Fayetteville mask mandate expiration

UA students wear masks in the Arkansas Union International Connections Lounge. A city-wide mask mandate for Fayetteville is set to expire Dec. 23, but UA officials have stated students and faculty should expect the campus’ indoor mask mandate to continue in the spring.

A city-wide face mask mandate for Fayetteville is set to expire Thursday for the second time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some UA students are ready for it to end.

City council members voted 7-0 Nov. 16 to end the mask mandate after it was reinstated Aug. 6 during a spike in local hospitalizations caused by the spread of the coronavirus’ delta variant.

The end of the mandate comes at a time when COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are once again rising across the region and state, and the new, more contagious omicron variant has been detected in the U.S. and more than 70 other countries.

From Dec. 6 through Monday, there was a 56% increase in hospitalizations and four new deaths in Washington County, according to data compiled by The New York Times. On Monday, 31 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the county, with the 7-day rolling average of daily new cases at 50 — up from 44 one week before.

Despite the current surge, many are happy to see the city’s mandate go, because they think it is mostly ineffective.

“I’m glad the mask mandate is expiring,” UA law student Hannah Malone said. “Fayetteville has been under a mask mandate for a long time now but in public places, very little, if any people wear them.”

The current mandate applies to indoor public places and public areas at city-owned buildings, but unlike the city's first mandate, business owners are not required to enforce it for their customers.

“The mandate itself is ineffective and unnecessary due to the City of Fayetteville not enforcing it,” Malone said. “With vaccination levels rising it is less necessary and allows people to make their own choices about what makes them feel safe.”

Health officials recommend getting fully vaccinated to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19. Northwest Arkansas has a slightly higher vaccination rate than Arkansas’ 49.5% of the total population. In Washington County, 51.6% of residents are fully vaccinated and 62.1% have received at least one dose, according to the CDC.

Dr. Robert Hopkins, a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said it is important for everyone eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“I would also recommend that anybody that’s going to be indoors and exposed to other people should wear a mask,” Hopkins said. “We need to put as many layers of protection between us and potential infection as we can.”

The UA System Board of Trustees reinstated the system’s mask mandate Aug. 11. In a Dec.17 email, Interim Chancellor Charles F. Robinson said students should anticipate masks will continue to be required in classrooms during the spring 2022 semester. The weekly average of active COVID-19 cases on the UA campus was 11 the week of Dec. 13-19, down from 12 the previous week, according to the Pat Walker Health Center.

The Student Health Advisory Committee is a registered student organization that, among other projects, works to increase the number of vaccinated students at the UofA by connecting students with vaccination opportunities.

“Our organization’s main focus has been getting everybody vaccinated, all students on campus,” said Noah Ross, Student Health Advisory Committee president. “The reason for this is we wanted to have as normal of a semester as possible and I think that not having to wear a mask is a part of that category.”

As of Tuesday, 48.4% of all UA students had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Arkansas, while 59.6% of students had received at least one dose of the vaccine in Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

As of Sept. 1, 56.6% of Arkansas-resident UA students and 60.6% of faculty and staff had been fully vaccinated in Arkansas, while 68.8% of resident students and 74.2% of faculty and staff had received at least one dose in the state, according to Arkansas Division of Higher Education data.

“As long as everybody’s going out and getting their vaccine, that will allow (the UofA) to get the mask mandate lifted and that is something we’re all ready for,” Ross said. “I think it is effective, but as long as everybody takes precautions and gets their vaccines it’s something that we’ll be able to move past at some point.”

Dozens of studies since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that mask wearing, and especially double-masking, are effective at preventing transmission of the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During 2021, in counties where masks were required in public, case and death rates slowed in comparison to counties without mandates, according to the CDC.

“Given that rates are going up in our state and that we have now identified the omicron variant in Arkansas and every state around us, I think that masking, particularly indoors, is a good thing,” Hopkins said. “I think dropping mask mandates means that we are accepting increased risk for people getting infections.

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