When the Mask Comes Off

By Tim Dowling

Ten months since the initial report from the World Health Organization, the novel coronavirus has come to dominate each and every one of our lives. In the United States, the virus is still raging out of control, with more than a hundred thousand Americans each day contracting the disease. Here at Denison, though, it seems like students have been able to find some semblance of refuge from the coronavirus. Although we have had to adhere to strict community guidelines, such as mask wearing, testing, and moving nearly every social event outdoors, life on campus has retained a comforting degree of normalcy. In large part due to the adherence to these guidelines (and good deal of luck), we have managed to safely have in-person classes, club meetings, sporting events, guests in our rooms, and even the regular – although now outdoor – Friday and Saturday night parties.

However, we shouldn’t assume that everyone is abiding by these guidelines one hundred percent of the time. Comforted by the Denison bubble and near semester-long streak of negative tests, many of our community have seemed to toss aside the mask from time to time and tempt President Weinberg’s iron fist for some non-distanced, face-to-face social interaction.

Examples of this behavior can be found in all corners of our campus. Take a stroll down past the Sunnies and Moonies on a weekend night and you’ll find groups of a hundred or more students huddled around the heat lamps, sticking their noses nonchalantly out from their masks. More so, it’s not too hard to find other Denison students casually walking around campus on any given day sporting the same look. Beyond those overt examples, it seems to be the case that those who feel comfortable with their surroundings and the people they are with, such as close friends in a dorm room, often loosen up on their adherence to guidelines.

You would think that this dismissive behavior among members of our community would indicate a general disregard to the health risks posed by the virus to ourselves and each other, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. When asked, the majority of students report that the main reasons they adhere to social distancing and other guidelines is to avoid catching COVID-19, with a concern for their fellow Denisonians closely following that (lower is a better average rank). This surprising disconnect between how students behave on a Saturday night to how they respond when surveyed is perplexing, but I think can be explained.

It could be that students feel comfortable bending the rules from time to time while also believing that their behavior isn’t posing much risk to anyone. A previous 127 post explored who breaks the rules and what kind of rules are broken the most. The data suggest that a plurality of students (44%) report that it is never OK to make any exceptions to six-foot social distancing guidelines. However, about 30% of students think it’s alright to bend that guideline around romantic partners and close friends. It may be that those examples of rule-relaxing around friends and other close connections at social gatherings or in personal spaces could be attributed to this level of comfort around each other.

This compliance gap around close relationships isn’t unique to Denison. Across the country and world, pandemic fatigue has taken its toll on how closely people adhere to state and national coronavirus guidelines, particularly among friends and family. Researchers in the Netherlands have studied this relaxation effect in depth by looking at how attitudes and behavior among people changed over a period of two months. In every single situation, overall compliance dropped as time went on, most starkly when those situations involved close friends and family.

Image adapted from: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3682479

This phenomenon has played out in a familiar way here at Denison. As the semester has progressed, people have gotten more comfortable here on the hill and have learned how to better navigate this pandemic on campus and in the wider world. That coupled with a gradual reduction in restrictions has allowed for many of us to exchange total adherence for a bit of intimacy and normalcy with our closest peers.

Compliance with guidelines remained high in the Netherlands for outward facing activities like going to the grocery store, taking public transit, and interacting with strangers. Denison students were asked comparable questions, and the results reflect a similar scenario. Only about 18% of students think they would make exceptions to social distancing in order to go to the grocery store. When asked about working on homework and club activities – both arguably outward-facing things – only 4% of students expressed that breaking social distancing protocols was acceptable.

However, recent events show that our bubble is not impenetrable. While writing this article, five students tested positive and 40 people, including me, were whisked away to quarantine for two weeks. In an email sent following this small outbreak from President Weinberg, he told students that they were no longer allowed to socialize in personal spaces, which he stated was likely the main cause of the potential spread.

It will be interesting to see if people readjust to the old restrictions or continue to make exceptions for their friends. If it becomes increasingly clear that many people are not complying with guidelines around close relationships, it may be necessary to draft updated policies and guidelines that take that reality into consideration so we can have a more responsive and comprehensive outlook on our coronavirus situation. Most importantly, we need to be aware that this relaxed demeanor is present not just among students, but likely also shared among the wider population. Being aware of this is fundamental in how we better protect ourselves from this virus in the future, and better protect ourselves, the Denison community, and beyond.

Tim Dowling is a senior data analytics major from Boston, MA who is trying to make sense of this world using some numbers and lots of coffee. Progress has been slow, but he’s confident he’ll get there some day.

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