On March 7, Orange County lifted its mask mandate, making face coverings no longer required in public indoor spaces.
The effect was immediately obvious on UNC's campus. Spaces like the Student Union, libraries and classrooms were filled with maskless students and faculty.
It was the most apparent sign to date that things were returning to “normal.” It seemed like the COVID-19 pandemic, which started almost exactly two years prior, was finally starting to become a distant memory. With daily viral infection, hospitalization and death rates declining in the past month, this sentiment seemed to be well supported.
However, there are still concerns about whether it was too early to lift these pandemic measures, especially since many parts of the world continue to see a rise in COVID-19 cases again, due in large part to the omicron BA.2 subvariant.
With cases rising in the United Kingdom and Germany, countries whose COVID-19 waves the United States' own waves have mimicked in the past, there is growing concern about whether we've truly left the pandemic behind — or if we've let our guard down too early.
For people who have an increased risk of infection or hospitalization, such as those who are immunocompromised or have other preexisting health conditions, the signs seem troubling, especially since most maskless individuals seemingly don’t care anymore.
On the other hand, many people are tired of the pandemic disrupting their everyday lives. After nearly two years being stuck in an endless cycle of outbreaks, many want a return to normalcy.
So, what should we do?
Should we reinstate restrictions to reduce the chances of another wave, but lose a lot of the daily aspects of life that we are enjoying again? Or should we try to keep course and hope that any future outbreak won’t be as harmful as prior outbreaks?
Polls increasingly suggest that the latter is more likely. Only 33 percent of surveyed Americans believe that returning to pre-COVID-19 life is a large/moderate risk, down from 56 percent in February, according to an Axios-Ipsos coronavirus survey.
Therefore, from the perspective of elected officials, continuing to support mask mandates or other restrictions comes at a massive political risk — particularly during an election cycle where the mere mention of face coverings could alienate voters.
With roughly 81 percent of Americans having at least one dose of a vaccine, we are no longer as vulnerable to the virus as we once were.
For UNC, the rate is even higher. Around 94 percent of students and 90 percent of employees report being vaccinated.
Therefore, despite the potential risks involved, we shouldn’t reinstate old restrictions, either at UNC or across the country. Although COVID-19 isn’t completely over and we should continue to take it seriously, we also shouldn't live our lives absolutely around it.
Are we supposed to wait years, or even decades, for COVID-19 to finally become eradicated? How many average American business owners, workers and families are truly willing to put their lives on hold for years longer?
Just walking around campus and Franklin Street, you’ll probably have seen a significant decrease in face coverings ever since the mask mandate was lifted earlier this month. This suggests that many students are no longer concerned about COVID-19, especially those who have been vaccinated or don’t have any friends or family who might be at greater risk.
Therefore, it’s difficult to see how any potential return to COVID-19 measures would be met by anything but disapproval and frustration from most students.
Unless Orange County were to reimpose restrictions, the days of face coverings and social distancing will become a distant memory and life will continue to strive towards normalcy, if it hasn’t already.
In March 2020, it felt like everything we knew had changed. Two years later, it feels like nothing has changed.
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