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Opinion: The Willamette bubble protects campus from Salem COVID-19 risk, such as Salem Awakening

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Sanja Zelen

Staff writer

Over the years, Willamette has gained a reputation for being in a “bubble.” Known as the “Willamette Bubble,” it is defined as the university and its students being partially isolated from the rest of Salem. Under normal circumstances, it’s debatable whether the Willamette bubble is beneficial or not for the Willamette community. On the one hand, it is comforting to have a routine and know that there is always a community there for support. On the other, it can be difficult to branch out and find places to explore off-campus, especially given that Salem is not a college town. However, in the midst of a pandemic, the Willamette bubble could just be the thing that protects Willamette students and faculty and preserves in-person learning.

With Willamette’s closure to outside guests and visitors marked by red signs lining campus, Willamette is effectively trapped in a strict, yet protective bubble. Everyone on campus is required to wear a mask, except when they are in their personal dorm room or in the dining hall eating. Because of this, the bubble encourages conformity, rather than critiques it. Strict requirements that may not be seen outside of Willamette’s campus set it apart from the rest of Salem and protect campus from off-campus, non-Willamette visitors.

Willamette’s bubble can also protect it from infection-risking outside events. A recent religious event that occured in Salem was just one instance of unsafe practices.

On September 4, members of religious group Salem Awakening hosted an event at Riverfront Park called ‘Let Us Worship.’ Referred to as a potential “Super Spreader” event by the Statesman Journal, 678 people were predicted to have attended, hundreds of whom were baptized in the Willamette River (Statesman Journal). Pictures posted on the social media handle @salemawakening2020 show that few to none of the attendees were wearing masks or distancing.

Photographers and musicians traveled to Salem for ‘Let Us Worship,’ further increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 to Marion County from outside areas. The same organization has been hosting events of a similar scale in other parts of the country, such as Seattle, Washington and Orlando, Florida. Musician Sean Feucht (@seanfeucht on Instagram) shared pictures of these events, having traveled to many of them to perform, including the event in Salem. No socially-distanced participants are captured in the photos, and only a handful are wearing masks.

Willamette’s bubble, enforced by the red signs lining campus, could protect the Willamette community from any potential cases that spring up from events like Salem Awakening’s, as none of the non-Willamette Salem residents that attended the event would be allowed to come onto campus. A Today@Willamette email sent out on September 3 further encouraged Willamette students to limit their involvement off-campus: “We strongly encourage those who are living in Salem (either on or off campus) to avoid traveling to your permanent home, visiting family, or leaving the area as much as possible” in order to avoid “family and group transmission.”

Instagram page @wu_mask_watch was created around September 11 as a way to report instances where students are not wearing masks on campus (the creator of the page is unknown). Students can send pictures to the account as a direct message (DM). The account’s tactic of peer pressure can force students that do not comply with campus guidelines to reconsider their choices. Being a small school and tight knit community, compliance should be instinctive. In relation to the bubble, @wu_mask_watch can help to put pressure on and call out certain individuals to enforce campus conformity that is essential for protection.

However, there is no way to ensure that Bearcats avoid unsafe social gatherings such as Salem Awakening. Additionally, Campus Safety has received a considerable amount of calls throughout the semester reporting instances where campus regulations were broken. Just last Monday, September 20, Campus Safety responded to a call from a student reporting 30-40 shirtless, maskless individuals in the Chicken Fountain. Campus Safety could not locate the individuals when they arrived, as all people involved ran away.

Ross Stout, Director of Campus Safety, spoke on the amount of unsafe practices that have been reported regarding a lack of distancing, mask wearing, or the presence of non-Bearcats on campus: “Prior to about two weeks ago, we were getting a couple calls a day. We had family members here dropping students off who weren’t aware of the regulations. People were just concerned and regularly reporting that.”

Campus Safety’s sentiment echoes @wu_mask_watch’s purpose and message. “If there are fellow students that aren’t complying, we would encourage [others] to confront them directly about that,” Stout said. “I think peer pressure is an effective tool, perhaps more than authorities confronting people. If it’s off-campus people and [students] feel in any way intimidated or threatened, they should call Campus Safety.”

As in-person learning progresses, Campus Safety has fortunately received fewer calls about a lack of masks, with Stout stating that the calls have, “...slowed down exponentially. We get maybe one or two [calls] a week. I think the signs are working and there aren’t as many off-campus people wandering on.”

Third-year student Oksana Greenwood shared her thoughts on the Willamette bubble. She thinks it is a positive thing during COVID-19, viewing it as an opportunity to stay in touch with fellow classmates: “I think during COVID [the bubble is] positive because it’s been a lonely time. Having people to rely on and people that you know really well in the bubble is a positive thing to go back to. During COVID, you can’t really go out in the [Salem] community and do anything. Even though you’re not seeing each other, you still have those [Willamette] connections.”

For the inevitable instances when students have to leave the campus bubble, Greenwood said that most Salem residents still follow guidelines, ensuring that students don’t have to stay inside the bubble 100 percent of the time to ensure they stay safe and healthy. “Everywhere I’ve gone, people are wearing masks, even just downtown walking outside,” Greenwood said. “Downtown Salem is very small, so it’s very hard to keep your distance from people walking on sidewalks. Stores are really good about requiring you to wear a mask inside.”

Willamette’s bubble has had negative connotations in the past due to its tendency to isolate the Willamette community from the rest of Salem. During the pandemic, negative stereotypes associated with the bubble should be erased. Greenwood appreciates the bubble because it keeps students connected to each other during a pressing time. The bubble also prevents outside transmission from Salem residents and attendees of events that do not adhere to national guidelines.

Regardless of how students have previously viewed the Willamette bubble, it is important to reach out to others for support and protect oneself to preserve the safety measures that are being enforced at Willamette.

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