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Dear Art Institution: End these Mandates!


As a practicing artist in Philadelphia, I am dismayed that the arts organizations I love and whose activities I regularly participate in, continue to enforce mask and vaccine mandates long after all the health authorities have dropped them. 

I would have hoped that the arts community would be the first to welcome a return to seeing faces, exchanging smiles, and including all who want to benefit from the inspiration of art. Sadly this has not been the case.

So I wrote a letter to one institution that is dear to me, explaining why I believe their guidelines to be not just foolish but harmful. I am sharing this letter for others to use as a template, modified of course according to local guidelines and conditions. I would be happy to help anyone draft similar communications.

Here’s what I wrote:

As a long-time supporter, student, and beneficiary of the rich artistic and community offerings at Fleisher, I am deeply concerned that the policies recently announced for spring semester (to quote from the email I received today: Masks and proof of vaccination (ages 5+) and booster (ages 18+) will continue to be required for Fleisher students and visitors) are not just completely lacking in scientific/medical validity in terms of providing any kind of public health benefit, but are actually harmful to the reputation and the people of the Fleisher community.

Over three weeks ago, as of March 2, 2022, the Philadelphia Department of Health decided it was safe to end mandatory indoor masking, based on a variety of calculations.

Vaccine and testing mandates were dropped in Philadelphia before that date. The WHO, CDC and NIH all found it safe to end masking, vaccine and testing requirements before Philadelphia did. In most European countries and many U.S. states such mandates were abandoned months ago, with no adverse public health effects.

This means that Fleisher has decided – without offering an explanation beyond “after careful consideration” (to quote the email again) — to diverge from global, national and local medical authorities and continue with restrictive mandates that result in, at best, an uncomfortable face covering during artistic activities and, at worst, forced exclusion from such activities. This decision is bad for the community Fleisher strives to serve, and I strongly urge Fleisher to reconsider.

This is bad policy for the following reasons:

–It is not based on any scientific, medical or epidemiological parameters. Moreover, it contradicts the recommendations of all major health authorities. It means that Fleisher bases its public health policies, which affect hundreds of community members, on the whims of whoever is on the “COVID committee” and the committee’s beliefs about what feels safe. That is not a sound basis for community health policy and makes Fleisher look foolish (making policy with no basis in science or public health) and arrogant (we know better than the all the health organizations in the world).

–It excludes people who do not want to wear masks while making or experiencing art. I am a member of this group. At this point, health experts and organizations agree that my wearing a mask has no bearing on the health or safety of anyone else, so I am happy to remove my mask and enjoy activities while breathing, smiling and speaking normally. If anyone else feels safer wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine. But there is no health or safety reason for me to have to limit my own activities with a face covering. 

Obviously, this is true for everyone who wants to enjoy the activities and community at Fleisher to their fullest. Philadelphia’s schools The School District’s Mask Mandate Will End on Wednesday March 9th – The School District of Philadelphia and museums followed the Health Department’s lead in dropping mandates, so we can enjoy art classes and art events elsewhere as they should be enjoyed, but we cannot do so at Fleisher.

–Finally, and most egregiously, Fleisher’s policy excludes people who for whatever reason do not want to get vaccinated and/or boosted. Again, at this point we know that vaccinations protect individuals from bad COVID outcomes (hospitalization/death) but are not effective in preventing people from getting or spreading the virus. So, as with masks, what I choose to do or not to do may affect my health but not anybody else’s. 

This is extremely important to understand especially in the context of Fleisher’s community, because vaccine and booster uptakes in Philadelphia are significantly lower among communities of color and younger populations.

This means that, by demanding vaccines and boosters, Fleisher is effectively creating an unnecessary and arbitrary barrier (which has been removed pretty much everywhere else) for the very communities it seeks to serve.

We have been living with COVID for two years now, and what might have made sense in March 2020 or March 2021, is no longer applicable in March 2022. I know it is hard for some people to accept that relaxing mask and vaccine mandates is safe, but this is what the public health experts are telling us and I don’t believe anyone at Fleisher has any scientific or medical information to the contrary. 

The question Fleisher leadership needs to answer is this: Should we all accept outdated and unnecessary restrictions, and exclude many people from our community, because some members still need the restrictions to feel safe? Or should we help those who are still fearful find ways to allay their anxieties without unnecessary exclusions of particular groups and without restricting the activities and enjoyment of the entire community?

I would be happy to discuss these matters further with you or anyone else at Fleisher who has the authority to change these misguided and harmful policies.

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  • Debbie Lerman

    Debbie Lerman, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, has a degree in English from Harvard. She is a retired science writer and a practicing artist in Philadelphia, PA.

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