Stepping In: How You Can Help to Keep Columbia Safe

Quick tips for encouraging others to follow Columbia’s safety policies

It can feel uncomfortable to ask someone to put on their face covering or keep physical distance. Yet it’s so important—by following the Columbia Community Health Compact, we’re all doing our part to reduce the risk of transmission for ourselves and others. This commitment reflects the extraordinary degree to which we’re dependent on each other to remain healthy individually and as a community.

Positive Bystander Framework

If you notice someone who is wearing their face covering on their chin, their wrist, or dangling from their ear, or someone who isn’t keeping physical distance, you can approach the person in a number of ways. Following the positive bystander framework is a good place to start.


The first two steps are to:

  1. Notice a situation that troubles you
  2. Decide if what is troubling you is actually a problem

If you’re at the point where you’re thinking about how to have this conversation, you’ve probably already gotten through these two steps.


The next part of this process is to assume personal responsibility. Each of us, as members of the Columbia community, plays a role in upholding the Community Health Compact. If any of us notices that someone isn’t following the guidance, we should ask that person to follow through with the Compact when possible, recognizing that interpersonal considerations and dynamics of power and privilege (e.g., in situations where an authority figure might not be adhering to the compact) may affect the decision to step in. Always remember that your own personal safety concerns are important when deciding if you will address someone.

How to Help

Once you’ve made the decision to ask this person to wear a face covering or keep at least 6-feet distance, you’ll want to think about how to help. This is where you can get creative!

Here are some ideas for how you can approach this situation. Feel free to modify these to fit your personal style. Some of these may be best for someone you know, while others may be better for someone you don’t know:

  • Excuse me. Could you please put on your face covering/step back/create some extra space? Thanks so much.
  • Would you mind putting on your mask so that it covers your mouth and nose. It would really mean a lot.
  • I know it’s hot, but can you please put on your face covering?
  • Sorry to interrupt, but I’d really appreciate if you could put your mask over your mouth and nose/move to the side so I can get by safely.
  • I hope you don’t mind if I ask you to put your face covering on/allow for more distance.
  • It would really make me feel better if you had your mask on, thanks.
  • Just a gentle reminder about the Columbia Community Health Compact. We all agreed to keep our face coverings on/keep distance while on campus. Thanks.
  • I really need you to put the face covering over your nose and mouth/step a few more feet away.  
  • Can you do me a favor? I’m trying to follow the sign over there that says we should stay 6 feet away and would appreciate having more distance.
  • I’d really like to keep talking – let’s just keep more distance.
  • I’m so happy to see you—would you mind if we elbow bump instead of hug?

Safety first, but be kind.

You may choose to make it more personal:

  • I’m worried about my health.
  • I really don’t want to get anyone else sick, ever.
  • I live/work with someone who is vulnerable, and I don’t want to be a risk for them.
  • I’m a healthcare worker/student/teacher/staff member, and I’ve seen what COVID can do.
  • I’m worried about healthcare workers/essential workers.
  • My family member/friend/ is old/ill, and I help take care of them.
  • I have an important deadline coming up, and I just can’t afford to get sick.

You could also add something more specific about transmission:

  • I’ve read the recent research and it’s clear that if we both wear masks/keep distance, there’s almost no chance that we could infect each other.
  • I read an article about a man on a bus who didn’t realize he had COVID-19 and wasn’t wearing a mask.  He infected five people on the ride, and when he put a mask on for the second part of his ride, he didn’t infect anyone.
  • Did you see that report from the CDC about two hair stylists who had COVID-19? They didn’t get any of their clients infected because they and their clients (more than 100!) wore masks. 

Or something you find moving or funny:

  • One of my favorite masks says “wearing a mask is a sign of respect”—and that really rings true to me.
  • Have you heard that comment about the virus not giving extra credit for good behavior yesterday? I know it seems like one time won’t matter, but every time actually matters. 
  • I love that photo of [ --- ] with a mask on, and that motivated me to keep mine on full time.
  • Have you seen the #WearADamnMask challenge?
  • I see that you have a nice cloth chin strap/bracelet/earring. Do you mind using it as a face covering?
  • I keep thinking of all the health care providers/essential workers who have to wear their mask all day. If they can do that, I can wear it when I’m moving around campus.

Some extra suggestions from Columbia students:

  • “Hi! Happy physical distancing!” can help soften the environment.
  • I think about those added benefits of wearing a mask, like being able to lip sync in public.
  • Thank strangers on campus who are wearing face coverings and/or keeping their distance. That’d make the person feel nice and proud of their behavior and can even start a trend.
  • Use reverse psychology to avoid confrontation: If you are in the dining halls to get "grab & go," or in the hallways and someone is going the wrong way and walking toward you, you can say “Oh, am I going in the wrong way?” to get their attention.

Not everyone will be willing to follow your advice, no matter how thoughtfully you approach them. Some people may even take offense to you trying to help. If someone appears to be angry and the situation begins to escalate, please walk away and, if needed, seek help from a friend, colleague, Public Safety (Morningside 212-854-5555, Manhattanville  212-853-3301, CUIMC  212-305-8100), or 911 for emergencies. You can also submit a report or concern to a school staff member or a supervisor (for employees), or with the “report an incident” button on the University Life website.

Now that you have some ideas for how to encourage your fellow Columbia community members to wear a mask, it’s your turn! Help us add to this list. Share your tips at universitylife@columbia.edu.

Thank you for all that you are doing to keep our community healthy.