As its first in-person semester in over a year winds down, Harvard is preparing to loosen its on-campus Covid-19 restrictions, which include mask requirements and limits on gatherings.
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said in an interview Tuesday that it is “a fairly safe bet” the school will relax its public health restrictions next semester. He said the school could soon allow lecturers and small groups to remove masks indoors.
“We are preparing for a number of different contingencies in the spring,” Garber said Tuesday. “But if current trends continue, we expect to see substantial lessening of restrictions related to Covid.”
Currently, the school limits gatherings in private living spaces to 25 people, an increased number from its restrictions at the start of the fall term. In compliance with Cambridge policies, the school requires masks to be worn in all public indoor areas.
“Sometime — and we don’t know when — we just will no longer routinely wear masks,” Garber said. “It is not inconceivable that that will happen during spring semester, but I would not say that’s likely yet.”
Schools within the University currently may allow lecturers to remove their masks only if they comply with a list of safety requirements, such as keeping a six-foot distance from all students. Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay said at a November faculty meeting that only 80 FAS classrooms and 14 School of Engineering and Applied Sciences classrooms afford enough space to meet the rule.
Both Gay and Garber are optimistic that faculty mask requirements will be among the first measures loosened in the spring.
“I think relaxing mask restrictions for lecturing faculty will occur very early,” Garber said Tuesday.
Harvard has seen only minor spikes of Covid-19 cases across its campus this semester, with an average of about 52 cases per week since Aug. 15. The school conducts more than 39,000 Covid-19 tests per week.
Garber said he has been “pleased with how the semester has gone,” even as the coronavirus continues to spread across the country. At least 97 percent of students and staff are vaccinated, according to Harvard’s Covid-19 dashboard.
“I have to say, our community has just been incredibly impressive,” Garber said. “I think if we had known how people would be so careful about protecting each other, we might have been able to ease up on some of the restrictions earlier.”
Though many undergraduates gather and party without masks on campus, Harvard has seen just one substantial Covid flare-up — during the final week of August, when many students were first moving in. The school saw 135 positive tests between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4, including 95 undergraduate cases.
Since Sept. 26, the school has not seen more than 53 cases in a week. It has conducted more than 1.2 million tests since June 1.
“There are some restrictions that we would conceivably want to end even before spring semester, but I just have to point out with all the travel occurring around Thanksgiving, to do it right now would be riskier than most of us would be comfortable with,” Garber said.
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