruri, a graduate student studying industrial engineering, felt that the end of the mandate came at “a good time.”
“I’m an international student,” Poruri said. “I came in from a place, [India,] where there’s a lot of cases, so you had to be careful for a while. Maybe the university wanted to observe how the cases were spreading [first].”
The Omicron wave peaked on Jan. 25 in India, less than a week before the start of the spring semester, according to The New York Times.
But rising caseloads — or even a new variant — are very real possibilities, potentially resulting in an increase in cases this fall and winter and the return of mask mandates, Russo said.
“Fingers crossed that we will continue to head in a good direction and cases will continue to fall,” he said. “The wildcard is that, fingers crossed, some new variant doesn’t evolve that proves to be problematic and we once again head backwards, but I’m feeling optimistic that that’s not going to be the case, at least in the short term for the rest of the semester… We’re not completely out of the woods yet, but we’re on a good run.”
The end of UB’s masking requirements comes alongside loosening restrictions across the country. Stony Brook University ended its mask mandate March 2, according to The Statesman, and Binghamton University is reportedly considering a similar move according to The Pipe Dream.
Six Buffalo-area higher education institutions — including Buffalo State College, Niagara County Community College, Hilbert College, Houghton College, Daemen College and Canisius College — all preceded UB by announcing that they would no longer require masks.
The governor of Hawaii announced Tuesday that the island state would remove its mask mandate later this month, becoming the final U.S. state to do so, according to The Hill.
UB has 46 cases of COVID-19 and a .95% positivity-rate based on a 14-day rolling average as of Tuesday, according to SUNY’s COVID-19 dashboard. The on-campus positivity rate has not been lower since Dec. 20, 2021.
Julie Frey contributed reporting to this story.
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.