Tigerlily Hopson, Contributing Photographer

As the partial lifting of the mask mandate goes into effect, staff members grapple with feelings ranging from joy to fear. 

The University’s modifications to its masking requirements were implemented on March 21, allowing students, faculty and staff to unmask in most indoor spaces, including dining halls, libraries and gyms. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, staff will have to be in close contact with unmasked students, and can no longer enforce mask wearing in their workplace. Masks are still required in classrooms and other instructional spaces. 

The News spoke with 27 staff members — 21 dining hall workers and six library staff — many of whom said they were grateful to now have the choice to wear a mask or not. Others, however, voiced safety concerns, saying that the relaxing of the mask mandate has come too soon. 

“I feel like it should be each individual person’s choice based on comfort level,” said Joshua Fontaine, first cook in the Berkeley dining hall. “I am glad for the choice.”

Many dining hall workers said that they would continue to wear their mask at first, and would decide to take it off depending on how many students are present at one time and if they are able to distance or be behind barriers. One staff member, Chy Quaan, described needing a “mask grace period,” before deciding to take his off in Davenport’s dining hall. 

Some staff members described relief at the option of not wearing a mask, and said it will ease the struggle of working long hours over hot stoves. 

“I’m happy,” Kelly Butler said about the change in the mask mandate as she stood over the grill in Silliman. “It’s 1,000 degrees over this thing.”

“It’s hard to breathe back here,” Jasmine McElya, another Silliman dining hall worker, chimed in.  

“I have asthma real bad,” Stephanie Kotchey said in Davenport. “It can be stifling. I want to have the choice.” 

Every staff member, when asked by the News, said that the testing accessibility and high vaccination rates put their mind at ease in some capacity. However, many still said that they want to keep an eye on the COVID-19 case levels and monitor the situation if there is a spike. 

According to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, 1,092 faculty and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 1. University Provost Scott Strobel, Senior Vice President for Operations Jack Callahan and University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler did not respond to a question about the breakdown between faculty and staff within the data.

Although cases have gone down significantly in recent days, four dining hall staff members told the News they felt it was unwise to take away the mask mandate when cases could easily rise again — especially after spring break, when many students are returning from across the globe. 

“COVID is still here,” said Caprice Harris, who works in Berkeley’s dining hall. “[Not wearing a mask] affects everyone’s work and safety.”

June Beasley, another employee in Berkeley, agreed that it is “too early” for the masking requirement to be removed, and said that she is afraid of getting sick with this new change. 

Spangler told the News that any staff or faculty member who “feels that they have a condition that places them at increased risk for serious illness from COVID-19” may contact the Office of Institutional Equity and Accessibility for an accommodation. 

Beasley added that she wished plastic guards would be put up for protection if masking is optional, and emphasized the importance for students to continue to sanitize their hands. 

“As it relates to our operations, there has been little or no evidence of transmission in the dining halls and serveries,” Bob Sullivan, senior director of residential dining, wrote to the News. “For those who are vaccinated and boosted, it is up to them to remove their mask should they choose to do so. I emphasize the choice as, if and when some of our staff choose to keep their masks on, they are completely welcome to do so.”

One student, Lusangelis Ramos ’25, said that for her, wearing her mask near staff members shows her respect for them, especially in spaces like dining halls and Commons, where she and other students interact with workers every day.

“There’s a really big power imbalance between Yale and New Haven,” Ramos said. “I feel like it’s a sign of respect to wear these masks and make sure that we’re following all these protocols because we’re interacting with a lot of New Haven residents, everywhere.”

The library staff who spoke with the News said that the general protocol is to still wear masks behind the service desk out of “respect” to fellow co-workers, and to make sure students feel comfortable when walking in or asking for help. 

Three workers at Sterling Memorial Library said that about half of the students are still wearing their masks in the building. Individually, most of the staff members who spoke to the News said they would “keep [their mask] on” for the foreseeable future.

Alex Lance, a frontline services worker at Bass Library and previous student worker, said that throughout the pandemic they had spent many of their shifts walking the halls of the library, checking if students were wearing masks and enforcing the guidelines when they were not. This could spark conflict and push back, and made the job feel like they were “policing [their] peers.”

Now, to remove the masking requirement when they and their student co-workers had “spent so much time trying to enforce it” feels “frustrating,” according to Lance.

Yet, for some other staff members, the new option of not wearing a mask in many of these indoor spaces comes as a comforting return to normalcy.

“I feel like it’s time to turn to the next chapter,” said Richard Rodriguez, who works in Davenport’s dining hall. “To go back to normalcy.”

Yet, for Silliman employee Brandi Williams, who said she has underlying health issues, not wearing a mask leaves too many “what ifs.” She said everyone is doing the best that they can, but that still this new change in the masking requirement “is a bit scary.”

In the last seven days there have been 27 positive cases for faculty and staff according to the University COVID-19 dashboard. 

Tigerlily Hopson covers diversity and inclusion at Yale. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Berkeley majoring in English.