The decision to end the mask mandate at Memorial University followed similar actions by the provincial and federal governments, according to Greg McDougall, Memorial’s chief risk officer.
“It is very hard for Memorial to justify requiring masks when everywhere else in the province has taken the position that they are strongly recommended, and the provincial government dropped the mask requirement long ago,” he said. “When the federal government dropped the requirement on airplanes and at airports, for likely the same reason, it did not make sense for us to mandate it.”
If Memorial ignored the guidance of these agencies, Mr. McDougall says a mask mandate would then appear arbitrary, opening the university to possible human rights challenges, litigation or judicial review.
Mr. McDougall also says that challenges with enforcement also played a role, as did the fact that masks were only required in classrooms and labs, with very little mask usage in the student centre, libraries or during events.
The policy did not make sense from an occupational health and safety or risk perspective, he says.
“There is also a very high level of natural immunity, vaccination rate and expanded criteria for fourth doses and the availability of the new bivalent vaccines. When possible, Memorial will work to provide vaccine clinics on campus.”
Supported by expert advice
The trends to change the mask usage requirement are also supported by expert advice and wastewater data.
Memorial is part of the province’s wastewater testing program. Data about the Memorial site at Clarke Place in St. John’s can be found here.
In addition, Environmental Health and Safety, working with Facilities Management, has assessed ventilation in all buildings on campus.
Memorial also looks at the pandemic through an occupational health and safety lens.
Mr. McDougall says the occupational risks and hazards at this point do not justify a mandated control. Memorial routinely consults with Service N.L.’s Occupational Health and Safety division to ensure and prioritize worker safety.
“If the risk level changes, then the province will change its guidance and we will change our approach,” said Mr. McDougall. “We have been fluid throughout the pandemic.
“We strongly recommend that each individual assesses their own comfort level and we strongly recommend everyone wear a mask, but we have reached a point in the pandemic that unless the risk changes, we cannot require masks,” he continued. “This may not be a popular decision with everyone and it was not made easily. However, it does align with the risk level of the pandemic.”
The use of masks is still strongly recommended, says Mr. McDougall, and Memorial will continue to provide masks to the campus community.
“We also encourage members of the campus community to show empathy and compassion to those individuals who feel that this decision leaves them vulnerable.”