New masking guidelines will be in place at the University for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, Provost Liz Magill and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis announced in an email sent Friday afternoon. All individuals are required to wear masks indoors on University property — including academic and administrative buildings, libraries, labs, dining halls, IM Rec facilities, and U.Va. Health locations — regardless of vaccination status beginning Monday, Aug. 9.
“This policy will allow us to start the year at full capacity and reduce the likelihood of a spike in cases driven by the Delta variant and a coming together of students from many places,” the email said.
Masks will not be required when actively eating or drinking, or when alone in a closed space. The masking guidelines also do not apply to dorms or private housing, and specific course-related exemptions will be granted by the Provost’s office.
Despite the new guidelines, Magill and Davis reaffirmed the University's commitment to a full residential and academic experience this fall, noting that classrooms, residence halls, dining and recreation facilities will be operating at full capacity. The University is currently reevaluating mask requirements for large outdoor gatherings as well, with Virginia Football scheduled to play William and Mary at home Sept. 4 and University Programs Council’s events for Wahoo Welcome Week scheduled to begin Aug. 18.
“We recognize that this change may pose an inconvenience as the semester begins, but we believe it is the best way to bring everyone back safely and begin a successful year together here on Grounds,” the email said.
A virtual town hall with public health officials and University leadership is scheduled for Aug. 11. Additionally, according to Magill and Davis, the University hopes to modify or lift its new masking policy for those who are fully vaccinated by Sept. 6.
The decision to reimplement a mask mandate follows similar decisions by universities nationwide, including Virginia Tech, Yale University, Ohio State University, Cornell University, Yale University and Auburn University.
According to deputy University spokesperson Brian Coy, University administration still anticipates a “normal” semester thanks to high vaccination rates among students, staff and faculty. According to Coy, 93 percent of students and 89 percent of faculty have been fully vaccinated as of Aug. 2.
In order to return to Grounds, students were required to upload proof of vaccination or an approved medical or religious exemption to their HealthyHoos portal. Faculty and staff were strongly encouraged, but not required, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Unvaccinated people must submit to weekly prevalence testing and masking requirements.
“As we have said a few times through the summer, University leaders expect high vaccination rates in our students, faculty and staff communities to permit a return to a much more ‘normal’ way of living, learning and working together in Charlottesville this academic term,” Coy said. “Classes will be in person, as will the experiences so central to what it means to be a part of the U.Va. community.”
“University leaders are monitoring the progression of the Delta variant, as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health. If they determine that there is a need to make changes in order to keep people healthy and safe, we will announce them as soon as possible.”
Magill and Davis first outlined the University’s plans and expectations for a regular fall semester in an email sent to students July 15. At the time, there were no plans for masking, gathering or social distancing requirements.
Since then, however, the Delta variant has prompted a new wave of cases across the country — the CDC estimates that the Delta variant now comprises more than 93 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
The strain originated in India last December and is more contagious than other variants of COVID-19 — an internal CDC document describes Delta as more transmissible than the common cold, influenza, Ebola, smallpox, MERS and SARS. While a person with the original strain of COVID-19 might have infected an average of two and a half other people, someone with the Delta strain could infect five to eight people, according to the BBC.
The CDC released updated guidance for vaccinated people July 18. While the center previously stated May 13 that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks indoors or outdoors, they have since reversed that statement and recommended that vaccinated individuals wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. The University originally lifted its mask mandate and gathering size restrictions May 27.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, cases in the Commonwealth have been increasing since early July, with 1,845 cases reported Thursday. Cases in the Blue Ridge Health district have recently experienced a fourfold increase, according to U.Va. Health Doctor Bill Petri.