BYU issues mask mandate for students and staff

The school’s president calls it an “urgent appeal.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Brigham Young University student walks on campus on Sept. 16, 2020. The school announced that masks will be required for the 2021-2022 school year.

In a surprising move and a reversal from previous statements, Brigham Young University announced Friday that it will be requiring all students to wear masks on campus this fall.

The private school in Provo wrote in a statement and on social media that students and staff — regardless of their vaccination status — must wear a mask in classrooms, any indoor spaces where physical distancing is not possible and “in other areas when directed.” That will begin a week prior to the start of classes on Aug. 30, as many students start to return to campus to purchase books and move into housing.

“With recent increases in COVID-19 cases, we are constantly evaluating ways to keep our campus safe,” said university President Kevin Worthen in a video statement. “Today, I’m making an urgent appeal to our BYU community.”

He added that, in addition to masks, students also are strongly encouraged to get the vaccine “so that fall semester can proceed as planned.”

The message comes one week after the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU, also asked churchgoers to wear masks and get the vaccine and instituted a mask mandate for employees of the faith, including missionaries.

Worthen said Friday: “We wholeheartedly support the First Presidency’s recent message urging individuals to be vaccinated, saying that available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.”

At BYU, though masks will now be mandated, students still won’t be required to get the vaccine. But they do have to report their vaccination status before they can sign up for fall classes (and the school is providing a food item as incentive for those who complete their immunization).

Based on those reports, the school said that 70% of students and 76% of faculty have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Worthen called the numbers “encouraging,” but added that with the delta variant surging, “there’s still room for improvement.” And he said it prompted him to change the plans for fall semester that were first announced a few months ago, to add the mask requirement.

Students must keep their masks on. Fully vaccinated faculty who maintain distance from their students in the classroom may take theirs off only to teach.

The university said that it will monitor case counts — including a recent increase in Utah County, where there have been 438 deaths since the start of the pandemic — and reevaluate the mask mandate at the end of September.

“We look forward to the day when we can all meet safely together without masks or other restrictions,” Worthen added. “Right now, the best way to ensure that future and return to normal is getting vaccinated.”

The Utah Legislature has ruled that no public K-12 school, college or university is allowed to enact its own mask or vaccine mandate. So that means the University of Utah, the state’s flagship institution, can’t require face coverings. It can only encourage their use.

But because BYU is a private college, it doesn’t have to follow that edict.

The other private institution in the state, Westminster College in Salt Lake City, will be requiring both masks and vaccines for students to attend campus in person this fall.

Last year, BYU saw the highest number of coronavirus cases of any higher education institution in the state. Masks were required there, under a Provo city ordinance, but many students at the conservative college bucked at the mandate.

Several withdrew from BYU as a result.

It is likely there will be backlash against the mask requirement this fall. The university has turned off comments on its social media posts.

Meanwhile, BYU’s campus in Hawaii already had planned to start the semester with a mask mandate and a vaccine requirement. A school official there said the culture on the island is much different and the safety measures are more readily accepted.