Administrators suggest restriction loosening on the horizon


Photo: Alec Klusza

Emerson is now mask-optional in all campus spaces except classrooms.

By Charlie McKenna

With coronavirus cases on the decline in Boston and in Massachusetts and the gradual lift of restrictions, positive COVID-19 tests at Emerson have begun to slowly dip back to fall semester rates, prompting administrators to consider loosening some on-campus restrictions. 

For just the second time this semester, Emerson reported single-digit positives last week, with seven community members testing positive for the virus. The only other week in which fewer than 10 positive tests were reported was the first week of testing this semester—the week the fewest number of tests were administered. 

This week, four community members have tested positive of the more than 2,400 tests administered. 

This comes on the heels of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker progressing the state’s reopening to Phase Three, Step Two, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh indicating the city would follow suit on March 22. Baker announced that the state will move into its fourth and final phase of reopening on March 22, allowing for the resumption of some large gatherings. 

At Emerson, administrators wouldn’t say what restrictions might be lifted, but said as cases continue to decline, some aspects of “normal,” pre-pandemic college life could return, “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp said. 

“Relaxing some of our regulations, we want to do that, we’ve started conversations of what could we do, knowing that the city has,” he said. “We are reviewing that, we hope that maybe in a few weeks we can start loosening some things up and allowing some more capacities. That would be my ideal, is if we can get back to some of those spaces and practices before the end of the school year.”

Muurisepp declined to provide any specific examples of restrictions that could be lifted.

“We would look into it all, maybe room capacities,” he said.

Baker’s decision to open theatres and performance venues was ripped by several public health officials, who warned the state could be moving through its reopening too quickly. In the fall and summer, when cases reached their nadir in Massachusetts, Baker never moved the state into Phase Four—instead waiting for the approval of a vaccine.

Yet, cases now have yet to dip back down to summer lows—averaging approximately 1,000 per day. At Emerson, positives soared for the first weeks of the semester—reaching a high of 24 in a single week, more than a third of the fall semester’s total of 60.

Muurisepp repeatedly attributed the surge to a “new environment” of “higher positivity” where “more virus” was present. 

“It’s more prevalent,” he said. “This is obviously virus that’s in the city. It’s because there is more virus out there and it is being transmitted.”

Now, Muurisepp says students are more strictly adhering to safety protocols, leading to not just fewer positives but also a decline in the number of students in isolation and quarantine housing. 

On Feb. 19, five community members were in isolation and 28 were quarantined. Now, no students are in isolation and just two are in quarantine. 

“I’m probably more excited about that part because it means people are adhering to our guidance of not becoming a contact, and not gathering in large groups,” he said. 

A reopening poses the risk of increased spread, though, as when cases reached highs in the state, they surged at Emerson—prompting a flood of new restrictions.