This story was updated at 9:23 a.m. July 8 to account for the latest policy changes surrounding face masks on campus.
Despite recommendations from the CDC, wearing a mask to limit the spread of COVID-19 has become a point of contention in the U.S.
Tension between those who do and do not wear masks has forced many states, including North Carolina, New York and New Mexico, to issue statewide mask mandates, sparking anger among those who do not wish to comply.
Although South Carolina is not on the list of states requiring masks, the city of Columbia has initiated its own mandate requiring individuals to wear masks in public places.
USC also implemented a face covering policy requiring masks inside all campus buildings.
According to Lee Pearson, associate dean for operations and accreditation at the Arnold School of Public Health and co-leader of the public health team for the Future Planning Group, while masks are only required in certain areas, they are still encouraged in all gathering places on campus.
However, the face covering policy received mixed reactions. According to a poll conducted by The Daily Gamecock on Instagram, 53 out of 262, or about 20%, students said masks should not be required on campus.
According to a New York Times op-ed by Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, students are more likely to engage in risky behavior simply because of their perception of costs and benefits.
“First, this is the age at which we are most sensitive and responsive to the potential rewards of a risky choice relative to the potential costs. College-age people are just as good as their elders at perceiving these benefits and dangers, but compared with older people, those who are college-aged give more weight to the potential gains,” Steinberg wrote.
In an email interview, Steinberg also stated that the college years are when people begin to settle into their beliefs about the world around them, specifically in regards to politics.
Elizabeth Connors, assistant professor of political science at USC, has observed a political element as a driving factor in the decision to wear masks.
According to Connors, the polarized state of our world has led to anything being politicized, and the divide between partisan leaders over masks has ultimately trickled down to their constituents. This disagreement amongst leaders conveyed doubt about the proper actions to be taken.
“If the government (along with health experts) had approached this pandemic in the same way—if there had been consensus among elites and experts—people would have probably been more likely to follow guidelines,” Connors said in an email.
But most medical professionals seem to be in agreement that masks are an effective way of preventing the spread of COVID-19 by capturing respiratory droplets that may contain the virus, Pearson said.
“From a general public health perspective, the face coverings are effective in reducing transmission of the virus from the person wearing the mask to the others around them," Pearson said. "We really wear the mask for the benefit of others, and so that’s part of the challenge in convincing individuals to wear masks is that we have to encourage them to think beyond themselves."
This removal of self-interest will be key in sustaining USC’s ability to remain open throughout the fall semester. Pearson explained wearing a mask as “the price of readmission to social interaction” along with physical distancing and regular hand washing.
In cases of resistance to face coverings, Pearson said the focus would be on educating the individual on the benefits of wearing a mask and he hopes that peer-to-peer education, which is in line with USC’s #IPledge campaign, will play a large role as well. Any repeated or continuous violations would then be handled by student judicial services.
According to Connors, the university’s approach to handling COVID-19 policies has been conducive to encouraging students to put aside their political views and comply.
“The way they have been dealing with it thus far has been good — creating a unified front that wearing masks is the right thing to do (and required). Thus far I haven’t seen any suggestions that this is political from university leaders, and that is a very good thing,” Connors said.
Moving forward through the semester, Pearson says students, faculty and staff must remember their collective responsibility if they wish to keep campus safe.
“Wearing a mask on campus is a part of our new normal. It is one of many strategies that we are all being asked to employ to minimize the transfer of the virus, and to maximize the opportunity we have to safely be together,” Pearson said.