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Do I need to wear a mask while walking outdoors on campus?

Masks aren't required outdoors, but WWU says students and staff should use judgment and mask up anytime they're uncomfortable

Western Washington University students walk across Red Square on Sept. 23, 2021. Western's current COVID-19 compliance criteria include an agreement to wear masks in required spaces on campus, but some wonder if they are required outdoors as well. // Photo by Hannah Cross

Western Washington University is joining numerous other Washington state colleges in requiring masks and vaccines for those wishing to participate in classes or other activities on campus this fall. 

When it comes to vaccines, Western is doing better than much of the state. According to John Thompson, Western’s assistant director of communications, 93% of all Western employees are vaccinated. Among permanent employees — who make up three-fourths of the faculty and staff — 95% are vaccinated. As of Sept. 28, 93% of students are vaccinated. According to a Sept. 22 report from the Whatcom County Health Department, 59.7% of all Whatcom County residents have been fully vaccinated.

Students or employees who were only able to receive one-of-two vaccine doses before the start of the fall quarter were able to apply for a medical waiver until further proof of vaccine completion could be provided, Thompson said. COVID-19 vaccine waiver requests were also available for medical or religious exemptions.  

Weekly COVID-19 testing through the testing site in College Hall is required for those with temporary or permanent medical waivers, Thompson said.  

Mask requirements vary within indoor and outdoor campus environments and understanding these differences is essential to navigating Western’s shared spaces.

Western’s mask policy states that all individuals must wear masks inside all buildings and common areas when there are others present. 

As for outdoor spaces on campus, Western’s mask policy says individuals are encouraged to wear masks in “crowded, outdoor areas.” In addition to this, masks are required during outdoor events with more than 500 attendees. But does campus in the middle of a school day count as a crowded, outdoor area?

It depends on the situation and density of people outside. From a rules standpoint, Thompson said masks are “probably not” required while facing pedestrian traffic on campus between classes. Students and faculty are still advised to wear their masks any time they feel uncomfortable, Thompson said.

Western’s website directs people wanting to learn more about masks to the Centers for Disease Control masking guide. In general, the guide says, people do not need to wear a mask in outdoor settings. The CDC says people should consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities that involve close contact with people who aren’t fully vaccinated.  

Dr. Sudhakar Karlapudi, the chief medical officer of the Northwest network of PeaceHealth, said that the risk of unmasked encounters outdoors is dependent on factors like physical distance and length of social interactions. 

“The virus requires two things, social proximity, and time of that proximity, which is about 15 minutes,” said Dr. Karlapudi. “If you are outside in the open air just passing by a colleague and your interaction is just 16 seconds, then likely you are fine. The problem is, you don't know who might stop you about your chemistry paper.”

Dr. Karlapudi said masks are important because they act as barrier devices and prevent the wearer of the mask from spreading aerosols when they talk. Masks also help prevent the wearer from contracting airborne infections through the nose and mouth, both of which need to be covered for the mask to be effective.

Due to the uncertainty of not knowing who you may interact with and for how long, Dr. Karlapudi said it is important to be flexible and always have a mask. 

Abbi Nelson, a Western first-year, said she is already exercising this adaptability by wearing a mask and sees it as a way to respect her peers. 

“When I am within 6 feet of somebody, even if I am just passing them on the sidewalk, I will put my mask up and then when I am walking on a stretch where there is nobody, I will take it off again,” Nelson said. 

Thompson said students can eat and drink in classrooms and common areas, but they are expected to wear their masks unless actively doing so.

“The expectation is that anyone eating or drinking indoors in common spaces will remove their masks to take a bite or a sip, then replace the mask, and repeat. Having a beverage or a sandwich sitting in front of you, for example, doesn't mean your mask should just stay off,” said Thompson.

Masks aren’t required for students alone in dorm rooms. 

To be unmasked in a required space is to violate Western’s COVID-19 compliance agreement.

“Anyone who is not wearing a mask indoors in violation of the policy will be asked by an appropriate university employee at the scene to please wear a mask; if they refuse, they can be asked to leave that building, classroom or venue,” said Thompson.

As a last resort to address the situation, Thompson said University Police can be called to respond.

Jesse Anderson, a Western first-year, said that mask requirements are not stopping her from being excited to be back on campus. 

“I feel like things are more normal than they have been in the last year and a half. This is kind of the new normal, it’s not a big deal,” said Anderson.

Brianna Poulos

Brianna Poulosis a fourth-year News and Editorial Journalism major and a reporter for The Front. She enjoys exploring art, community, and events in her writing and has also written for Klipsun and Whatcom Community College’s publication, The Horizon. When she is not reporting, Brianna spends her time painting, watching movies and baking. She can be contacted

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