An indoor dinner with a presidential candidate was already controversial. Then they took off their masks.

Mary Ruiz, the chair of the presidential search committee, assured concerned students that guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be followed at a dinner for presidential candidate Alan Shao and members of the committee on Monday, March 29 at the Keating Center. However, all but one of the invited guests did not wear a mask for most of the evening. 

Although most of the committee members had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, they were in violation of multiple stipulations of the interim guidelines from the CDC for vaccinated people. Ruiz later said she was “not aware” of the key caveats that do not allow unvaccinated members of more than one household to gather together without masks and physical distancing. 

They also violated the college’s own rules, which have not changed since this fall. The rules stipulate that masks must be worn at all times, inside and outside, with exceptions while actively eating and drinking or when individuals are in a private room with the door closed.

Ruiz explained that the goal of the dinners was to develop a 360-degree view of the candidates in order to examine how they act in a social setting. The five finalists, selected by the presidential search committee, have been invited for two-day campus visits before the Board of Trustees is scheduled to make a final decision on April 20. Ruiz is also the chair of the board.

“When you’re looking at Zoom, you don’t see how somebody carries themselves into a room, how they work a room and how they engage with people, and so we wanted to assess that because that’s a big part of the president’s job,” Ruiz explained. 

The committee scheduled dinners with each of the five candidates, with meals catered by Metz Culinary Management, inside of the Keating Center. The dates and times of the dinners are not included in the schedules published on the New College website, but are still public meetings. Up to five visitors at a time are allowed to enter and observe. 

Before the dinner started, Ruiz approached a smattering of approximately 8-10 students who had gathered across the street from the Keating Center. Ruiz engaged in an at-times heated conversation with one student, second-year Chloe Fodor, who showed up to express her concerns about an indoor gathering with the committee. 

“We were there to signal our disapproval of the dinner,” Fodor recalled. “We felt like it was just in bad taste and disrespectful to how diligent the student body has been in terms of COVID precautions to make sure that we can remain on campus.” 

Ruiz regretted that the students were focused on the dinner and less about the broader presidential search process. 

“I’m uncomfortable with not focusing on the bigger issue, because when students come to me personally spending more time on this issue than on the president itself, I’m thinking, are we really talking about the right things?” Ruiz said. “I’m happy to talk with them, I’m happy to answer any questions and offer any information that people want to have. It concerns me that we’re kind of stuck in this place when I see these bigger issues. And to me, the bigger issue at the dinner is can this guy engage with people capable of giving us gifts with six zeros?”

Ruiz assured Fodor and the other students present that guidelines from the CDC would be followed, but the recommendations for fully vaccinated people — as well as New College policy — were disregarded soon after that.

Shortly after a reporter from the Catalyst entered the Keating Center and announced intent to observe and take photos, Ruiz asked the group of committee members who had arrived at the time, as well as Shao, if they had been vaccinated. 

Nearly all of the members of the search committee raised their hands. Some added that were still waiting on their second dose, such as Shao, who had travelled from South Carolina. 

After most people present raised their hands, Ruiz removed her mask and indicated that other committee members could follow. This account was corroborated with two other members of the search committee who were present at that moment. 

From left: BOT Vice Chair Ron Christaldi, BOT member Sarah Mackie, NCSA President Sofia Lombardi and presidential candidate Alan Shao at the Keating Center on March 29, 2021.

Ruiz said that the original plan for the dinner was to wear masks throughout the evening and only remove masks while eating, but she changed her mind because of the updated CDC guidelines for vaccinated individuals. 

“It wasn’t part of the plan for the dinner,” Ruiz said. “We were going to keep masks on, and then when we’re eating we were going to social distance, but, you know, the new CDC guidelines say that you can get with your friends who’ve all been vaccinated. So, because I know all of these people, I started asking them. Then, when I realized everybody had had their shot, I thought, ‘Well, nobody needs to wear a mask.’” 

A small group of staff from Metz tended the bar, prepared the food and served the diners. None of the catering staff were present at the time that the masks were removed and Ruiz said she did not consult them about their vaccination status. Catering staff kept their masks on at all times.

“I think it’s disgusting to see such a tangible, clear-cut example of people of privilege having zero regard, respect or remorse for the well-being or safety of those around them who have less privilege,” COVID Liaison and thesis student Courtney Miller said. “I just think it’s so disappointing. And I think that it’s really, really easy to let things like this slide under the rug and not say anything.” 

Miller was not present at the dinner but directly heard accounts of the events from other students present. A small group of students later entered the room and observed after the masks had been removed. Ruiz and Shao replaced their masks when speaking with the group of students. 

The latest guidelines from the CDC for vaccinated people, released earlier this month, do allow for unmasked gatherings of fully vaccinated individuals. The CDC defines “fully vaccinated” as people who have received both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer two-shot vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson jab, with at least two weeks since the last inoculation. At least four of the 10 representatives from the committee, plus Shao, said that they had not yet been fully vaccinated.

