WSU looks to future after lifting outdoor mask mandate

State officials to lift general mask mandate on March 21

JOSIAH PIKE, Evergreen news co-editor

After lifting the outdoor mask mandate last week, WSU officials are now looking to ease restrictions on campus in the future, including possibly suspending mask-wearing entirely.

Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications, said WSU’s lifting of the mask mandate last week happened concurrently with restrictions changing at the state level.

“Any outdoor events in Washington state with over 500 people would not be forced to wear masks,” Weiler said. “The other thing that [Gov. Jay Inslee] talked about was no longer requiring proof of vaccination for outdoor events. All these signs make it look like the state has hopefully gotten through the worst of the pandemic.”

Weiler said he does not believe the outdoor mask mandate had a great effect on WSU because there are few outdoor events with more than 500 people happening this time of year.

Shawn Ringo, director of Environmental Health and Safety, said EH&S has seen low levels of transmission at outdoor events.

“We’ve been doing contact tracing since the get-go since March of 2020,” Ringo said. “What we found fairly consistently was that people were being infected from an interaction with friends or family or some sort of social interaction, with rare exceptions. So we didn’t see so much of that in a controlled environment.”

With the removal of the outdoor mask mandate, Weiler said there are few circumstances that would warrant its reinstatement, including large events and any possible new variants.

Weiler said he does not believe this will lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases and WSU has surpassed the need for keeping it in place.

“We have well over 90% of our students fully vaccinated,” Weiler said. “I think we’ve passed the point where outdoor masks are going to make a difference. We’re getting close to that point indoors as well.”

Weiler said Inslee also announced March 21 will be the day most mask mandates are lifted across the state, although that does not necessarily mean WSU will lift its mask mandates on that day as well.

“[WSU] still has to make a decision for itself for when we want to suspend mask-wearing on campus,” Weiler said. “We have to think, ‘Does it make sense for us to suspend mask-wearing at the same time when the state does?’ So the 21st isn’t the date where masks go away for everybody.”

Ringo said this time allows different institutions to make the decision for themselves how they want to proceed with lifting the mask mandates, but that he believes it is likely WSU’s will be lifted on March 21.

“It seems likely we’ll follow suit,” Ringo said. “I can’t say for sure … but if we’re in a good place with cases and transmissions and we have the tools to deal with it, it seems reasonable that they’d be lifted then.”

The decision to lift mandates will likely be made in accordance with other universities in the state, Weiler said, because most Washington colleges want to be on the same page with their COVID-19 policies.

Weiler said after all mask mandates are lifted across campus, it is still a possibility that some sort of restrictions will return.

“The question about what happens after the 21st, if there is a time where we have to go back to wearing masks, I think the answer is maybe,” Weiler said. “I don’t think it’s likely but we’ve been at this point before and the virus keeps throwing curve balls at us.”

Ringo said another variant before March 21 could keep the mask mandates in place on campus, but that he thought things would generally return to pre-pandemic conditions if the current COVID-19 trends continue.

Ringo said he hopes that there is a bigger focus on public health among students after the pandemic, including more people getting vaccinated for other diseases.

“There’s certainly gonna be an effort to take all the lessons learned from this pandemic and turn those lessons into policy so that we’re better prepared for the next pandemic,” Ringo said. “Right now 90% of people at WSU have a COVID-19 vaccine, we probably can’t say that our numbers are that high with flu vaccinations.”