The University of New Mexico will forgo its indoor mask mandate starting Saturday, March 19. UNM President Garnett Stokes announced this intent on Tuesday, March 8, which will apply to all branches except Gallup as well as at locations with health-related services and on public transportation.
This decision removes masking regulations at branches in counties deemed as low-risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which include all but the Gallup location — and within most school facilities. The north campus and Rio Rancho campus Health Sciences Center academic and research facilities will keep the mask mandate.
The University has done the research needed to back such a substantial change, according to Cinnamon Blair, UNM’s chief marketing and communications officer.
“We've referenced the state's health orders and what the state is doing, what the CDC guidance is. We have health experts on our Health Sciences Center, and some on main campus and our Student Health and Counseling Center,” Blair said.
Although Blair said feedback from students, staff and faculty — including regular meetings with the Associated Students of UNM — was taken into account for the decision, ASUNM President Gregory Romero said he “was not involved in the decision-making process whatsoever.” Still, he said UNM has done “their due diligence on this” and has a good team.
With only about half of UNM students reported receiving their booster vaccination, Blair said the University is continuously working on improving vaccination rates.
“They are communicating with students and/or staff or faculty or anybody who has gotten their booster shot about their eligibility deadlines. So, that's an ongoing (pursuit) as people become eligible for their booster shot,” Blair said.
Romero is confident the University has made the right choice due to UNM’s vaccination rates.
“My confidence mostly comes from our success with vaccination rates, which (many) other campuses have not had,” Romero said. “I am comfortable because I know the process that the University took.”
Raven Alcott, an earth and planetary sciences student, said she was shocked and concerned by the lifting of the mandate right before students will return from spring break.
“It’s spring break and people are going home and (then) coming back to school, and then not having a mask after traveling — it doesn't really make sense,” Allcott said.
The timing around spring break was made to give people a chance to adjust to the change, according to Blair. She said the University administration still feels this is safe with high vaccination rates locally and nationally.
Engineering student Wade Warner said he is supportive of the decision. However, ethnology graduate student Virginia Huber said she is too tired to be angry and plans to continue wearing her mask.
“Oh, I’m still going to wear my mask inside. I feel comfortable (not) wearing it outside, especially with the wind. But no, if I’m in class I’m definitely going to be wearing it,” Huber said.
Milagro Padilla, a member of Communications Workers of America which represents UNM’s custodial services, said the union is unable to make a comment at this time because he said they are taking time to talk to their members.
“We are doing what UNM should have done and speaking to the employees who are affected,” Padilla said.
Blair said the University’s biggest concern is keeping students on campus for an “in-person experience,” and since the start of the pandemic, the administration has been working to ensure that students are healthy enough for such.
“As things change, and evolve, the decisions are made on a number of factors, but you know, everything's been really fluid. So since the pandemic started, things have changed. And we've pivoted to ensure, again that, everybody is safe and healthy,” Blair said.
If Albuquerque goes into the red again in terms of COVID-19 transmission, Blair said the University would evaluate the situation accordingly.
Blair said people on campus are still encouraged to wear masks.
“It's not a requirement, but it is encouraged,” Blair said. “The president also acknowledged that it might give people some level of anxiety too … You know, so we want people to feel comfortable continuing to wear their masks and will support that for them.”
Natalie Jude is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @natalaroni
Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @maddogpukite