Illustration: Anastasia Pargett

Portland State faces controversy over the end of the mask mandate

Student choice over masks on campus

Beginning March 19, Portland State University ended the mask requirement on campus, following advice from the Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County Health Department. Although mask restrictions still apply at Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) as well as at the childcare centers on campus, it is now up to students to decide to mask up or not in the majority of buildings on campus. 


Following the announcement, disapproving comments from those concerned appeared on PSU’s Instagram page. Some comments include remarks, such as “This is a bad look” and “Very very disappointed.” 


“Will there be accommodations for students with in person programs who don’t feel safe in class?” another asked. 


PSU’s response to commenters was to email concerns to a COVID-19 response address. Despite the pushback on social media, the end of the mask mandate remains in place.


“Personally, I’m nervous about the mask mandate being lifted at PSU, since it got lifted so close to spring break,” said freshman Annika Hendrickson. “With a large portion of the student body traveling out of state for spring break, I think it could lead to another spike and then we’ll have to regress.”


Strolling through campus the week following spring break, a mixture of masked and unmasked faces could be seen roaming about PSU. A higher rate of students wore masks in classrooms as opposed to hallways and shared spaces, and many professors made the choice to remain masked.


“My observation of people’s reactions regarding the mask mandate lift is that, for the most part, people are still wearing them indoors and in classrooms,” said sophomore Eric Luvaas. “I think many are going to keep wearing them until they feel comfortable unmasking.”


Reported COVID-19 cases in the United States have declined significantly since the beginning of 2022. However, the federal Transportation Security Administration still has a country-wide mask mandate in place on all “public transportation conveyances and in public transportation hubs,” and commuter students riding public transportation in Portland must still wear a mask on the way to campus.


“I’ve seen most people I follow on social media, and my on-campus friends, be fairly critical of the mask mandate being lifted, but in my classes, where there are more people who commute, I see more people not wearing masks,” said freshman Ella LaHue Brown.


While masks are shown to reduce transmission of COVID-19, Oregon State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger explained that it can be safe to go without them. 


“In most counties, where case rates and hospitalizations are much lower now, taking your mask off and going into these settings is safe and not likely to increase your risk for getting COVID,” Sidelinger said, according to OPB.


Multnomah County currently has a daily average of 82 new COVID-19 cases, a 32% increase from the average two weeks ago. According to The New York Times, since the beginning of the pandemic, “at least 1 in 8 residents [of Multnomah County] have been infected, a total of 113,186 reported cases.”


PSU has a vaccination rate of 98% for employees and 96.7% for students, including the booster shot. The university still provides free surgical and KN-95 masks to students who want to wear a mask on campus. 


“Although everyone has some form of mask fatigue, it’s still important to not increase cases on campus and wear masks in classes,” Luvaas said.