At maskless gatherings, the CDC does allow for low-risk members of up to one household to be present without masks. However, as soon as there is another household in the mix, the CDC mandates that all people present wear face coverings.

“At the point where I realized people were vaccinated except for Sarah [Hernandez], I invited them to take their masks off because they’re not necessary,” Ruiz said. “And, you know, I hope you guys get that same benefit soon because these masks are a pain in the butt.”

Dr. Sarah Hernandez, professor of sociology and another member of the presidential search committee, arrived at the Keating Center later on in the evening after the small gathering when all of the committee members removed masks. She was the only committee member to wear a mask except while eating dinner because she was not fully inoculated.  

“I was wearing a mask because it had been less than two weeks since I had gotten my vaccine,” Hernandez said. “I learned from conversation that everyone else in the room who was not wearing a mask had already been vaccinated. Our candidate, Dr. Shao, was very conscientious and offered to wear his mask if I preferred that he do so.”

Hernandez said that she felt comfortable in the room, “because they respected my preference to continue protecting myself from exposure.”  

“Once I explained I had not had enough time after the vaccine, they understood my choice and the conversations continued as usual,” Hernandez elaborated. 

Ruiz told a Catalyst reporter the day after the event that she had had private conversations with committee members prior to the dinner about their vaccination status, but one committee member who spoke with the Catalyst on background said that they had not had a prior discussion with Ruiz about inoculations. At the time of the dinner, this committee member had not yet received a COVID-19 vaccination. 

Hernandez declined to comment on whether she had discussed her vaccination status with Ruiz prior to the meeting.

After the initial shock from the pandemic had worn off and New College began to plan for welcoming students back to living on campus this fall, a strict mask wearing policy was established. The rule — which has not changed since it was first implemented — mandates that students, faculty and staff wear a mask at all times, except when actively eating or drinking or in an enclosed space, such as a dorm or office, with the door closed. 

However, General Counsel David Fugett said that there is not a strong enforcement mechanism for on-campus violations. Instead, violations by students and staff are evaluated on a case by case basis. 

“We’re relying on everybody to do the right thing,” Fugett said, before Ruiz released a statement announcing changes to following dinners via email on March 31. “In Florida, it’s very difficult to enforce COVID regulations. Officially, they’re not being enforced. So what we thought we’d do at New College is—as I understand it—whether it’s a student or staff member, someone talks to that person, reminds them what the rules are, and then they usually comply. And I think that’s what’s going to happen here.”

During clinical trials to test the efficacy of the vaccines, the drug companies for the three COVID-19 vaccines now being deployed across the US — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — did not investigate asymptomatic infections or if vaccinated people can still  transmit the virus to unvaccinated people. 

“There is no evidence in these trials to suggest that people who have been vaccinated cannot spread the disease,” Miller said. “There are now NIH-backed clinical trials starting that are researching that. But that kind of stuff takes time and we don’t have that evidence, so there is no evidence to make any sort of exception.”

Ruiz indirectly referred to preliminary results from a CDC study released on Monday, March 29 that analyzed data from nearly 4,000 inoculated frontline workers tested weekly. The study suggested that mRNA vaccines were 90% effective against COVID infections two weeks after the last dose, regardless of symptom status, and 80% effective two weeks after the initial dose. 

However, infectious disease expert Dr. Céline Gounder cautioned on National Public Radio on March 31 that “it’s not 100%.”

“It’s a percent reduction, so you’re still seeing a lot of transmission out in the community,” Gounder said. “There is still some risk.”

Neither the CDC guidelines for fully vaccinated people, nor the college’s rules, were adjusted as a result of this observatory study.  Until more is known, CDC guidelines advise that even fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart from other people in other settings, such as when in public or visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households.

In response to feedback from students and other considerations, Ruiz announced in an email sent to students, staff and faculty on March 31 that masks would be worn at all four future dinners except while attendees were eating or drinking. 

The event will still take place inside the Keating Center, but masks will be worn at all times except while eating and drinking. In lieu of a standing cocktail hour before the dinner, guests will be seated for most of the time and sit at a different table for each course.  

The seating arrangements at the first dinner at the Keating Center on March 29, 2021. Two people sat at each table, which allowed for six feet of space while seated. Presidential Candidate Alan Shao, shown in the upper right part of the frame, offered to put on his mask when he approached a small group of student observers.

Although student concerns spurred Ruiz to make changes for future dinners, Miller emphasized that “we allowed someone to organize an event on campus, and they endangered our students.”   

“A woman of significant wealth, power and influence on campus asked a room at large who had been vaccinated, and then proceeded to remove her mask,” Miller reflected. “I’m so glad that Mary Ruiz has been vaccinated. But had those catering waiters been vaccinated? Had all the faculty? No, they hadn’t. Had all of the students? No. It was really reckless and selfish.” 

Catalyst Online Editor Ky Miller (no relation to Courtney Miller) contributed reporting.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jennifer Carnahan

    As an NCF alumna and now a physician seeing COVID patients this is beyond disappointing.

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