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UF Students Defy Mask-Wearing Mandate Off Campus: ‘We’re A Very Low-Risk Group’

If you socially distance yourself, wash your hands and wear a mask, then “you are pretty safe” as the coronavirus continues to circulate.

That was the guidance from University of Florida officials including Provost Joseph Glover this month as the school moves toward a level of in-person classes for the spring semester that mirrors what it offered before the virus showed up in Florida in March.

But judging by the attitude among crowds flocking to Gainesville’s Midtown business strip over the past month, there’s a sizable population of students who haven’t heeded Glover’s message.

They would rather share a beer, make out in a club and forget that masks exist.

UF requires all students, faculty and staff to wear facial coverings when on campus, a measure that has made its campus safer than the surrounding environment, according to Glover.

The state has shifted toward a more open approach over the past five weeks since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order allowing clubs and bars to operate at 100% capacity. He also blocked any fines for people who fail to abide by facial covering mandates from local governments like Alachua County and Gainesville.

Bars and clubs, some of which are located in Midtown, are also pushing to reach those March 2020 levels of normalcy, and students who frequent them are on the whole not as concerned with safety measures as their instructors across the street.

“No one really wants to wear a mask around here,” Lara Weiss, an 18-year-old psychology major, said.

There have been no documented cases of students spreading COVID-19 to UF’s campus this fall — in large part because of online classes — but the spring semester’s face-to-face push has the potential to expose healthy students and faculty to asymptomatic virus carriers who have taken to enjoying the typical college nightlife experience on University Avenue.

“We follow what we’re going to do. If the people and the government are telling us, ‘You don’t need a mask to go out,’ then why would we use one?” Weiss said.

Alachua County on Tuesday amended its emergency order to require facial coverings to still be worn.

“Persons working in or visiting grocery stores, restaurants, bars, dance halls, nightclubs … shall appropriately wear facial coverings as defined by the CDC,” the order stated. There’s no financial penalty associated with its defiance.

While many of the clubs have signage telling occupants that they are required to wear masks of some sort, few wear them.

While most of Midtown’s bar hoppers find masks too much of a bother, there are a few who still abide by the county mandate.

“Reality is going to hit us eventually,” said Ed Nimnicht, 21, a UF political science major and mask wearer.

“I don’t really believe in this pandemic. I think the government’s not telling us a lot of things about it,” he said. “I’m still going to wear the mask because courtesy of others. Some people actually have health issues, and I think we should wear them.”

Many of the students and young adults are aware of the risks associated with not wearing a mask, but in the absence of older company, to them, the risk becomes irrelevant.

“We’re a very low-risk group,” said Woody Wood, a 22-year-old UF aviation maintenance student. “I don’t have like a wanton disregard for human life, but at some point, my own mental health comes into consideration.”

Wood compared going out and socializing with his friends as a way to “medicate,” and a way to help him finish out his semester strong.

Others only do it to enjoy their time at school.

“I personally had COVID-19, so I’m already immune to it,” said journalism major Joseph Munroe, 22.

The Centers for Disease Control said in August that the current science on the disease “does not imply a person is immune to reinfection … in the 3 months following infection.” And while the CDC’s data does show fewer deaths among people in Munroe’s age group, it noted in a report this month, “Younger adults likely contribute to community transmission of COVID-19.”

“We’re not really around our parents or a lot of other adults that are elderly, basically, so I think that for us it’s a lot easier to deal with,” Munroe said.

Business owners say they’re left in a dilemma, based on the governor’s order.

“We can’t make them wear a mask,” said J.D. Chester, owner of several Midtown bars. “The hope is to educate people to wear a mask when they are not consuming alcohol. We are very interested in them wearing masks, but it’s difficult to educate hundreds of people to wear a mask when they just don’t want to.”

As news of the push to return to face-to-face classes emerged this month, UF’s faculty union collected comments from concerned professors. One among them provided this anonymous feedback: “I am concerned that it will kill faculty and students (at worst) and that it will cause undue harm and suffering to vast swathes of the UF community. With no scientific evidence supporting the safety of returning to in-person classes and no clear rationale … it appears entirely unjustified. If the White House cannot keep its employees safe, how can we expect UF to?”

The answer lies, in part, across the street from the northern edge of campus.

On Thursday, the university held a town hall meeting in an effort to inform faculty and staff and to address concerns about the adequacy of safety measures for the spring semester.

"We are in contact constantly with UF Health professionals," Glover said. "We have made the campus relatively safer than the outside environment."

Timothy is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.