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Mask mandate in Rhode Island lifted following CDC guidance, remains in effect at University

U. says health, safety policies will remain for now

Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee lifted the statewide mask mandate May 18 following the release of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that fully vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear a mask in most settings. One of the first steps in a return to normalcy, the new guidance and the transition to maskless life has generated uncertainty about what will follow.

McKee also lifted other restrictions, such as the limit on social gatherings and business capacities. “We reset Rhode Island at 100 percent beginning May 21. One hundred percent capacity in our retail stores, 100 percent capacity in our gyms, 100 percent capacity in our offices and no limits to social gatherings,” he said at a press conference.

“Vaccinated Rhode Islanders, I hope you hug a vaccinated friend, have a dinner at your favorite restaurant and support our local businesses,” McKee said.

The CDC’s guidance only applies for fully vaccinated individuals, defined as those who received their final dose of a vaccine two weeks ago. 

Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 wrote in a May 14 testing update to the University community that while the University is aware of the new guidance, the campus Health and Safety Policies will remain in full effect for the time being. The University is “actively reviewing” the CDC guidance and working on how it will affect regulations, he wrote.

The University remains at Campus Activity Level 2, meaning non-essential travel is prohibited and students must continue to maintain stable pods.

Since the beginning of the summer semester, there has only been one positive asymptomatic test result in the routine testing program. Five symptomatic tests were conducted, but none were positive.

“When we are ready to update the campus safety policy, we will communicate that information broadly to the community,” Carey wrote. He added in a May 21 interview with The Herald that changes may come after the University reaches “near-universal vaccination levels,” which he believes can happen “very quickly.”

Philip Chan, medical director at the Rhode Island Department of Health and associate professor of medicine, told The Herald that people should err on the side of caution when interpreting CDC rules and regulations.

The CDC’s guidance means that being indoors without a mask is “safe enough” for vaccinated people in most settings, but “people are still going to need to exhibit some judgement and caution. People can still wear a mask if they feel more comfortable, but the bare minimum has been lowered.”

He added that the safety of not wearing a mask depends on the activity. “Outdoors and well-ventilated areas are relatively safe, but indoor, crowded classrooms will require more caution,” he said. Avoiding crowds is still smart, he added, and masks, ventilation and distancing remain important in some scenarios.

According to guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Health, people are still required to wear masks in businesses where they are still required, schools, healthcare settings, public transportation, transportation hubs such as airports and train stations, places serving people experiencing homelessness and prisons and correctional facilities.

All people, including those who are fully vaccinated, should exercise caution when traveling, especially internationally where COVID-19 rates may be much higher. Regarding variants, he noted that “the vaccines seem to still work, but with a lower efficacy. If you’re at an airport, it’s still safer to wear a mask,” in case you are exposed to a variant.

Carey wrote in the update that the University’s foremost priority was to achieve a 90 percent vaccination level. The sooner the University reaches that threshold, he said, the sooner it can lift restrictions and return to a normal learning environment. Currently, 47.1 percent of on-campus employees and 44.6 percent of on-campus students have uploaded their vaccination cards, Carey told The Herald. 

The University will also require that all students on campus for the summer and all employees must receive their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by July 1, The Herald previously reported. By reaching near-universal vaccination by this time, the University will be able to welcome people back to campus without compromising safety, Paxson wrote in a May 20 email announcing the requirement. In the fall, the vaccine will be required for everybody returning to campus, with some exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

Looking to the future, Chan said businesses will begin to open as more people get vaccinated. As of Monday, 61.1 percent of adults in Rhode Island were fully vaccinated and 71.4 percent of adults were partially vaccinated, according to data from RIDOH.

With regard to parts of Providence with low vaccination rates, Chan cited access and social determinants as roadblocks. “We want to address access to vaccines and healthcare in general. We’re trying to set up pop-up vaccine clinics in some of these areas. We want to encourage these people to follow the science and the data,” he said.


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