Editorial: Let’s relax the limit on outdoor gatherings

Editorial Board

If administrators think there won’t be parties in the next week and a half — as many students become fully vaccinated, as the school year ends, and as seniors say goodbye to college — then we’ve got news for them. Not everyone will party, certainly, or even most people. But some will. Students will gather for other reasons, too: the sports team holding a dinner to celebrate departing seniors, the entry having its last Sunday snacks together, the dozen or so senior friends enjoying each other’s company for a final meal.

Yet all of this will be against College rules. The limit for informal student gatherings continues to be 10 people. (Student groups used to be able to request College permission to have an official gathering with a limit of 25, but after today even this option is no longer available.) Even as President Maud S. Mandel loosened the masking guidelines yesterday — and announced that vaccinated people can do pretty much as they please beginning on May 29 — she still did not relax the limit on outdoor gatherings.

This restriction is counterproductive. The College should ask not: How can we stop students from gathering in groups larger than 10? Rather, it should ask: How can we make sure that they do it safely? 

The answer to this question is that, for the remainder of the semester, the College needs to allow students to gather outdoors in groups of up to 25 people.

Outdoor gatherings are much, much safer than indoor ones. As David Leonhardt writes in The New York Times, the share of COVID transmission that has occurred outdoors seems to be under 1 percent, and perhaps even under 0.1 percent. That’s because COVID is spread primarily through airborne particles, which dissipate much more easily in well-ventilated spaces. And the best-ventilated space is the great outdoors. Zeynep Tufekci notes in The Atlantic that few, if any, super-spreader events have occurred outdoors. Most COVID transmission, Tufekci stresses, takes place indoors.

Massachusetts law also recognizes the diminished risk of outdoor activity. At private residences, people may gather in groups of up to 10 indoors — but up to 25 outdoors. We see no reason for the College to lag behind Massachusetts guidelines on this issue. When almost all students have at least the moderate protection of partial vaccination and there has been only one student case in the last month and a half, outdoor events do not present a risk to the campus’ public health situation, especially if students are masked. Campus, and the Williamstown community at large, is likely safer now than it has been at any point since the start of the pandemic.

The College may think it is erring on the side of safety by keeping in place its strict limits on outdoor events. Yet it is actually incentivizing riskier behavior. With the school year coming to a close, students (particularly the senior class) will want to celebrate their accomplishments by having social events with friends. If these groups of up to 25 people were to gather outside, the risk of transmission would be low. However, outdoor gatherings are more visible than indoor ones and therefore more likely to lead to encounters between students and Campus Safety and Security (CSS) and even disciplinary action. Many students, in an effort to avoid the attention of the College, will gather indoors, where there is a significantly higher risk of COVID transmission. Because it pushes people indoors, the limit on outdoor gatherings makes us less safe. 

We understand that the College may be reluctant to loosen restrictions so close to the end of the semester and so close to the change in rules on May 29, at a time when many students are partially vaccinated but most do not have full immunity. But even the first dose, which the overwhelming majority of students have received, does provide significant protection. And the next week and a half are the Class of 2021’s final moments on campus. This year’s graduating seniors have abided by many rules and stayed in good spirits as a pandemic put a damper on the final years of college. Now that the COVID risk is much lower, it is time to let the seniors have their fun, and perhaps find some closure on the twists and turns of their college experience.

Moreover, these final weeks can serve as a transitional period for the community as we prepare to ease back into something like normal life this fall. After 14 months of masks, virtual classes, regular testing, and social distancing, this transition will take time and adjustment. By making this small change, the College has the chance to let those who are ready begin to inch back toward normalcy, without overwhelming those who do not.

We would also like to point out that the College erodes student trust when it maintains rules that, in failing to distinguish between outdoor and indoor events, fly in the face of scientific evidence. When people continually break rules — which they will — they grow to have less respect in the institution that created those rules. By clinging to a rigid rule without justification, the College may find itself losing the trust of its students.

Editorials represent the opinion of the majority of the Record editorial board.