The New College bayfront has long been praised as a place to catch a perfect view of the sunset, visit with friends or otherwise find some respite from the average student’s busy schedule. The New College website calls the bayfront “one of the most treasured campus spots.” It is also well-loved by Sarasota locals who will come out in droves alongside students at sunset. And while the COVID-19 pandemic and campus safety guidelines have not stopped students from visiting the bayfront, it has caused some tension as students and faculty report visitors continuing to not follow the same safety guidelines over a month since campus has reopened.
Vice President of Finance & Administration Christain Kinsley suggests that increased signage by the bayfront and encouraging staff members to inform visitors of campus policies will be a step forward in keeping campus safe and accessible for everyone.
While discussion of enforcing safety regulations at places on campus with frequent off-campus visitors is still recent, students have been discussing this issue for as long as campus has been reopened. Third-year and Second Court Resident Advisor (RA) Hannah Schwalli said that she first visited the bayfront during RA training, where she and two other students were met with “roughly twelve people,” none with masks or practicing social distancing.
“At the time we weren’t sure if we were supposed to say anything, but it definitely made us upset to see people that weren’t from the school not following basic social etiquette during this time,” said Schwallie. “It rubbed us the wrong way that we couldn’t hang out on the pier or even go over there because there were just too many people gathered together on our campus not wearing masks.”
When students started moving back to campus, the bayfront also did not have any signs indicating that masks were required. All on-campus students were made aware before returning that masks are required at all times outside of each individual’s residence room. However, thesis student Mackenzie “Kenzie” Timms noted that off-campus visitors were not aware of these policies in August and so need signs like these in order to realize that safety guidelines are in place at the bayfront.
“At the beginning, there weren’t signs like there are around campus,” Timms said, “Which I thought was a little weird because anyone who attends this school, even administration, knows that this is a Sarasota local hotspot where people come and see the sunset and spend time at the bay.”
For others, the idea of approaching visitors about wearing a mask directly is effective, but it is easier said than done. Thesis student Olympia Fulcher said that they no longer feel fully comfortable going to the bayfront at sunset when it is most crowded but also hesitates to put themselves at risk by getting close enough to a maskless visitor to tell them about campus policy.
“I don’t want to put myself in the situation where I have to walk up to them and ask them to wear a mask,” said Fulcher. “I don’t know them. I’ve never really felt like I could ask them.”
There are now signs at the bayfront stating that masks are required, but the continued presence of maskless visitors despite these signs has led many to ask what else New College can continue to do to enforce its safety regulations. So far, the campus community has mostly been on the honors system—watching and reminding each other to continue wearing masks and stay socially distant without police intervention. Chief of Campus Police Michael Kessie has said that campus police are not actually charged with enforcing safety guidelines on campus.
“I think you will find that this is pretty standard among [State University System] Police Departments across the state,” said Kessie.
The lack of police involvement has left some students disappointed. Fulcher, for example, calls the bayfront “a New College resource,” which would place it under the campus police’s jurisdiction to watch over.
“Somebody should do something, I’m just not sure what the correct body is to do this,” said Fulcher. “I would almost say that the police should do this because I don’t really care if police yell at townies for not wearing masks, and they’re not doing anything else so I don’t see why they couldn’t. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Instead, so far it has been more of what could be described as a community effort, which is where Kinsley’s plans come in. Kinsley—whose office faces the bay—has said that he has approached maskless visitors more than once in order to inform them of New College’s policies, and believes that the next step forward is through signage and direct intervention.
“We have tried to encourage compliance using signs, but have recognized that too many visitors are not wearing masks,” said Kinsley. “I have myself spoken to people not wearing masks, and believe it will take both increased signage, as well as more staff members informing visitors of the policy.”
The topic also came up at the student forum on Sept. 15, but how firmly administration upholds these policies could be a deciding factor as well.
“They were hinting that they were going to nudge and ask people to wear masks, but I don’t know if that’s as effective as straight-up telling people to wear a mask,” said Timms. “Suggesting and hinting at it makes it seem like it’s not really a requirement and it’s only a suggestion for you to follow that protocol.”
Assuming that these plans are put into motion and prove effective, the bayfront can remain open to students and the public. But if the situation continues to escalate, Kinsley said that it is possible that the bayfront may have to be shut down. Shutting down the bayfront would ultimately be a presidential decision that would be up to Kinsley to enforce, and he proposes putting up temporary fencing around the bayfront and having two campus police stand by to enforce it if it gets to that point.
“The last thing I want to have to do is close the bayfront to the general public,” Kinsley said. “But if we can’t get the situation managed, we’d have to consider that.”
For now, Kinsley encourages students to continue wearing masks and maintaining a social distance. He compares the effort to enforce safety regulations to the efforts that were made when policies that prevented smoking in the workplace became common—both are examples of policies that became effective due to social norming and continued reinforcement.
“I think it’s going to take some time to integrate people into the habit,” said Kinsley. “And hopefully by the time people are compliant, the dangers of the pandemic will have faded away. I mean, it’s getting better but I really hope that this is a problem that is pretty much eradicated.”
As these plans are set into motion, Kinsley also suggests that students continue to act as a community and hold themselves accountable. He also advised students to approach maskless visitors in a non-confrontational way to inform them of the campus policy if they are able.
“As someone who had to wear a mask for over eleven hours every day for work over the summer at a restaurant, then people can wear it for a few hours to watch the sunset or be at the bay,” Schwallie said. “Now I have more confidence to tell people to put on their masks and have done it a few times and mentioned that masks are required on this campus. It isn’t hard to respect those around you and wearing a mask is not all that difficult to wear in a place that they are required.”