Associate Vice President and Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair announced Thursday that wearing masks will be optional in most of Emory University’s indoor spaces, including residence halls, dining spaces and athletic spaces beginning on March 7. The new policy will apply to classrooms, laboratories and other instructional spaces on March 21. 

The University will still require masks on Emory shuttles and other forms of public transportation as well as clinical patient care spaces like Student Health and some research spaces until further notice.

This is the first time masks will not be required on campus in almost two years since the University announced a mask mandate at the end of May 2020. 

St. Clair told the Wheel that lifting the mask requirement during spring break is part of a staggered technique vital to successfully lifting mask requirements entirely.

“It allows us to roll this out in a period of time where we still have activity on campus — there are still staff members, faculty, students who are operating, living and interacting on campus — but we’re not at full density,” St. Clair said. “It allows the preparation needed to move into a mask optional state when everybody returns.”

The University recently announced a new mask optional policy, which will be implemented in phases beginning on March 7. (The Emory Wheel/Gabriella Lewis)

St. Clair said that mask-optional policy will place more responsibility on individuals to make the best decisions for their health.

“Our community’s response needs to be one where we honor and respect the choices people make about masking: whether to wear one or not to wear one,” St. Clair said.

The decision was based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s revised guidance on community risk levels, St. Clair said, noting that transmission and hospitalization rates had “significantly declined below recommended thresholds.” He also said the University took into account Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ announcement on Feb. 26 that the city’s indoor mask mandate was lifted. 

St. Clair attributes the opportunity to go mask optional to the University’s former safety measures had on lowering campus COVID-19 cases. About 98.6% of students and 97% of faculty and staff are fully vaccinated, according to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard. Approximately 88% of eligible people on campus have received the booster vaccination as of March 2, St. Clair said.

There were 35 known COVID-19 cases among students and faculty over the last 10 days. However, regular testing is not required for vaccinated individuals.  

“People have taken the steps that they need to with vaccinations and boosters to put themselves in a position where we can start to pull back on some of these layers that have been in place over the past two years,” St. Clair said. 

St. Clair said he expects the change will likely be met with mixed emotions. To mediate concerns, he recommended that anyone in a high-risk category, including those who are unvaccinated or immunocompromised, still wear a mask indoors. He added that worried community members can access health resources via Emory Forward and the Georgia Department of Public Health. 

The University will provide additional information and will likely offer forums to discuss the new masking policy with the Emory community in the “next few weeks,” St. Clair said.     

However, St. Clair said the University is prepared to reimpose mask requirements again if necessary. He stressed the importance of adhering to other safety measures, such as staying home when sick and getting tested before and after traveling. 

“We hope that we’re continuing to move into an environment where we can pull back on some of these restrictions and operate in this new phase of living with COVID responsibly,” St. Clair said. “That’s our end goal.”