Masks will not be mandatory on campus this fall

UBC will not mandate the use of non-medical face masks on campus this fall, recently published COVID-19 guidelines revealed.

This decision differs from some other Canadian universities like Simon Fraser University (SFU), University of Toronto and Western University, who have all required mask usage on campus in some form. Although the use of masks is not mandatory, UBC still plans to provide them for individuals who would prefer to wear them.

Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, wrote in a statement to The Ubyssey that the university will distribute 25,000 reusable cloth masks to those on campus who wish to use them.

The university has instead focused on reinforcing physical distancing to limit the transmission of COVID-19 among members of the UBC community.

“The university has, since January, increased cleaning of high-traffic areas, installed hand sanitizing stations and put up signs across campus advising people of recommended health protocols they can take,” wrote Ramsey.

SFU follows the same provincial rules as UBC, but since August 10, the university has asked staff, students and visitors to wear masks in all indoor public areas on campus. If someone is unable to wear a mask on campus, they must make sure to maintain a safe distance from other individuals.

“Even with limited numbers of people on campus, common areas can be congested, making it difficult to consistently maintain a safe physical distance,” reads the frequently asked questions page of the SFU website. “Non-medical masks are proven to protect others from the spread of the virus, so we ask everyone to do their part to protect each other.”

According to Michael Schwandt, a public health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health and a clinical assistant professor in the UBC Faculty of Medicine, UBC has been consulting with health officials frequently as it implements measures to limit the transmission of COVID-19 on campus.

“I think that UBC is … trying to focus on, first and foremost, helping people who might be infected with COVID-19 to self-isolate, trying to create an environment where people don’t have much close contact,” said Schwandt. “And then … the need for masks should be much less.”

Schwandt says he and other experts have a positive attitude towards the steps that the university is taking to ensure that activities on campus are safe for all individuals involved.

“One of the most important things will be making sure that people have sick time and they’re well-supported if they need to have time away from work … making sure that remote options are available for class,” said Schwandt. “It’s not just a matter of telling people to self-isolate but actually supporting them to do so, which can be challenging.”

Notably, the university recently backtracked on its initial plan to provide fee-based self-isolation accommodation for students returning to Vancouver from outside of Canada. The university is now providing this service for free. At the time, Ramsey said this move was in line with efforts to support students throughout the pandemic.

With the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in BC mostly due to social activities, Schwandt encourages UBC students and faculty to stay home if they are experiencing any symptoms and to take a careful approach when socializing with others.

“Everybody needs social connection, of course, but trying to limit the number of people that we’re socializing with and how close we’re in contact with them will be important,” said Schwandt.