OT: Money over masks?

Maskless students cheer on the Bulldogs in a contest against Tiffin on Oct. 30, 2021. The Dawg Pound student section is one of the most populated and condensed parts of the arena. Photo by Francie Wilson

CAITLIN SEGRAVES | OPINION CO-EDITOR | csegrave@butler.edu

KOBE MOSLEY | SPORTS CO-EDITOR | kmosley@butler.edu 

As of Jan. 4, Butler University has mandated masks when indoors — excluding student’s dorm rooms, faculty’s offices when alone, Hinkle Fieldhouse and the Butler Arts and Events Center — regardless of vaccination status. This decision was made in response to the surge of COVID-19 cases our nation has seen due to the Omicron variant being far more transmissible than previous strains. 

The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend wearing a mask when indoors, as well as avoiding crowded and indoor areas, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. So, letting thousands of unmasked individuals congregate in Hinkle Fieldhouse might be a bad idea. 

Butler University has made two announcements regarding their mask policy over the last three months. The first email was sent out on Oct. 29, 2021, — the day before the first men’s basketball exhibition game — and stated that effective immediately, masks were no longer required in Hinkle Fieldhouse and Butler Arts and Events Center and would be optional for all non-classroom spaces starting Jan. 3, 2022. The second announcement came Jan. 4, 2022, reinstating the requirement for wearing masks indoors. However, Butler’s Administration stated that they would follow Marion County Public Health Department requirements for events at Hinkle Fieldhouse and BAEC. 

So far, this means letting attendees cheer on their basketball team without masks or social distancing guidelines in place. 

However, when digging into the MCPHD’s website, the most recent public health order is from July 2021. First of all, if we have learned anything about COVID-19 over the past few years, it is that this is a fluid and constantly evolving situation. It would not be wise for the administration to rely on public health orders from over six months ago. Additionally, if you actually read the Public Health Order, it states that businesses, venues, and municipalities “must adhere to CDC and OSHA guidelines.” 

Okay, let’s unpack that. Butler is saying that they are following MCPHD requirements, but their only requirement — for venues like Hinkle Fieldhouse — is to follow CDC and OSHA guidelines. Looking at the guidelines put forth by the CDC, they recommend “universal masking indoors in public for all persons (fully vaccinated and not fully vaccinated) in areas of substantial or high transmission.” Not only is every single county in Indiana considered “high transmission,” but so is every single county in each state directly surrounding Indiana. So, according to CDC guidelines, Butler should be mandating masks for all indoor events regardless of vaccination status. 

Additionally, the CDC outlines risk factors of social gatherings. These risk factors include substantial or high COVID-19 transmission rates, increased exposure from travel for the event, indoor events, lengthy events that don’t allow for social distancing, as well as the behavior of the attendees. 

It’s not even funny how basketball games hosted at Hinkle Fieldhouse check off all of these boxes. We are in a county with high transmission, we allow visitors from all over without checking their vaccination status or asking for proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Additionally, these events last significantly longer than the CDC’s exposure time of 15 minutes, the fieldhouse can hold almost 10,000 people, and people are eating, drinking, and shouting over each other to talk and cheer on their team, all without masks.  

Looking into OSHA guidelines for mask requirements, they support CDC recommendations for wearing a mask indoors to prevent further spread of COVID-19. So, if Butler was really following MCPHD’s guidelines, they would be following CDC and OSHA guidelines — which they clearly are not. 

To make matters worse, in August 2021, MCPHD stated that they will not impose stricter mask mandates, but strongly encourage schools to do so. At this point, Butler’s administration should not only follow MCPHD’s guidelines, but they should be supplementing with more protective guidelines, especially with COVID-19 transmission rates being incredibly high. 

Our community has already felt the impacts of Omicron. As of Jan. 14, Butler reported 123 positive cases among students and 13 positive cases among employees, the highest number our campus has seen since March of 2020.

Before sh*t hit the fan, Butler’s administration did try to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases. On Jan. 4, many students received an email explaining that Panhellenic formal recruitment was suddenly pushed online because, “the Omicron variant has shown to be extremely contagious — even among individuals who are fully vaccinated.” The email expressed the desire of Butler administration to protect the health and well-being of the “nearly 2,000 students participating” in the recruitment process. 

Where is the desire to protect the health and well-being of our students when allowing over 9,000 maskless people to come to basketball games? 

The same sentiment seems to be lost among other sports venues throughout Indianapolis and the rest of the United States. Both Gainbridge Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium claim that they are concerned about the safety and well-being of their visitors and fans, but neither are enforcing a mask mandate in their buildings nor have they reduced capacity to less than 100% since the rise of Omicron variant cases. 

Of course, monetary motivations play a role in these decisions. The revenue from granting admission to as many people as possible, leads to as much profit as possible. However, corporations and institutions should not place profits over public health. 

The NBA — which may be the hardest hit sports league in terms of players and staff that have been exposed to or contracted the virus — have not exactly been on a united front in terms of making it a main priority to try and reduce the spread. As of Jan. 13, only 15 out of the 30 teams require or strongly recommend masks as well as vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the past 48 hours, and just one team —  the Toronto Raptors — has no fans in the arena during games.

Circling back to college basketball, COVID-19 has hit this season hard. As of Jan. 11, more than 140 Division I teams were forced to pause their season because of the wave of cases that began to surge in mid-December 2021. Five of the teams on that list were from the Big East.

Thankfully, some teams have decided to take action. Georgetown, a program that has had numerous players and coaches — including head coach Patrick Ewing Sr. — enter COVID-19 health and safety protocols, is one of those teams. Their arena has reduced to 25% capacity and  will require proof of vaccination starting Jan. 15. Even though only two players — Ty Groce and D.J. Hughes — have entered COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Hinkle Fieldhouse should take similar steps in ensuring everyone’s safety if it really is a priority to them.

At the bare minimum, Butler needs to reinstate a mask policy at Hinkle Fieldhouse and for the BAEC and in the opinion of the authors, there should be proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to be granted entry. This is not only to protect the attendees of these events, but also the players, the performers and the community it impacts. 

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