Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
This diary from Inés Eisenhour, a junior at the University of Miami and a student public health ambassador, has been condensed and edited for clarity from a conversation with Rachael Allen.
To get the public health ambassador job, you needed a pretty competitive application. Over 250 students applied and 75 were hired, and then we had virtual training before school started. I applied because it was a way for me to safety interact with people and connect with campus life—especially since all my clubs and the majority of my classes are online—while making what I believe to be an important contribution to the safety of the community.
Our responsibility is to make sure people are wearing masks, and wearing them correctly. We have a uniform and carry around this satchel with gloves and hand sanitizer for us, as well as a big pack of surgical masks. We provide people with masks if they don’t have them or if they ask us for extras, which is a pretty fun part of job.
Our shifts are all during the day and mostly outside. We have to work at least 10 hours a week for $10 per hour, but we’re not expected to work more than two hours at a time because they don’t want us to pass out in the heat. We’re assigned a zone on campus. The zone I’m working in now is a predominately residential area, so I’m mostly dealing with students sitting outside who are studying, eating, or talking with friends.
I’ve found the most effective way of getting someone to listen to me without upsetting them is reminding them that I’m there to help them and I don’t have any authority to hand out consequences. I’m the warning before someone actually gets in trouble. If we need a disciplinary response, we can reach out to the Dean of Students Office, then an administrator will come over and have a conversation with those people. At that point it’s beyond us. But I have not reported anyone.
Yesterday I was at my zone, and the other kid who was on the same shift as me said, “I’ve seen this group of people once or twice without their masks. I asked them to wear their masks, and all but one of them has been wearing it.” I walked by that same spot twice and saw the same thing—the whole group was wearing masks except for this one girl. Every time got within 20 feet of the table, the girl would put her mask on and as soon as I got 20 feet away again, I would look back and she took it off. I walked back over and said, “My co-worker and I have both seen you not wanting to wear the mask. Consider this a verbal warning—if I see you or anyone at this table not adhering to the mask-wearing policy, we’ll have to take your name and ID number. I would rather not have to do that, so please wear your mask correctly until you’re back in your room.”
Someone else at the table asked me specifics about mask-wearing policy: “If we live with these people that we’re out with, do we have to be wearing our masks?” The policy is pretty straightforward—unless you’re in your personal living space with the people you’re living with or eating, you have to have your mask on. I explained and said, “It doesn’t really matter what the circumstances are, that’s just the policy.” I got a few scoffs from other people sitting at the table, but I had no reason to address them. I was answering the question that was asked. That’s an average interaction I’d say.
Twice now people have flat-out ignored me. The first time I was far back at the end of campus and it was very quiet. No one was really around, but that doesn’t matter because you still have to be wearing a mask. This man—he looked like he could be a TA or a grad student—walked by without a mask, not even in his hand. I was like, “Hey, do you have a mask?” He didn’t even slow down, but just said, “Yeah, I do.” I said, “Can you please wear it? Thank you.” He started running to avoid me. If he’s leaving and I’m not going to see him again, there’s not much I can do. Another time I was with another co-worker, both in our public health ambassador uniforms, and we approached a woman who wasn’t wearing a mask and asked her to wear one. She didn’t say anything but just walked right past us. My co-worker was loud and kept saying, “Ma’am, ma’am.” She didn’t even blink.
For the most part, it’s easy to point out that your mask is either not on or on incorrectly, but social distancing is a whole different beast. A lot of the tables around campus have a maximum capacity number—a big weatherproof sticker smack on the table—so say there’s four people sitting at a two-person table we can just say, “Hey, there’s the max limit right there.” But for groups of people who are walking together not 6 feet apart from one another, there’s really not much we can do. Sure, we can stop a group in their tracks and tell them to stand 6 feet apart, but that doesn’t last more than a second. It’s not really feasible to enforce, which is really frustrating.
I had a dining hall shift this morning where we have to make sure people aren’t pulling extra chairs up to tables and are standing 6 feet apart in line. There aren’t always public health ambassadors in the dining hall, so I don’t think freshmen or residents who eat in the dining hall are used to our presence. It’s a tough job when it gets busy, and it’s hard to get roommates who live together to stand 6 feet apart in line.
Another challenge is dealing with people who are exercising, if I can even get them to stop exercising long enough to listen. The public health ambassadors have been told mask-wearing at all times unless someone is actively eating or drinking. We do get a lot of angry responses from people working out, and we’re like, we’re just doing our jobs.
The most concerning thing to me is the “I’m sorry” response that I get from people when I remind them to wear their masks. That is the automatic response and it shows a mentality that it’s important to follow these guidelines only because they are the guidelines. You wear your mask and social distance on campus because you don’t want to get in trouble, not because it’s what’s going to keep us safe. I don’t expect an apology from someone when I ask them to fix their mask because they didn’t do anything to me necessarily—they’re endangering the friends they’re sitting with, and the people they go home to, and the professor they have in class later that day. It seems that people just aren’t getting it.
In the weeks since school started, it’s not that more people are wearing masks but more people are aware of who is going to call them out. Now people recognize the uniform and know what I’m going to talk with them about, so I just have to get in people’s eyesight and they’ll fix their mask so that I don’t come over and talk with them. So, we’re fulfilling our job descriptions, but are the public health ambassadors really changing people’s mindsets? No. I just don’t think that’s possible.