Amherst College eases heavy COVID restrictions

  • Left, Camden Heafitz and Kevin Ryu, first year students at Amherst College, talk about the new COVID protocols in place for the start of the year. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Makaela Weeda and Dylan Steele, seniors at Amherst College, talk about the new COVID protocols in place for the start of the year. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Makaela Weeda, left, and Dylan Steele, seniors at Amherst College, express frustration over the new COVID protocols initially in place for the start of the year. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, September 06, 2021

AMHERST — After a year of learning remotely or in a campus bubble, many Amherst College students prepared for a fall semester that would look like pre-COVID-19 times, living in dormitories, going to in-person classes, eating in the dining commons and taking walks to downtown restaurants and stores.

“We were all coming back and expecting a normal year after what was a pretty brutal year,” says Makaela Weeda, an Amherst College senior from California.

Instead, shortly after Weeda, who plays volleyball for the school, arrived on campus, an Aug. 24 letter from President Biddy Martin outlined a series of new temporary measures to control the delta variant of COVID-19, including that students, already required to be vaccinated, wear two masks or  KN95 masks when not in their dorm rooms, that students mask up outdoors, and that only takeout would be available from dining commons.

For Weeda, this immediately set in motion concern that there would be another lost athletic season and that her mother might again not get to see her play.

“A lot of us are down in the dumps, and this makes things pretty dismal, and is not hopeful,” Weeda said, noting there are just four COVID-19 cases on campus. “There are more restrictions and many with no rhyme or reason.”

In response to Martin’s communication, a petition signed by 400 students stated that the changes would be “disruptive, confusing, and frustrating,” and specific appeals were made related to the outdoor mask mandate and the restrictions on access to downtown that limited students to picking up prescription medication or necessary business, such as opening up a bank account.

“Smith College does not require masks outdoors, is testing vaccinated students only once a week, has a variety of dining options available including self-serve, and is not imposing any travel restrictions on their students. It is confounding that our guidelines are so different from these peer institutions,” the petition reads.

Since the petition was delivered, the college has begun relaxing some of the rules it had announced would be in place through Sept. 13, even as these rules have garnered national attention after being publicized in an article in the Amherst Student newspaper. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, a writer and statistician, wrote on Twitter that “some people have really lost the plot” due to the 99% vaccination of students at the school.

“It’s pretty insane to put such harsh restrictions in place on a campus where everybody is fully vaccinated,” Silver wrote.

The libertarian Reason magazine published an online article about the college’s plans with the subhead “absurb COVID-19 countermeasures.”

Three days later, the college dropped the outdoor mask mandate in most circumstances and made it clear to students they could pick up takeout meals at local restaurants.

Phased approach

In a thread on Twitter, the college explained the rationale for its rules: “We instituted a phased approach for the start of the fall semester in order to accommodate the arrival of our 2,000 students who come from all over the world. We all must learn to live with COVID-19 without the restrictions we’ve used in the past, but we must also realize that the delta variant has proven to be a game changer this summer, necessitating caution.”

The rules remain a bit stricter than other private colleges. At Smith College, for instance, dining halls are open at 50% capacity until at least Sept. 10, though outdoor eating is encouraged when possible and indoor eating should be limited to small groups. Student travel is restricted to Hampshire County until at least Sept. 10 and the college recommends against indoor activities where masks cannot be worn.

At Mount Holyoke College, most dining is to be done in outdoor tents, with limited indoor space, and grab and go options are available. There are no specific restrictions on travel.

Weeda said she worries for Amherst eateries.

“What people are most upset about is we haven’t been able to go to our favorite restaurant spots in more than a year,” Weeda said. “Businesses are really suffering.”

The rules came with no input from the town. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he appreciates that the college is taking steps its leaders feel are appropriate to protect faculty, students and staff.

At the same time, Bockelman said he understands that businesses benefit from the presence of college students.

“We are of course concerned about businesses and hope that our new residents can take advantage of all Amherst has to offer,” Bockelman said.

Dylan Steele, an Amherst College senior from Swampscott, said that he was frustrated after waiting 30 minutes in heat and humidity to get food from the dining commons, and that the college is not being guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules.

“They’re doing stuff that the CDC doesn’t even recommend,” Steele said.

Kevin Ryu, a first-year student from Old Tappan, New Jersey, said he is disappointed that restrictions are happening just as students are arriving. Ryu said he hopes they will be short-lived.

The revised rules were not how Camden Heafitz, a first-year student from Marblehead, saw the beginning of his college career.

“People were hoping for more of a normal college-like experience,” Heafitz said.